Bob Waldheim recently returned to Vietnam with his wife Ruth, 50 years after he fought in the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1968. Bob spent his 19th birthday stationed in Lei Nong, at the Marine Civic Action Group compound Alpha 8, during the Tet Offensive. It was a small village located six miles south of Hue that was then part of South Vietnam. This year, he decided that it was time to return. 'I needed to get rid of my guilt, get rid of the black spots on my heart. No therapy in the world was going to lift those spots'.
Why did you decide to go back?
Ruth pushed me to go. She encouraged me to face the demons head on, and I knew in my heart that I needed to find peace. I was personally at the point in my healing where I needed to deal directly with the effects that Vietnam has left me with. I also wanted Ruth to see the place that had left its unshakeable mark on me.
How did you plan your trip?
I searched online for a tour that would be tailor-made, and I found Audley. I didn't want to go to Hanoi — I wanted to walk on the land that I had been on 50 years ago. My life has been impacted by the effects of wartime post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I needed to face my demons in order to heal and live my life without fear. A week later, Veronica had planned a trip for us, paired with a guide who had lived through the war and a driver. Veronica had listened to more than our needs; she had listened to our story and had created an itinerary that spoke to it.
What was the value of exploring the country with your own guide?
Thong is a former history teacher who had, at the age of eight, witnessed the landing of US Marines in Danang. He was incredibly knowledgeable and shared stories of the history of the people, the culture, and how the war impacted the country where I spent a year fighting. He enlightened me and helped me to understand his country’s past, present and future.
Most importantly, between Thong and our incredible driver, they were able to find areas that I needed to visit despite the fact that they are now overgrown and unrecognisable.
Tell me about JimMie
Connection was essential to get me through some of the darkest days in Vietnam, some of the darkest I’ve ever experienced. I met JimMie, a young boy who was just four years old and lived where I was stationed. We developed a friendship that was pure innocence, something that no longer existed during my reality at the time. I took his picture 50 years ago, and when I returned to Vietnam, I brought that picture in the hope that he had survived the war. Thong showed the picture to everyone. He asked shop owners, people on the street, anyone who might know of JimMie’s whereabouts.
When our last day in the region was approaching, I asked if we could scrap the day’s scheduled activities and keep searching for the village. Something told me to try again. A woman seemed to recognise the photo and ran off yelling JimMie’s name. The moment she returned with a man who appeared to be in his mid-fifties, I knew it was him. He wasn’t sure at first as to who I was, but once he saw the picture, he started crying. Both of us just stood there crying and hugging, the tears more meaningful than any words.
What healing occurred when you were there?
There were three times when we had Agent Orange dumped on us in the war, a defoliant chemical that was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. I was haunted by the question of what happened to all the people who lived there. I had to go back and see for myself. I had to know what their healing looked like. And I needed to see what it looked like when we put our wounds together and turned them into strength.
As we stood in a museum in the Ashau Valley looking at pictures of children with birth defects, I turned to the curator and told her how sorry I was for what we did in and to her country. I’ll never forget what she said back, 'The Vietnamese culture is one that lives for the future, not the past'. It was the second time in eight days that I had listened to those exact same words.
On our second day, we had been introduced to a retired North Vietnam colonel who spoke the same words. We hugged and cried when I asked him for forgiveness. The black spot that I have lived with for the past fifty years was finally lifted from my heart. No more nightmares. No more regrets. I have finally found peace of mind and heart.
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