Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Duc served with Americans on a PBR like this one. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve heard refugees and veterans speak of war’s awful consequences before, but I’d never heard it put into these five simple words.

“The war killed my life.”

I heard these words from Duc (pronounced 'Duke'), a veteran who had fought for the losing side of the war in South Vietnam. Despite him losing so much from the conflict and its aftermath, Duc had managed to survive. Duc was my tour guide in Cu Chi, and compared to the usually reserved Vietnamese, he’s a very vocal and excitable fellow.

“I’m not very handsome like before,” Duc joked, and the tour group I’m in lets out a collective chuckle. At 59 years old, he’s slight in stature, with a touch of an Asian moustache. A tour guide for more than 10 years, he knows how to keep foreigners interested. Wearing a ball cap and 80’s style mirrored sunglasses, he has the air of a military veteran. Through Duc’s speeches to the tour group, and later conversation I shared with him, he had a remarkable story to tell. In between his puffs on cigarettes, his story unfolded.

Duc had begun life with so much. He was born to a Vietnamese mother from an upper class Saigon family. She was a professor at a local university. His father was a diplomat from the Philippines. From such a family, Duc was able to attend excellent schools. As he grew up in the southern capital, his family’s status kept him relatively insulated from the war.

Duc's unit patrolled dangerous waterways, such as here in the Mekong Delta
“For 125 years Vietnam people fight. They never stop,” Duc told us. It was a long road of conflict. There were so many years of war fighting the French, the Japanese, the Americans, and each other. His family’s life had been struck by the tragedy of war before. His grandmother was killed in 1944, when a Japanese bomb struck their house during their World War II occupation.
During the 1960’s, Duc was a university student in Saigon, studying to be a doctor. At that time the city was reasonably peaceful, and for him, the war was something far away. Then the Tet Offensive happened in 1968. With so much fighting around the city, Duc was shocked to see bodies lying in the streets. He was also shocked to learn that one of his female classmates was a Viet Cong, killed in the fighting. With his country in crisis, Duc decided to join the fight to defend it.

Unlike so many who ended up in the army, Duke was put in a naval unit. His service included assignment at bases in America. He served at bases in Philadelphia and San Diego, teaching new  coast guard and naval recruits how to drive the PBR boats (patrol boats) used in the Vietnam's waterways. Although many Vietnamese dream of living in America, Duc missed his country, his family, and Vietnamese food. “I don’t like American food. It’s horrible,” Duc said bluntly. He looked forward to going home.

In 1969, he was sent back to Vietnam. He had reached the rank of warrant officer, and was attached to an American Naval unit patrolling the rivers of South Vietnam. His unit even had a young naval lieutenant by the name of John Kerry. This was the same John Kerry who would later become a senator, and presidential candidate.(Note: since I 1st posted this story, Kerry has become Secretary of State.)
Duc fought in John Kerry's unit (State photo)
One of his unit’s duties were missions to retrieve servicemen who were missing in action.(MIA’s) Some of Duc’s most dangerous missions were to recover live American pilots, or bodies of American servicemen killed in action in enemy areas. Duc was shot during one of these missions, recovered, and returned to duty. Luckily for him, his small stature made him a smaller target for communist gunners.
When the US signed the peace agreement and left in 1973, the American officers in his unit offered to take Duc with them. He refused. “Vietnam is my country,” he said, “I love my country.” He didn’t want to abandon it. Additionally, his mother had gotten divorced, and he didn’t want to leave her either. Patriotism and duty to family meant more to him than escape. And besides, he’d been to America already, and he still hated the food.

Two years later, the North Vietnamese Army advanced on Saigon. The end was imminent. Duc’s mother begged him to leave the country. He wouldn’t do it. With the end near, Duc took his service revolver, and went outside to commit suicide. With tears in his eyes, he raised the pistol to his head… and he couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t pull the trigger. Somehow, Duc would survive.

After the communists took over, thousands of those like Duc who had fought alongside the Americans were captured and imprisoned. Duc was sent away to a ‘re-education’ camp. For three years, Duc had to sit through daily sessions of political cadres spouting communist propaganda. Conditions were difficult. Duc got malaria in prison, and his captors refused to give him any medicine. Some other prisoners died from the malaria. Duc shivered and suffered from fever. Eventually he recovered. When he was finally released, he returned to Saigon, only to find that his mother had died during his imprisonment. He had never even been informed. Duc found that his brothers and sisters had also fled the country. He couldn’t move back into his family’s house either. It was now occupied by another family with connections to the new government.
Duc boarded cargo boats much like this one, as they searched for smuggled Viet Cong weapons

Duc would learn that despite his communist ‘re-education’, it was very difficult for him to find work. The government was refusing all professional jobs to anyone from the former South Vietnamese military.

Eventually, Duc found himself a good Vietnamese woman, and married. “My wife so ugly,” he joked in his crass style, “but I love her so much. She very good cook.” He settled into a family life, and had two sons. As the Vietnamese economy liberalized, his English speaking skills helped him get a job as a tour guide, where he still works today. He also managed to locate his siblings. His brother and sister returned this year from Australia for a family reunion during the Tet holidays.

Duc has regained a somewhat normal life, but he decided that he won’t work for much longer. His oldest son will soon finish medical school, and when he does he’ll be able to support Duc. He’ll be 60 years old then, and will retire from being a tour guide. Having worked six to seven days a week for years, he’s looking forward to the rest.

I'd like to show you a photo of Duc, but having him identified publicly, may get him trouble again with Vietnam's communist government. I'd better keep the photos I have of him private. Duc has suffered enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment