A Veteran's Trip Back

Our flight from Honolulu to Vietnam in July 2002 was an hour late. After takeoff, I smiled to myself because it took 30 years to return to my adopted second home -- late indeed. From May 1967 until March 1972, I was flying into Vietnam or Thailand on support missions, or serving one of three combat tours in Vietnam, Laos, or Thailand. The culture, the food, the language, and the people became part of my heart and soul. Vietnam got a bad rap, in my opinion, in the American psyche from the dark messages of Apocalypse Now and Deer Hunter. My experiences were quite different; I remembered a beautiful country and great loving people.

On the long flight, I read a book my sister had given me titled Soul Retrieval, by Sandra Ingerman. From it, I realized the source of my longing. Part of me was still there, and I felt incomplete. The mission we were sent to complete had no ending -- no welcome home. The war had been waged in my head day after day ever since I left.

When I landed at Tan Son Nhat Airport (the name was never changed!) in Saigon, the years were bridged in minutes. All of our old aircraft revetments and bunkers were still there, and the landmarks had not changed. My heart was pounding with excitement. Ahhh, the hot, humid air hit my face as soon as the door opened, a familiar aroma filled my nostrils, and the high-pitched voices of intense Vietnamese conversation told me I was home. Why had I waited so long? What was I afraid of? The first stop was passport control, facing uniforms of my former enemy, red star and all. What if they kept an "Enemies List"? They could whisk me off and nobody would ever know. The man processing my visa did not react to my Vietnamese greeting, and he seemed to take a long time. I later realized there was simply a lot of information to enter into his computer. My bags were waiting in the baggage claim, Customs waved me through, and 15 minutes after we landed, I was inside the country, free to find my way. There was a crowd of Vietnamese waiting for arriving passengers. As I wheeled my cart down the gauntlet of people, I stopped and raised my arms Rocky style and shouted "Vietnam, Vietnam!" Six young men saw me and thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen and mimicked me. We exchanged smiles and hearty laughs.

The logistics of getting downtown were painless. There was a choice of a van for $10 or a metered taxi for about $5. Armed with Vietnamese dong, I chose the taxi and was soon at the Palace Hotel. All of the major accommodations are in the District 1 area. I found a minihotel much more suited to my taste -- cozy, friendly, and away from the hustle and bustle, plus one-third of the cost. I hired a van to drive me to the places where I had flown and lived. I went to Long Xuyen, in the Mekong Delta, where I had spent a year. In a stroke of luck, as I was showing 30-year-old photos of my former residence, "Marie House," to people in the old neighborhood, one 70-year-old man exclaimed, "That was my mother-in-law's house until 1975! It's right over here." The front yard where we parked our jeeps was now a pharmacy and our beloved house was a government insurance building. It broke my heart. It wasn't my house anymore, it wasn't anybody's house, but I would never have found it without the gracious help of this gray-haired gentleman half my height. He ran into his nearby house to put on long pants for the photo I took of the two of us, and he hugged me like a son.

After my nostalgic trip through the delta, I went to Dalat, in the hill country. It took about 5 enjoyable hours on the road. A lake in the center of town is the crown jewel of a beautiful Shangri La. I made friends with the family who owned my favorite Internet cafe. They brought me as the guest of honor to their house for lunch. It was a great time, with lots of laughs, 10 scrumptious dishes, and family love from all 22 family members. Suddenly it hit me: The war is over, and I'm no longer the enemy. We're fellow earth travelers with a common bond.

It was a spiritual journey for me, and much healing took place. My tours in Southeast Asia were the centerpiece of my 28-year career in the United States Air Force, and now Asia has again become part of my life. I have been back 4 more times to Vietnam, 4 times to Laos, and 10 to Thailand, which I use as my home base. I'm a different person for having made the trip. It allowed me to recapture my soul and end my war.

-- by Mike Cavanaugh

The author of this story retired from the USAF as a full colonel and has resided in Honolulu for over 20 years. He now splits his time among Hawaii, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Mike also served as the Air Attaché to Afghanistan from 1978 to 1979. He holds the Silver Star and 50 other combat decorations. Half of his 4,000 flying hours were in combat.

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