Healing the Wounds of War, Loi
In February of 1968, I stepped off a plane in a place and time that I was totally unfamiliar with. I watched the nightly news and although the images I saw were real, they did not register in my young mind nor did I realize I would see these images for the rest of my life. The choice to join the military was mine; I knew where I was going; yet I had no idea the impact the year I served in Vietnam would have on my life.
I will never forget the night we landed in Pleiku. As we taxied down the runway, the rockets and mortars were landing all around us, “this is it” I thought; I will never live to see home again. Here I was; right in the middle of a real war. I was no longer at home watching images of war on television, I was part of it; part of what would be a political war that would cost the lives of over 58,000 soldiers.
I did my time, I served my country, I saw death, I killed, but this was what I was trained to do. All of the training could not prepare me for the psychological war that I would battle for many years to come.
I left my home in a small Georgia town as a boy; fresh out of high school, married to my high school sweetheart with no idea that my life would change forever when I stepped off a plane in this foreign land. I left my friends behind to become part of a brotherhood united in a common bond forged by death, fear, and a country that would turn its back on us and label us as “Baby Killers.”
During that year, there would be good times and there would be bad times, there would be friends made and there would be friends lost. The Vietnam War filled my mind with hate for the country and its people. Vietnam was a beautiful country and the people were a simple but proud people, but I did not see this; I did not realize nor did I care what the people of Vietnam were going through. It took thirty-nine years to realize that there were Vietnamese soldiers who were going through the same things I was going through with the difference being that they had been fighting to save their homeland.
It was only recently that fate would intervene after all these years and shed a new light on my thoughts of the people of Vietnam and the struggles they had faced during countless decades of war. I would learn from a different perspective how communism took a humble and proud people and divided them, turning the North Vietnamese against the South Vietnamese. I would learn firsthand from a former soldier from South Vietnam.
I work in a paper mill in South Georgia and being part of a large corporation, we would from time to time have machinery shipped in from smaller paper mills and put back in service in our facility. Often when we received equipment from one of our sister mills, some of the employees that had operated this piece of equipment would come to our mill and help us re-assemble, set up, and get the machinery ready for production. Little did I know that a small, humble, oriental man would arrive to help with this equipment, and in the process I would learn things I never gave a single caring thought for.
When I first met this gentleman, I knew that he was Vietnamese, so being naturally curious; I asked him where he was from. He said in a very quiet voice “from Vietnam.”“Really” I said, and then he told me he was from Saigon. Okay, I thought to myself; he was one of the good guys. I introduced myself to him, stating that I was a Vietnam Veteran, and he returned the courtesy by telling me his name was Loi. We both had some free time, so we started talking and getting to know one another. We would work together for about four months and from this; a bonding friendship would evolve.
Loi Troung was a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese Air Force. He was also trained in what would be the equivalent to our special forces. He flew many missions dropping our fighting forces in “hot” landing zones and most of those would be in enemy infested territory subjecting him and fellow pilots to enemy ground fire.
Over the coming months we would take our lunch breaks together and I would listen to Loi tell his story. This man had been where we had been, I thought. I just never gave it a thought up to this point that anyone other than the Americans had suffered. We shared our stories and listened to one another attentively not wanting to miss a single word or phrase.
Never in the years since returning from Vietnam had I envisioned the hardships faced by these people and the harsh reality of living under communist rule and trying to rid their country of this evil government. During the evacuation of Saigon, Loi had “borrowed” a helicopter to help get people out of the country. Like many others; when they reached the aircraft carrier, there was no going back and the helicopters were pushed overboard. I thought to myself; this man had just lost his home and family in a heroic effort to help get people out of this war torn country. What this man had done was beyond my comprehension, but in reality; he was no different from me… I love my country and he loves his country. We would each do whatever it takes to protect our homeland and its people from those that would do us harm.
I could go on and on about the stories that we had shared and during this time the respect and admiration we felt for one another, but I just want to briefly share with my brothers what this man endured. Loi, left Vietnam, and came to America with nothing, not even his family. Just a note: I left Vietnam and I came home, Loi left his home and had to find another country to call home. Over the years once obtaining his citizenship, Loi got a job with our company working very hard and saving his money. After many years, he finally got his family to America to share in his new and free life. Loi worked for everything he has and never once felt that we owed him anything for free, unlike so many others that invade our country looking for a handout. (No, I am not against anyone coming to America to improve his or her quality of life, but do it right; become a citizen and earn your right to be called an American.) To me, Loi had certainly earned that right.
During the war, I did a lot of hitching on choppers going to our various remote field batteries (Artillery). Once, while hitching; I had the pleasure of experiencing a crash landing when the Huey I was aboard took a round somewhere in the hydraulics and down we went. Fortunately, we had two good pilots: one in the pilot’s seat and one in the Heavens above! Well, to make a long story short, when the chopper was retrieved, I took a souvenir, the control handle with all the little push buttons and toggles, etc.! I kept this piece of memorabilia all these years along with other mementos of a time long ago.
Loi was almost finished with his job at our facility and in a couple of weeks would be going back to the west coast. I felt that I wanted to give this man something to seal our friendship, so I took this control handle, cleaned it up, mounted it on a new pedestal and put my unit crest on the plaque. This would be something unique, maybe bring back pleasant memories for Loi during his flight career and it would be a part of my history to share with him. The time came for Loi to leave, we gave him and his co-workers a farewell dinner and had a great time joking about the junk machines they were giving us and laughing a picking at each other!
I asked for everyone’s attention and I gave a short speech about Loi and me and the friendship that had grown from two combat veterans who fate had brought together some thirty odd years later. I presented Loi with this Huey control handle and I bowed to him to show my respect, he returned the bow, we shook hands, hugged, and had pictures taken for our mill newsletter. I turned to him once again and I told him: “Thank You and Welcome Home, Brother.” Needless to say, it was emotional: but hell, who isn’t emotional sometimes? There was one young supervisor, just barely out of diapers who made the smart crack; what were you two doing, trying to kiss. Man, I just looked at him and said, “until you have been where we have been, just shut your mouth, go home and look up the words Respect, Honor, and Brotherhood; chances are it will be written in the blood of people like Loi and myself.”
I said Good-by to my new friend, never really expecting to see him again. Then out of the blue, he is back the following week! I get to work and on my desk is a box, a sunbeam iron box. What the heck is this, I wondered. Okay, somebody is playing a prank of some sort, so I opened the box and just fell down in my chair and started to cry. Loi had flown back to finish up a couple of small issues on the machine and had brought me a gift. It was a hand-carved mahogany Huey helicopter. But wait, there was something else in the box; it was a coffee mug with a picture of a helicopter and a lot of Vietnamese words. I had not expected anything in return for what I had given Loi, but these two items were part of his personal history that he wanted to share with me. I asked if he would interpret the words on the coffee mug, so I could write them down. “Thunder Birds” 29 May 2005, San Jose was the inscription; this was a souvenir of one of his unit reunions. These two items now sit on the top shelf of a large china cabinet filled with my war memorabilia and I will cherish them forever. He also left me a note on my desk that read very simply; “To my friend Phil, so you will always remember your little friend, Loi”
Sometimes we do not realize how good we have it here in our country and we take so many things for granted. Then out of the blue you meet someone like Loi who has witnessed communism and hardships first hand; left his country to find a new home and enjoy the many freedoms we enjoy. He even has his 85-year-old mother living with him and makes frequent visits with his family to Vietnam to ensure that his children do not forget their proud heritage.
I am proud to call this man my Brother and he has added one more step on the road to healing for me and for this I am eternally grateful to him.
Author's Note: I dedicate this story to my Vietnamese/American friend and brother, Loi Troung.
©Copyright July 2018 by Phil “Country” Crowley