Vietnam Story: A Journey Back By Steve Leighton
I thought about going back to Vietnam but it wasn’t until August 2007 when I determined to make it a reality. A friend of ours, Tami (her husband Jay is a Vietnam veteran) encouraged me to visit some websites dealing with veterans returning to Vietnam. On one site, I found a story on Don of Chicago, a former Advisor in the Mekong Delta who had gone back to Vietnam on his 40th anniversary. He listed his email address on the story, so I decided to email him with a few questions. Within minutes of sending the email, my phone rang and it was Don. It was his encouragement and contact information that convinced me it was time to return to Vietnam.
I was so touched by Don’s story and my need to do return to Vietnam, I decided to send the idea to WCCO TV (local CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, MN). I felt this story would be of particular interest to other Vietnam Vets and perhaps encourage them to get some closure on that part of our lives. Within days, I received a call from Bill Hudson, a news Anchor for WCCO. He agreed this was a story he wanted to tell.
Setting up the Trip
I set up our flights and then contacted a local vet to set up an itinerary for our in-country travel to Bac Lieu, deep in the Mekong Delta and to arrange for a car, driver and interpreter for me and my wife Donna. Bac Lieu, where I spent my combat tour, was the headquarters of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) 21st Infantry Division and the US Army five-man Advisory Team 51 of which I was the Radio Telephone Operator (RTO). We worked with the 42nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, which was part of the 21st Infantry Division. The battalion of approximately 400 men was the smallest group that was authorized a five-man American Advisory Team.
Ho Chi Minh City
We arrived in HCMC late at night on October 18, 2007. While I had spent several days in Saigon 40 years earlier, not much looked the same. We were now staying in a five-star hotel and eating in fine restaurants. One of our first stops was the War Museum. It had several US planes and tanks on display and many pictures of the war. Needless to say, it was from their point of view and highlighted what they considered to be American war atrocities. Not surprisingly, Senator Kerry was pictured with some of his comments about the war. Enough said!
We started our trip down to Bac Lien on October 21, 2007 with our first stop was Can Tho the fourth largest city in Vietnam, and the largest city in the Mekong Delta where I had spent several days during the war. I did not recognize anything from the past. The American base is now the local military headquarters. Photo shows 1968 Can Tho street market.
We stayed in Can Tho overnight as the next morning we were to make the final leg of the trip to Bac Lieu. I got up at daybreak and shot some film of the sampans and junks along the Hau River that feeds into the Mekong River. It is becoming an emotional trip for me at this point in time. I fight back the tears thinking about what I might find in Bac Lieu and the old memories I have of that time in my life.
The next town down the road is Soc Trang. Our support helicopters were based in this town about 40 miles from Can Tho. It is also about 40 miles from Bac Lieu.
The road into Bac Lieu looks very different. Forty years ago, it was a poorly maintained dirt road with nothing but a few grass shacks and rice paddies alongside of it. Now it is a black top highway with so many houses along it that you can hardly see the rice paddies. As we approach the city center in Bac Lieu, I can only recognize the town square, bridge and an old water tower. Everything has changed. We check into the Bac Lieu Hotel (a three-star hotel) and my wife Donna is beginning to wonder what I have gotten her into. This town is still considered to be the “old Vietnam”.
I asked our interpreter Toan to try and find anyone that was old enough to remember the war. I was in search of my old comrades in arms; the Vietnamese Rangers that with who I had served. After only about 20 minutes, a rough and rugged looking guy walks into the hotel lobby. He looks like a Ranger! I can tell by his slightly graying hair, he is what I’m looking for. It turned out to be Sgt. Che from the Ranger Battalion. While I do not remember him personally, he served with the Rangers while I was there and for years after I had left. By now, I have spread out all of my old pictures on a table in the lobby of the hotel. We have gathered quite a crowd of interested spectators. Che starts looking at the pictures and telling me stories. I am particularly interested in knowing what has happened to several of my old friends. The Battalion Commander, Maj. Kiet, was killed several months after I had left in early 1968. I had heard that before, but he confirmed the story. Maj. Kiet is on left standing with Capt. Long.
My good friends were Capt. Long, the Battalion Executive Officer and 1st Lt. Tai, the 4th Company Commander. Che did not know much about what had happened to Lt. Tai, but knew much about Capt. Long. After the death of Maj. Kiet, Capt. Long was promoted to Battalion Commander. He commanded the Battalion for several years and eventually attained the rank of Lt. Col. After that, he left the Army and was made the District Chief of CAI Lai, in the Can Tho area. Chee believed Capt. Long made it to the U.S. and is still alive. My search to find him continued when I returned home.
Chee took us around Bac Lieu showing us the old American Base and various other sites. Nothing was left of any of it – not a single brick. We toured the area out by the ocean and I learned of a Viet Cong guerilla base that was located very close to an area where I had spent a lot of time. We were very close to it, but had never found it. Photo of Donna in an open market in Bac Lieu.
As a monsoon storm approached, we said our goodbye’s to Chee and thanked him for his help and information. It was an emotional goodbye for me. I could not believe that I had actually found an old Ranger that I served with and learned so much in such a small period of time. Photo of me and Capt. Long.
Departing Bac Lieu
We departed Bac Lieu on October 23, 2007 – exactly 40 years to the day that I had departed it before. This time, I was leaving with a sense of closure. There was no longer anything for me in this town but memories. It was a year that I would not change for anything, but would never want to do again.
I am very glad that we decided to make the trip back to Vietnam and Bac Lieu. I highly encourage others to do so. Hopefully, it will give you some closure that few of us got 40 years ago.
The Vietnamese people are still wonderful. They seem very happy and friendly and glad to have us as their guests in this country. While my wife Donna loved the people, she thinks it is one of the worst places she has ever visited.
This country has approximately 85 million people in it, and 2/3 of them were born after the fall of the old South Vietnamese Government in 1975. Many of them do not know much about the war and consider it to be their “fathers” war or the “American” war.
I have buried some “ghosts”, gotten some answers to questions that have bothered me over the years and now have a sense of closure on that time of my life. I will always have fond memories of my comrades in arms, both American and Vietnamese. I hope someday ALL American people will understand and appreciate the sacrifices that are made by the men, women and their families of our Armed Forces. I will always remember those that died, were wounded and those that returned after doing their duty for God and Country.
The Story Continues
In November 2007, Donna and I left Minneapolis for our annual fall fishing trip to the Florida Keys with our good friends from Boca Raton. We were sitting in our friend’s condo in Islamorada, Florida watching football, (Sunday, November 18, 2007) when my cell phone rang. There was a young lady on the phone asking me if I was Steve Leighton, the guy looking for Capt. Long. I confirmed that was me and she said she was Long’s daughter and he was on the line with her. His English was not the best, so she would be an interpreter. This was TOTAL SHOCK for me! My search was over!! I could not believe that I found him. Now for the more shocking news – HE LIVES IN MINNEAPOLIS, MN – not 20 miles from me. I JUST COULDN’T BELIEVE IT!!! IN MY HOME TOWN!!!!!!!!!!I have traveled half way around the world looking for him and find him living within 20 miles of me. Simply un-believable!!!
During our phone conversation, I think we drove his daughter crazy. He was asking me questions while I was asking him questions and his poor daughter was trying to interpret both of us talking at the same time.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Long is on the phone and we start our 1 – hour conversation. I have learned that it was very hard on him after the war. He was sent to a “re-education” camp in North Vietnam along the border with Laos, for 13 years. He got out of Vietnam in 1993 with his family and came to Minneapolis.
We decide to meet at the next day at Applebee’s Restaurant near the U of M campus. My wife and I are there in advance to make sure the restaurant is okay with this – primarily with the news camera there.
When they arrive, I immediately knew it is him. He had aged, but it was him. He walks in, we exchange salutes, hug and cry. I am simply overwhelmed at seeing him again after 40 years!!
We spent the next two hours filling in the gaps of the last 40 years. One of my other good friends was 1st Lt. Tai. He now lives in the states and Long remains in contact with him. He passed my phone number on to Tai very soon and I started the meeting process over again.
See video of the reunion at: http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2007/11/23/vietnam-vet-reunites-with-fellow-soldier/
Two days later Long, who retired an ARVN Lt. Col, brought all of his family living in the United States to our house except one daughter-in-law who had to work. With my daughters, husbands and four grandkids, we had a houseful. I wanted his family to know how honored and proud I was to have them all at my house and what a great patriot their father was for their home land. He has suffered much, but tonight was just awesome. Long was a powerful man and had a very distinguished career in the military and government in his country. It has been very hard for him to leave that behind and start a new life in a foreign land. He did his part for his people and country and he did it well. I will always honor and respect this man for all he has done in his life and especially for me.
Four days later, I received a call from Annie (Long’s daughter). She had set up a conference call for me with Maj. Tai – my other counterpart (former 1Lt Tai). He is alive and well, living in San Jose, CA. It was AWESOME finding him. He sent me some pictures and I have done the same for him. I can’t believe I have found both of them – alive and doing well in this country. Like Long, Tai spent some long hard years in a “re-education” camp. While I refer to it as “re-education,” it was anything but that. This was more like a prison with lots of long hard labor, starvation, disease, etc – Tai was lucky to survive his 10 years in the North at this camp.
We flew to San Francisco and went to San Jose for the night. It was another GREAT experience. My wife and I met with former Major Le Tan Tai and his family. We went through all of my old pictures and Tai kept about 50 of them for reproducing. We met his daughter and granddaughter along with his wife. We went out for dinner at their favorite restaurant after a visit to their home. He is doing very well for himself and his family. His son-in-law is a chiropractor and his daughter is an RN and works at a local hospital. As in the past, they were all very nice people and could not believe we went back to VN looking for them. They were very touched by our story going back and it was so GREAT to re-connect with him. He and my other counterpart Long, had a tremendous impact on my life. I’m sure I’m a better person for it. Photo of Tai, Steve and Long.
My only regret through all of this is that I did not do it sooner. BUT, better late than never!!
God Bless America and all that serve her!
If you have questions about the trip or want some contact information about the groups I am now active in, please send an email to the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org