February 20, 1970
Dear Chaplain Miller,

Dave came by the BAQ around 1030 hours. I met him out front and we headed on our journey home. Home. That's a strange thing to be calling a tent with floor made of wooden pallets in the middle of a battalion campsite. This place we call home is in a strange country with even stranger sounding names for its near-by towns. Home should be a place where families live and children play.

The home to which Dave and I were heading had children called soldiers, grunts, bushmen, troops, brothers, blacks, and honkies. Parents were assigned and called officers, lifers, the man, Top, big daddy and high higher, as well as other names that I’ll spare you from hearing in the name of decency.

The women at home were mostly nurses in military uniforms like ours. Donut Dollies who were USO workers attempted to give refreshment and entertainment. There were also some in our town that were hussies of the neighborhood. The boom boom girls that sold their wares and sometimes were smuggled into the perimeter bunkers. "Home is the place that when you get there, they have to take you in," according to Robert Frost's poem, “The Death of the Hired Man.” We headed up highway nineteen to Camp Radcliff where they had to take us in. So I guess we were going home.

As I was getting ready to enter the jeep, I told Dave that I was going to drive back. "Ok,” he said, "Any reason why?"

"Well,” I answered, "I was talking to a Lieutenant Colonel last night and he told me that I should drive, because the VC know that officers sit on the right front seat of a vehicle and they like to shoot at rank."

Dave had a stunned look his face. He had no idea I was just kidding. But Dave was a smart assistant and quick on his feet and he replied in a flash, "Then I'll ride in the back."

I laughed and said, “I'm just kidding." I reached over and took his M16 and climbed into the passenger side of the jeep, put the weapon across my knees and said, "Take me home, James."

"Right, massah,” he replied as he pulled out on the road filled with buses, bicycles, pullcarts, and motorbikes all stacked with people of all sizes and shapes.

As we drove through the little business area of Qui Nhon, the children were out on both sides of the road, begging. I was reminded of my bus ride from the airport to the Beinhoa's Reception Company when I first arrived in Vietnam. Dave didn't slow down. He had heard of the war stories about some of these little tykes, stealing gas cans off of moving jeeps and other tactical vehicles if they went too slow through the city streets. Children indeed were involved in the war. Horror stories about them dropping hand grenades into passing American vehicles were more than rumors.

What follows is an addition to this letter to Jim when I was doing some editing as I prepared my manuscript for my editor in my hope of publication.

I had the following experience three months before my tour in Nam would be over. It happened on one of my visits to Qui Nhon Nhon. I had my wristwatch stolen off my wrist when my jeep was stopped in traffic. I was sitting in the backseat of the jeep. Two other chaplains and the driver were riding with me. We had been to Chaplains training conference at MACV and we were heading back to the BOQ. There was an accident in the middle of the road. Traffic came to a dead stop and crowds of people were milling around, children begging for whatever they could get. Suddenly, a small, thin brown hand reached through the back canvas flap on the right side of the jeep.

I wore my watch on the right wrist because I was left-handed. In a flash, he snapped the band and snatched the watch off of me and took off in a run. I jumped over the front seat and out of the jeep, cutting my leg in the act. I chased him through the myriad of little businesses along the street. Jumping over vendors selling chickens, charcoal for cooking pots, homemade beads and woven rugs. I thought I could catch him. I didn't think about what I was doing. I was just angry.

We ran down narrow walkways where women were fixing meals on the sidewalks. I tried to jump over them, stepping on food, plates and teapots. I just about got my hand on this munchkin. It looked like he had come to a dead end. Then he squeezed through a crack in a wall at the end of the corridor and vanished. I couldn't fit through his escape crack in the wall and by then I began to fear for where I found myself.

I turned away, mumbling under my breath. Breathing hard, I began to realize that I was in a "no man's land," out of sight of my fellow chaplains and to them, out of my mind. They stayed with the jeep. I made my way back to where they parked, looking over my shoulders and to my side, trying to be as vigilant as possible. All I could think of was how stupid I was to venture out into the population without any protection and lacking any good sense. I was lucky. I only lost a watch and cut my leg, I still had my life.

Three chaplains begin to preach to me about impulsive actions that could destroy me. Together all three began to rib me about applying for a Purple Heart medal for being wounded in action. I never applied for the medal. I was too embarrassed.

As we headed back to the BOQ and I was wiping the blood from my leg, I couldn't help but think what a fool I was. I was lucky only my leg was bleeding. Here I had been in the country for over six months and still acted like an idiot and forgot were I was and what I was doing here. I was in Vietnam because soldiers were here, not because I had to run down a "steely boy,” who was only trying to provide something to sell so he could buy something to eat.

Our jeep made it back through An Khe pass, through the little village of AnTuc with an orphanage filled with children, victims of the war. In the months ahead, Dave and I would be making weekly trips to the orphanage to bring candy, excess C-rations, and slop from the mess hall for the pigs they raised.

My contact with the director, a Catholic Priest, Father Frances, was both a challenge and a delight. He wore a black gown that touched the ground; a large cross hung around his neck and hit him in the middle of his thin chest. He wore a black hat and had a short, graying beard. He was over sixty years old. He had an elongated face with deep wrinkles that gave his beard dark shadows to match the dark bags under his eyes. He was a dedicated man of God who was not seeking fame but seeking to maintain and run his orphanage and care for his twenty or so orphans of various ages and sizes and sexes.

My experience and association with Father Frances and especially a little black haired girl with dark brown eyes, named Kim, was one of the grand experiences of my stay in the Central Highlands. Whenever I see the word orphanage or I have a slight flashback to Vietnam, I see her shy smile and feel her tender touch when she would take hold of my finger as I walked with her around the campus. It was a sweet moment in a senseless war.

Father Frances had lived for forty years in South Vietnam. He had lived through the French and Vietnamese wars and the Japanese in WWII. He had seen political turmoil over and over again. His major complaint was that it was always the children who suffered and were the forgotten victims of any war and corrupt government leaders. I remember when he told me about his experience with government and politics, he put out both hands, palms up, hunched his shoulders and in broken English said, "No change."

The Priest could not speak English; he was from a French order of priests that had been in Vietnam from the days when the French controlled the country. It was always an interesting trip to the orphanage and school. Dave and I both attempted to communicate as best we could. Several of the teenage children interpreted for us.

I would load up the jeep with discarded C-rations that the troops dropped by my tent every week. There were cans of peanut butter, jelly, ham, cookies and other foods that the troops didn't use. The Battalion mess would load down my trailer with two or three fifty-gallon containers of slop held over from the mess. When Dave and I would pull up into the school grounds, the children would gather around.

One beautiful, dark-haired little six-year-old, Kim, would come up and take my hand. I fell in love with her. I remember writing my wife and suggesting that I might bring home a surprise. However, the law of the land made it impossible for any American to adopt a child during the war. The priest told me that in order to adopt a child, I would have to get permission from any living relative of Kim's. He then said, "Impossible. Kim's family was lost. Some were dead and others were missing." He had one of the older girls interpret for me, saying, "The last time I heard from her mother, she was working in Saigon as a prostitute.”

I commented, "That's a shame."

The priest shook his head and said, "It is no shame, and it is a way of life these days."

These children of the orphanage never begged. They waited patiently for the boxes of C rations to be unloaded and the older boys, eight or nine years old, took the barrels of slop off the trailer.

The priest invited Dave and I into his quarters and offered us a glass of his special French wine. It tasted awful but Dave and I smacked our lips and thanked him for his graciousness. When we got back to the jeep, everything was always in excellent order. The jeep was washed and the barrels were scrubbed and clean enough to eat out of them. Only after we were ready to leave did the priest offer any candy to the children. It was always a disciplined ritual to see them take their treat in such a respectful manner.

On one of the visits we were invited into the school for a special activity that the children had prepared for Dave and me. They had a musical program in our honor. They sang hymns in Vietnamese, English and French. Four of the older girls were, I would guess, thirteen to sixteen. It is difficult to guess children's ages. They were so small and tiny in stature. They did a pantomime of the Beatles, swinging and dancing and pretending to play guitars. It was a happy day and a reminder of the children's choirs in churches I had pastored back in the world.

While he served us his special wine, I asked the priest why he did not have any teenage boys in the orphanage. I went on to share my observation that most of his children were girls. He responded. "The war they're fighting is a war of boys who hope to be men."

Well, once again I need to close this letter. The orphanage and its memories is a time that refreshes my mind and gives me a partial answer to the question, "Why are we in Vietnam?" It helps me to think that we are helping some of the children find peace.




    On August 16, 2008 at 12:32 PM Anonymous said...

    Hi, Don!
    I feel bad that you chaplain assistants fell into the same mind-set of "them-us" as the rest of the in-Country Americans...We thought you were a bit above that!
    And, FYI the Donut Dollies were NOT USO...we were college-graduate, Field Recreation Therapists, not entertainers...but then, very few seemed to understand our work...except those grunts who really appreciated us bringing "a touch of home to a combat zone"!!


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