I am employed as a Professor/Counselor at a community college of the State University of New York (SUNY), The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
For over six weeks in July and August of 1995, I was a volunteer working in Thailand. There were about 15 community college faculty and administrators from the U.S. funded by a USAID grant to a private Thai educational foundation specifically to start a community college.
Some of the U.S. American educators were from the California Community College systems and a few from SUNY and CUNY (City University of New York). Although there is an extensive public college and university system as well as private higher education in Thailand, the Thai people are creating their first community college system. I was assisting in the new project. In fact it is being called the First Global Community College (FGCC) and intends to serve all of Southeast Asia including - Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam. When the opportunity came to visit Vietnam for the project, I volunteered. My special interest was to return to the area where I served in the war.
While in Thailand I met some educators from Ho Chi Minh City; they were very generous with their time and assisted me and a colleague, Professor Minerva Santos from CUNY, with our business for the FGCC in Ho Chi Minh City. I will forever be grateful to the opportunity given me by Ms. Duong and Dr. Lien of the Institute of Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City. They showed us around Ho Chi Minh City and we visited many pagodas.
The best part was when we were taken 30 kilometers north on Highway 1 and crossed the Song Dong Nai [river], I was my first return journey to Bien Hoa. It had been over 25 years since I saw the Dong Nai and the roads through that war torn city. A feeling of relief and a strange sense of joy overcame me. I was elated and liberated at the same time. A tremendous burden was lifted from me. Perhaps that the year I spent in Vietnam was not simply a bad dream, perhaps because the country was at peace and the people were hard at work. It may have been all those thoughts and more. In time I will reflect again on my return to Bien Hoa and try to put those pleasant feelings into words.
I learned that the center for ceramics in Vietnam is and always has been in Bien Hoa. There is a special art institute for that craft specifically and I was graciously shown a student and faculty exhibition. Joy came over me when I learned that the old saw mill that was our quarters is now a technical school and dormitory of some sort. The III Corps Headquarters is now an archeological museum and cultural center. For me as an educator for the past 20 years schools and museums are places of learning that are antithetical to war. They teach people to be sensitive to other ideas and cultures. I was pleased to learn of the changes in Bien Hoa.
Returning again would certainly be an opportunity I would not turn down. Especially if I could share my professional skills with the people I once fought. There were several men I met on this trip who were former enemies, soldiers in the North Vietnamese Army. When we discovered our common past, we hugged and grew silent, then smiled and laughed. Glad to be alive and witness this experience in peace.