War, Trauma and Healing in Vietnam

One of many reasons I signed up for a trip to Vietnam in 2015 was that both my parents had died the previous year. I knew it would be easier to spend the three weeks after Thanksgiving with veterans, who had their own losses to mourn, than to cheerfully fake it through the holidays at home. Dubbed “a journey of reconciliation” by Soldier’s Heart, the organization that led it, 8 of the 15 traveling had served the United States in uniform in Vietnam, and it was for them that we traveled to Asia.

I was a young girl during the Vietnam War and like so many others, experienced the war nightly through our family’s Technicolor television. I watched but did not understand. Only as an adult would I begin to comprehend some of the effects of what I had seen on the Americans who served and survived. As a counselor at a Vet Center, I learned how those experiences were still, all these years later, affecting not only those who served but their families as well.

Our trip to Vietnam took us by many places I had watched on television that are burned into America’s collective memories: The street where Phan Thi Kim Phuc, known as “Napalm Girl,” ran after shedding her burning clothes trying to outrun Napalm; The square where Thích Quang Duc, the first of many monks who ended their lives by setting themselves on fire, died in protest; The village of Mai Lai where more than 350 unarmed civilians were massacred by American forces; and the helicopter pad on top of the American embassy where so many fled during “The Fall of Saigon.”

The men we traveled with shared their combat stories during our trip. These are very personal and I leave it for them to tell; let it be said that bravery, endurance, fear, and cowardice all played roles. Each of the veterans with us still struggles as a result of their military experiences in Vietnam, most turning to substance abuse for a time in an effort to forget those frightening and destructive memories.

In my experience counseling combat vets, I have seen how trauma can solidify one’s memory, which is often re-lived over and over in dreams, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts after the danger has passed. I was in awe watching the faces of these men when we would arrive at places where significant events in their lives had occurred – you could see their racing minds trying unsuccessfully to locate these places in their memories, but 50 years has changed the landscape, and traumatic memories are distortions of actual events, so the exact spot would be difficult to identify even days later, let alone after half a century.

Being back in Vietnam was both difficult and freeing for the veterans; they came face to face with things that had traumatized them but which time had changed. The Vietnamese people are a lovely quandary: their Buddhism and culture allow them to stay focused on the present. They feel sorry for Americans who they hear are still suffering from experiences in their country so long ago. When we traveled to parts of the country where American tourists do not venture, the Vietnamese people were happy to see us. For example, a restaurant owner asked us where we had been. He said he had been waiting all these decades for the Americans to come back and be friends; we were the first group he had encountered.

On a trip up the Mekong Delta to a school that Soldier’s Heart raises money for, all 15 of us were sitting uncomfortably in the hull of a small boat when the man driving saw the wristbands the veterans were wearing, announcing their status as Vietnam Veterans. He got excited and pointed to himself, proclaiming “me too – Vietcong!” For the Vietnamese who participated in the war – the thought that Americans were enemy forces has been long lost in time. This is the general cultural perspective of the Vietnamese, north or south, and it’s what the veterans shared as most significant to them.

One night they held a special event for us at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The room was filled with our group, local dignitaries, students, and a group of those suffering from the various effects of Agent Orange. The night was full of song. Since Christmas was approaching, the group with Agent Orange defects serenaded us with Christmas tunes. It was a bittersweet moment to hear these beautiful Vietnamese with various birth defects, caused by our war tactics, happily singing American holiday songs for us.
We were a diverse group and our roles on the trip varied. We were part tourists, part dignitaries, and part emotional supporters for the veterans who traveled with us. Personally, it was better to share my heartache with others who were also grieving than to pretend to be happy. It was the best way for me to mourn my parents’ deaths. Today, my major grief has passed and I expect to enjoy the holidays. I am forever fortunate to have spent them in Vietnam two years ago, because it taught me a lot about trauma and our ability to heal from even the most horrific experiences.

Margo Rita Capparelli, PhD is the founder of Equinox Ranch, a non-profit Helping Warriors Heal in Cullowhee, NC. She has taught and counseled active duty military and veterans. You can discover more about the ranch at www.equinoxranch.org. To connect, email equinox.ranch@yahoo.com or call 828-356-8307.

Written by Margo Capparelli