The Soldier Who Needed 'Nam
It’s 1968 and Don Blackburn is watching the night battle from a stilt house on Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam. Ten miles away in the dark jungle mountains, American aircraft exchange fire with the Viet Cong. A helicopter drops flares, lighting up the sky in a ghostly yellow glow. Next comes a stream of red tracer fire. Bombs flash and rumble. The light show would be beautiful, if it were not war.
As a private in the U.S. Army, Blackburn knows something of the power of weapons. He spends his days unloading bombs of every shape and size from the ships that dock in the bay. He got the assignment after refusing to carry a gun in the infantry—when he was drafted at the age of twenty, he thought he could serve his country and still keep the moral integrity he treasures as an avowed pacifist. But he soon realized he was inflicting more damage working with bombs that could destroy entire villages than he had ever done on his missions in the countryside.
Blackburn takes respite from the war in a village along the water, off Cam Ranh Bay. Visiting the village after dark is against Army regulations, but he and a few other soldiers routinely risk punishment, crawling under the concertina wire that surrounds the village in order to give food to the Vietnamese and smoke opium-laced marijuana.
Tonight, Blackburn sits with an old Vietnamese fisherman in his rickety stilt house. The battle is over, and the songs of crickets replace the thunder of shelling. Through the thick smoke, the fisherman grins a toothless smile. In his seventy years, he says, he has never heard two cricket songs that sound alike. He leans in close to Blackburn and whispers, “Soon you go home. Long time, when no more war, cricket song bring you back here.”
* * *
It would be thirty-seven years before the fisherman’s prophecy came true and Blackburn found his way back to Vietnam.
After his yearlong tour of duty ended in 1968, Blackburn returned to his parents’ home in southern California. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English and then a master’s, built his own house, and married. Twice. Divorced twice, too. He taught English in colleges and high schools. He wrote poetry. But underneath it all lurked a darkness.
“Now we are home, but home is strange,” Blackburn wrote in 1985 in a poem about returning veterans. “Our dreams are haunted, we cannot find ourselves.”
Blackburn had left the Vietnam War, but the war never left him.
Confused and angry about his time in the Army, and wanting to understand more about it, Blackburn read everything he could about the conflict. His parents had both served in World War II and were proud patriots. They were the ones who convinced him to go to Vietnam, even though he was against the war. But what Blackburn saw and subsequently learned about the conflict went against everything his parents had taught him about his motherland. The more he read and learned about Vietnam, the more he was troubled by the war. Flashbacks would hit him at odd times, interrupting the class he was teaching—he would have to leave and find refuge under a tree outside his classroom where he could wait for the memory to pass.
A whiff of smoke would take him back to Bến Cát, outside of Saigon, where he served in the infantry before he was transferred north to Cam Ranh Bay. His unit was sent to a village rumored to be harboring Viet Cong. During the war, rumors were enough to demand action. His unit lit the village on fire, wiping out houses, the food supply and whatever else might aid the enemy.
Blackburn’s job was security: to keep the civilians under control while their village burned down. One elderly woman refused to keep away from the fire. He held her back as she screamed and bit at him to let her go. What or whom she was trying to protect from the blaze, Blackburn didn’t know. Even at a distance, the heat from the fire was intense. When her straw hat blew off, it burst into flames. Blackburn held her tight. He could feel her heart pounding against his chest. Finally, she gave in and the pair collapsed on the ground, crying.
The memory of the woman haunted Blackburn. Somehow he felt she wouldn’t let him rest until he returned. “I wanted to go back and right some of the wrongs that our country had done in Vietnam,” Blackburn, now sixty-six, recalls. “That was the biggest driving force for my return.”
Three decades after coming back to a home he no longer felt was his own, Blackburn was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2002. He underwent years of intensive therapy to treat it and then, in his late fifties, felt he was finally strong enough to return to Vietnam and face the past. In 2004, he flew to Hanoi with two friends and spent a month exploring the country, all the time searching for a person or organization he could help.
Just outside of Hanoi, he visited the Friendship Village, a residential facility that houses victims of Agent Orange, a herbicide sprayed by the U.S. during the war that can cause a number of diseases, birth defects and cancers.
Blackburn remembers unloading barrels of Agent Orange from ships in Cam Ranh Bay. The hulls of the ships were 120 degrees, and the U.S. soldiers didn’t wear shirts or gloves. It was only when he returned to the United States that he learned how dangerous the chemical was.
Today, both Americans and Vietnamese veterans suffer from Agent Orange-related health problems. This shared legacy of the war inspired American veteran and Agent Orange victim George Mizo to found Friendship Village in 1988. Today, the village is run largely by the Veterans Association of Vietnam, a group of Vietnamese vets who provide health care, education and vocational training to victims and their families.
What Blackburn saw in the Friendship Village greatly moved him. He met two young Vietnamese sisters, Huong and Giang, whose father had fought in the war. While the girls were born in a time of peace, they suffered the consequences of the wartime spraying. Both were severely disabled and had difficulty breathing. The girls knew that their lives would be cut short due to Agent Orange, but they held no animosity toward the United States; they told Blackburn that they only wished for peace in the world so that future generations would not suffer their same fate.
Remembering his meeting with the sisters, he later wrote:
The “American War” is not over. It lingers
insidiously in the bodies of the third generation
of every nation that fought the war, but most
hideously, here and in America: the old Viet Minh
freedom fighters, N.V.A., G.I.s, innocent
non-combatants, their children, their children’s
children. It has tainted the earth, water, blood, and bone.
Facing these realities allowed Blackburn to finally find a measure of peace. The poem continues:
But in this village, humanity makes a stand.
Here, in the eyes of the stricken who survive,
in the hearts of those who work and give,
I see a reason to hope, dream, and live.
He had found his calling at the Friendship Village, in the capital of the country he once fought against. Before his monthlong trip was up, he had decided to move to Vietnam.
The move was in many ways easy—he had already retired from teaching, and with no spouse or children, he had nothing tying him to home. He chose to return to Nha Trang, a southern Vietnamese city he had visited on his first trip. The warm weather and sandy beaches reminded him of his childhood home near Los Angeles. He stayed first at a hotel and then moved to the second floor of a new friend’s house. The friend was an English instructor at Nha Trang University, and Blackburn helped tutor his friend’s students in his spare time. Despite the different language, culture and scenery, everything felt natural in Vietnam. Blackburn had come home.
* * *
“I suffer culture shock coming back to America but not when I go to Vietnam. It’s all reversed now,” says Blackburn. A buoyant man with a round face, grey mustache and beard, he speaks like someone who is used to performing in front of an audience—a remnant from his days as a teacher. He is in Madison, Wis., attending the twenty-eighth annual convention of Veterans for Peace, a nonprofit organization with the mission of ending all wars. Despite being back in the country of his birth, he says, he can’t shake the feeling of being a foreigner in the United States.
Blackburn explains that living in Vietnam these last eight years has helped him break free from the painful memories of the war.
“One of the reasons I continue living in Vietnam is I can sleep through the night, almost every night, without nightmares of the war,” Blackburn says. “I rarely experience a flashback of any kind when I’m in Vietnam, but they start again when I return to the U.S.”
Blackburn now lives most of the year in Nha Trang, which is forty miles north of the area in which he served in 1967 and 1968. As a self-professed beach bum, he says Nha Trang’s oceanside location suits him well. He goes swimming as much as possible and takes walks on the beach. When not exercising, he visits his Vietnamese friends and serves on the board of Friendship Village. He also stays in touch with other American veterans living in Vietnam through the local Veterans for Peace chapter. There are a few hundred American veterans living there today, many of them drawn, like Blackburn, to spending their retirement years getting to know their former enemies.
Blackburn rents a narrow three-story house from a top-ranking officer in the Vietnamese military.
“When he realized he was renting his house to an American veteran, it was pretty interesting,” Blackburn recalls with a smile. “He got me quite drunk. He had never spoken to an American before.”
Drinking with his former enemies is something that happens to Blackburn quite often in Vietnam. While traveling by train or walking on the street, Vietnamese people approach him and ask him if he’s a veteran. He could lie and walk away. Instead, he faces the past head on, welcoming such meetings, hopeful they can help heal the wounds of the war.
Blackburn says that he’s never been treated poorly by the Vietnamese and, for the most part, they are glad to hear that he’s a veteran who has returned to help the victims of the war. He’s found that the Vietnamese make a point of differentiating the wartime policies of the United States government from the actions of American soldiers who fought in Southeast Asia. More than once Vietnamese veterans have told Blackburn that they respect him for serving his country at war. Even on one occasion when a group of Vietnamese veterans seemed to feel uncomfortable around him, Blackburn notes that they were not mean or rude in any way.
Many American veterans living in Vietnam tell similar stories of friendship between the former adversaries. Greg Kleven, a Marine Corps vet who was one of the first Americans to live in Vietnam after the war, says that Vietnamese veterans have welcomed him and other American vets back with open arms.
“Most of them say, 'You were just a soldier doing your job,'” Kleven says. “'You were told what to do and you did your job, just like we did on our side.'”
Blackburn wishes that more American veterans could have such conversations, but knows that living in America rarely produces such opportunities. The relationships he has formed with Vietnamese people are one of the main reasons he continues to choose to live in Vietnam over the United States. He wants to be close to the kids who he helps go to school, the residents at Friendship Village, and his many Vietnamese friends. Most of all, he says, he stays because “Vietnam feels like home to me.”
At the convention in Madison, Blackburn talks about his life in Vietnam and encourages veterans to visit Southeast Asia.
“Vietnam is a country, not a war,” Blackburn says.
It is a mantra that resonates with his life in Vietnam, but one that most Americans have a hard time accepting. In the United States, it’s easy to think of Vietnam as a brutal defeat, a waste, or even a series of heroic battles—anything but a land of nearly eighty-nine million people.
“The Vietnamese people and the American people seem to have a natural bond,” he says. “Its so easy for us to be friends that it’s hard to imagine that we were ever enemies.” In Nha Trang, Blackburn has several “families.” Local children call him “American Uncle” and he is always invited to birthday parties and to visit family graves.
The veterans at the convention have a difficult time imagining such a life, meeting and living amongst their former enemies. Some men pick up flyers about the annual Veterans for Peace trip to Vietnam, which Blackburn helps organize. But most of them seem reluctant to return to the site of traumas that they have carried with them for decades.
For these men, Blackburn writes poetry. His latest book, Into the Heart, was released at the convention. Proceeds from the sales go to Friendship Village and other organizations working on war legacy issues in Vietnam.
The book’s title, Blackburn explains, is a call to American veterans of the Vietnam War. He hopes his writing can help them make the journey he made into the heart, even if they cannot return to Vietnam as he did. “We veterans have to get out of our minds and into our hearts,” he says. “It’s important to remember what happened, but you don’t want to get stuck there.”
“If my words are powerful enough and effective enough, they can experience Vietnam through reading my books,” Blackburn says. “They can see that the country doesn’t look like what’s stuck in their minds and what’s holding them back from moving on.”
For Blackburn, however, moving on still is best achieved by moving back. In the United States, his mind was filled with painful memories of the war. But in Vietnam, he doesn’t live in the past. His old bases in Cam Ranh Bay and Bến Cát are off-limits to civilians, so he hasn’t yet revisited the sites that haunt him. Instead, he spends his days enjoying the company of his Vietnamese friends and making new memories to replace the old.
Last year, Blackburn celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday in Nha Trang. He invited some friends to a karaoke bar and they in turn invited their friends and families. They packed the place and ate cake, chicken and fruit and drank lots of tequila and beer. Young women danced to the loud music, while the men drank and told jokes.
When it was his turn on the microphone, Blackburn sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It was a song of hope that transcended the language barrier and encapsulated his journey from soldier to peace builder. Tears of joy ran down his face. There, among his former enemies, he felt alive.
* * *
Nissa Rhee is writing a book about American veterans who have returned to Vietnam to help overcome the legacies of the war, reconcile the past with the present, and turn enemies into friends. In 2011, she was awarded a Rotary Peace Fellowship for her reporting on peace and conflict issues in the U.S. and South Korea.
Rich Tommaso has made comics for Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Alternative Comics and his own publishing company, Recoil for nearly twenty years. His creations include Clover Honey (1995), The Horror Of Collier County (1998), 8 1/2 Ghosts (2003) and The Cavalier Mr. Thompson (2010).