The VVA Veteran® Online

March/April 2012

Da Nang Déjà Vu


It’s a Monday at Dulles Airport, and I’m awaiting yet another business flight. I wear a Vietnam veteran hat because it provides an opportunity to meet other alumni. I’m proud of my service, and I hope it lets those who went elsewhere know I didn’t. Anyway, three military officers come in: an Army colonel, a LTC, and a Navy LCDR. (No, this isn’t a bar joke.) The two guys walked off with their iPhones while the LCDR stays put facing me, doing an excellent job of guarding the luggage. 

The Naval officer, LCDR Kimberly M. Mitchell, introduces herself. She asks if I am a Vietnam veteran and I reply I am. She says last year she visited the orphanage in Vietnam where she was raised and adopted by an Air Force sergeant. Ever hear of six degrees of separation? Well, this is one of those.

She asks where I was stationed, and I say I Corps near Da Nang, between Monkey Mountain and Marble Mountain. She says her orphanage was also south of Da Nang. Catholic nuns? Yup. Off the main road? Yup. Near the South China Sea beaches? Yup. Bingo. Okay, what years?

She was adopted in 1972. My unit, the 536th Engineer Detachment, 84th Engineer Battalion (Construction), supported the orphanage during my 1971-72 tour. Sometimes we used some of our military equipment to help out. Now she’s a Naval Academy graduate serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

I take her business card before boarding the flight. When I get home, I dig out my old slide trays and find about twenty shots of a trip to the orphanage during Christmas ’71, where we gave out toys and candy. I had pictures printed and invited Kim over to give them to her and to show her some other photos. I also googled her and found out more about her visit to the orphanage—Sacred Heart. Actually, I never knew the name of the orphanage. The nuns didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Vietnamese. Fortunately, we both got by in French.

I examined the pictures of my guys with these kids from a totally different perspective. Kim might have been one of them. I told the story of the meeting to my wife and grown daughter, and showed them the pictures. They were pretty amazed. My daughter remarked it was an unknown side of the Vietnam War. That sounded better than when I was called a baby killer on my way over.

Just before Kim visited last November, I read an article by one of the 536th Eng. Det. (PC) divers. The 84th Eng. Bn., which the 536th was attached to, has a pretty good RVN alumni group. The article was about a pretty hairy water rescue of two GIs by one of the salvage divers, SP5 Charles Romero. In talking about the rescue, he mentions his having to walk by a group of nuns who had gathered along the beachfront to watch the rescue. They probably had good reason for prayers that day because he was stark naked except for fins, diving mask, and life vest. These were, no doubt, the same nuns I had inherited from 1LT Gene Piehl.

The nuns’ work was brought home to me when my unit got stuck with the battalion trash run using our five-ton dump trucks. We always put an extra armed shotgun on the truck. I heard from my troops that the dump was dangerous because the kids living there descended on the truck while it was moving and would almost “pick it clean” before it could dump. 

One day I rode shotgun to see this for myself. My driver probably didn’t expect his CO to be his guard force. Swarms of homeless kids emerged from the trash mounds at the sight of the truck and overran it. It was survival of the fittest among them; Vietnam was not a good place for orphans. 

So the nuns at the orphanage were certainly doing God’s work for the lucky ones under their care. To have one of their own children commissioned from the USNA says something about the nuns and about America, and, of course, about Kimberly and the Tech Sergeant who adopted and raised her. Hail Mary, full of grace.

Kim told me there was an article about her in the July/August issue of The VVA Veteran. Fortunately, I still had my copy and there it was. I guess she has become a sort of, I hate to say it, poster child. But she’s certainly an example of everything that was right about the Vietnam War.

It was not only about killing; it was also about doing what GIs have done in every one of America’s wars—helping people, especially the kids.

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