Vietnam - A Veteran Returns
Air Force Veteran Jack Seebacher Goes Back
I served with the Air Force in Vietnam from June 1969 to June 1970. My office was in a non-descript building about 1 mile from Ton San Nhut Air Base where most of the military activity in the area took place. My job put me in daily contact with the Vietnamese people, giving me an insight to which most other military men were not privy. My responsibilities extended to the eight major Air Bases within South Vietnam. This gave me opportunities to travel throughout the South, meeting and dealing with the Vietnamese people from Pleiku and Hue in the North and into the Mekong Delta in the South.
I started volunteering to go to Vietnam in 1965 when I saw the career professionals go. I thought a tour would boost my career. When finally accepted four years later, I wanted to escape a disaster of a marriage and honestly hoped NOT to return. My personal goods were already packed and identified as to recipient.
Once in-country, I volunteered for EVERYTHING. I made friends in other branches of service and talked them into including me in:
- both Army and Korean ground ops;
- Army Huey flights;
- a VNAF combat flight;
- a week of FAC flights;
- assisting a C-130 loadmaster dump supplies in a "hot" touch-down and kick-em-out on a dirt strip.
I also had no qualms about driving alone cross-country, for example from Qui Nhon to Phu Cat, arriving well after dark, or finding a civilian auto and "date" and taking off for Vung Tau. I routinely toured the countryside all around Saigon, usually alone, and usually carrying no more than a pistol. That was ordered by my boss as the bare minimum I would have whenever I left the office.
I became enamored of their tumultuous history and the beauties of their culture. I even asked for a second tour in order to stay on. However, the Air Force said they needed me elsewhere. Being a careerist, I left with my new orders, but vowed to return someday.
Continuation of the war, a new wife and family, US prohibition on travel to Vietnam, very expensive air fares and shaky political contacts between the US and Vietnam almost forced me to forget my vow to return.
The recent strengthening of the dollar against most Asiatic currencies, political recognition of Vietnam by the US and Vietnam's need to move from a poor agrarian society into a self-sustaining, modernized, Third World country finally gave me an opportunity to fulfill my vow. My wife Dixie agreed to accompany me, making us a tour group of two. Other veterans had reported going back, but only in large groups that saw sights but basically did not mingle with the Vietnamese people. Concern among our friends for our safety even resulted in participation in a prayer circle with our Vietnam Veteran friends before we left.
Fortunately there was no cause for concern. Greater Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnamese officials, expanded from 3 million in 1970 to 7 million today. I was told that approximately 75 percent of the population is under 30 years of age. This is probably true. Among the people we met on our trip there appeared to be at least an entire generation missing. We noticed very few people of middle age and limited numbers of elderly. Ongoing warfare between Vietnam and the Japanese from 1941-1946, the French from 1946-1964 and the Americans from 1964-1975 literally decimated the population.
The new united Vietnam is now so much cleaner, the people are healthy and very friendly. What's more, all children now have an opportunity to attend school. Vietnam cannot be classified as "Communist" but more properly Nationalist with a strong socialistic structure. Small business owners abound and former military bases such as Long Binh are now portions of huge industrial parks with tenants such as Coca-Cola. Future planning also considers environmental concerns, such as the recent decision to stop all lumber sales to Japan in order to maintain the jungle forests for future generations of Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese are still as I remembered, excluding the former South Vietnamese military. The people are gentle, quick to laugh and quick to share their meager belongings. Their primary allegiance is still to their families, then to their village. Religion is still very important. Buddhist temples we visited were all well attended, but the Cao Dai religious sect and the French introduced Catholic churches are declining.
Since the population is so young, most do not remember the "American War" and have no animosity at all towards the Americans. They do seem to be down on the Russians who attempted to take over America's vacated military facilities in 1975.
Even former Viet Cong, the few that are still alive, have been bonded by adversity, much like American Vietnam Vets. They say the young fail to recognize their struggles. We believe this to be true since the war museums and memorials we visited were attended only by other foreigners.
The government has remembered it former combatants. Most of the former VC were uneducated farmers but now have secure government jobs such as tour guides, park caretakers, etc. The educated VC were given higher level government positions. The few we met wanted only a handshake and to be addressed as "friend."
Vietnam is a bargain hunter's paradise. With a skilled tradesman earning only $4 per 10 hour day and street vendors $30 per month, handicrafts are literally a steal. Embroidered T-shirts start at $2, silk embroidered kimonos are $8. Five to six course meals for two are $10 or you can eat for about $.90 each from food stalls. Exquisite wood carvings that cost over $1,000 here in the States are less than $150 in Vietnam. Handmade-to-order cowboy boots were only $100 (exotic leathers are approximately one half or less Stateside prices). Even name brand 35 mm film was less expensive than our local discount stores.
Costs of alcoholic drinks are about the same as in a large US city.
Guided tours are incredibly inexpensive, as are daily rentals of air conditioned cars, complete with driver and interpreter. In our five full days, we traveled through Saigon/Cholon, north to Bien Hoa, west past Cu Chi to Tay Ninh Province and south into the Delta to Vinh Long in Vinh Long Province. Rental of a large power boat with operator plus a tour-guide/interpreter cost us only a total of $20 for a long afternoon and would go wherever we asked them to take us. We visited local hamlets, a renowned bonsai garden, a floating market and rustic island restaurants with unbelievable food.
Even my wife almost cried the last night "in-country", hating to leave such friendly, gracious people. I say to all my brothers who served, go back with open hearts and minds and check it out. Its worth it for the acceleration of the healing process it provides. We'll go back again. You can bet on it!
EMAIL to Jack Seebacher
Link to Jack's pictures of the trip.
Copyright Jack Seebacher, 1999
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