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The veterans who went back

Three US soldiers talk about the healing that happened when they returned to the country they once fought.

The last time Jose Ramos had seen the hills and coasts of Vietnam, he was a shaken 20-year-old - a frontline medic in the 101st Army Airborne Infantry Division who had spent the last year amid the undergrowth and gunfire of the Southeast Asian jungle.

Almost 30 years later, as his Vietnamese Airlines jet touched down on the tarmac in Hanoi on a gray December day in 1997, the images he had feared for the better part of his life suddenly came back. On the runway, he saw the Communist red star painted on every plane. In the terminal, customs officers wore the uniforms the enemy had worn during the war.

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"I was really scared. I cried uncontrollably and immediately wanted to go home," he says.

Two days later, the mending began. Mr. Ramos was in Vietnam to participate in a 16-day bicycle trip set up for both former US soldiers and Vietcong fighters. The group left from the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi - the building that America bombed during Christmas in 1972 - wending their way past women cleaning the sidewalks with witch-like brooms.

Then, as they negotiated Hanoi's tangle of mopeds and pedicabs, a former North Vietnamese soldier reached over and grabbed Mr. Ramos's hand. He held it above his head and didn't let go. For two miles.

"He told me, 'We don't hold grudges. We closed the book on the war in 1975 and started to write a new one' " Ramos recalls. ' "You Americans should allow yourselves to do that, too.' "

Like hundreds of other Vietnam veterans, Ramos has found that returning to the country in which he served - and many of his friends fell - has helped the healing process. Ramos found a measure of peace in his 1,200-mile bicycle trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Others have found it simply in coming back to help the people of the country they once fought.

These veterans are in the minority - many either have no desire to return or want nothing to do with the nation. But as President Clinton spends his second day in Vietnam, their stories provide a lens for looking at the combatants and the country - and how both have been transformed over time.

"The overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans have shut out their experience in the war so completely that they want nothing to do with returning there," says Leo Powers of the Veteran's Vietnam Restoration Project, which helps rebuild schools and hospitals in Vietnam. "This is a great tragedy because 99.9 percent of those who do come back say it was the best thing they ever did in their lives."

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Of 3 million soldiers who saw duty, about 2.5 million are still alive. Nearly 60,000 were killed or never returned and more than 2,000 MIAs remain. But as many as 100,000 have died premature deaths related to injuries, medical problems, drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide.

According to veterans' organizations, soldiers in Vietnam, in contrast to those of other wars, typically served at a younger age, trained separately from those they served with, returned from combat separately, and were released back to civilian life with less time to reorient. They also returned to a society divided over the purpose of the war, and the role and actions of the military.

For Ramos, the whole experience of Vietnam has been about wrenching transitions. After living among chaos and death every day for 12 months as a medic, he recalls being shipped back to a base in Oakland, Calif., in 1968.

The country was torn apart. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and the two most prevalent things on college campuses were Jimmy Hendrix albums and tear gas. Protesters screamed epithets and hurled objects at returning vets - including Ramos. He remembers, vividly, being hit by a bag of urine.

"We were kids," he says. "We didn't know what the war was about or where Vietnam even was. The result of my experience there and my return to such hatred made me shut down for the better part of the last 25 years."

In the early '90s, Ramos experienced chronic depression and contemplated suicide. The full healing for him didn't come until 1997, on the bike trip through the rice paddies of Vietnam and the dark eddies of his past. The trip was sponsored by World Team Sports, a group that uses sports to build bridges between people. More than 50 American GIs and former Vietcong took part in the journey. Many were disabled from the war - blind, deaf, lame.

"The whole place was nothing like I remembered it," he says. "It was awesomely beautiful, solemn, and plain. The people treated us like kings. They opened their arms, hearts, and homes."

Each day the bikers would stop at hospitals and other places to eat. These became cathartic moments. The talk flowed. Many of the GIs told stories they had kept closeted for 30 years.

At one point, a former Vietnamese soldier who had lost his right leg in the war, and was wearing a prosthetic limb, challenged a former American GI, who had lost his right leg in the war, to a foot race. They took off over a wooden bridge. The rest of the bikers watched, in chilled silence.

"I was always waiting for some miracle cure, but didn't realize until I saw these people, who had suffered far more than me, to drop it," says Ramos of the overall experience. "I was so moved, I came to peace with myself."

When Mark Stewart left Vietnam, the marine had lost sight in one eye and suffered 28 wounds from a shrapnel attack that killed several members of the platoon he led in 1968. Since then, he says, his greatest sense of peace has come from helping people - in Vietnam and around the world.

At the height of the African famine in the 1980s, the Ketchum, Idaho, native spent three years in the Sudan. He and his wife ran a food and medical clinic that daily fed 500 street children - boys and girls who had ended up in Khartoum, the capital city, after their parents had died of hunger. "It was one of the most fulfilling experiences you can possibly imagine," he says.

After turning over the clinic to local Sudanese, the couple returned to North America. Beginning in 1990, they worked to help the victims of the war against the contras in Guatemala and Nicaragua, aiding injured people with prosthetics and working with women to improve literacy, so they could help themselves. Five years later, they left, fearing for their safety.

It was then that they thought of Vietnam. Seeking a place that would be peaceful - but needed help - they got a 30-day visa to travel from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Mr. Stewart says they only needed a few hours to realize this is where they needed to be. He rallied support back in Ketchum and later became executive director of East Meets West, an organization that for the past 13 years has been helping the Vietnamese build schools and hospitals and repair infrastructure.

"Returning to Vietnam regularly has convinced me these are a people who are incredibly hardworking, industrious, with a family and education ethic that far surpasses those in the US," he says. He says the country is the safest of any he has ever traveled in and is "so open that it would be impossible to be harboring MIAs in cages," as some people still fear.

Jim Doyle was 19 when he was drafted. As soon as he arrived, he assumed the dangerous position of "point man" for the First Infantry Division northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, then Saigon. Back then, he led his platoon through the bush. Today, he still scours the countryside, but as a part of a program to help the Vietnamese uncover the remains of those still missing from the war.

Mr. Doyle has made several trips to the country since 1995 as part of the initiative. So far, American veterans have provided information on 7,000 missing Vietnamese, of which 800 have been recovered for burial.

It has also made him a leader in the effort to find American MIAs. Nine months after he participated in a repatriation ceremony in Hanoi for the remains of six US soldiers discovered in plane wreckage, Doyle arrived home to find that one of the soldiers was from his home town, Fresno, Calif.

"The repatriation ceremony helped me feel like I had fulfilled my original pledge as a soldier to never leave any comrade behind," says Doyle, now chairman of the national public affairs committee for Vietnam Veterans of America.

This desire to look forward - while not being unmindful of what came before - is a crucial part of what Doyle thinks Clinton must accomplish while in Vietnam.

"It is important for Clinton and the Vietnamese to ... talk about better relations and trade," he says. "But many of these issues of the past - MIAs, undetonated land mines, lingering fallout from Agent Orange - have become contemporary issues. To try to close the book on the past by ignoring it won't work either."

Coming back to help his old adversaries, he says, is what's helped him get over painful memories. He said he came back from Vietnam disillusioned about his naive assumptions that the US was out to help the Vietnamese. Three decades later, his own work in Vietnam and his witnessing of other veterans who work on humanitarian efforts such as clinics and schools have helped bring fulfillment of his original ideals.

"I went over as a kid thinking I was helping a cause, and now 30 years later, I feel we are finally helping them with the mission we originally went over to do," says Doyle.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society