|Vietnam Veterans of America|
During your Vietnam War service, did you ever say something like, “I never want to see this [expletive] country again”? It was a sentiment shared by most of those who served in Vietnam, even long after the war.
Yet beginning in the late 1980s, with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder a lingering issue for many, and more veterans having financial means to make such a trip, increasing numbers have considered the healing value of going back. Indeed, several companies offer organized tours of Vietnam in part for that very purpose.
For example, Military Historical Tours, founded by a Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran in 1987, organizes frequent battlefield tours of the country led by experienced Vietnam-veteran guides. Rupiper Tours offers 12-day excursions to Vietnam that include stops in Hue, the former DMZ, and U.S. military bases; while Audley Travel runs a 13-day veterans tour that takes in sites such as the former Khe Sanh Combat Base, Hamburger Hill, and the Cu Chi Tunnels. WaytoVietnam Travel is a Vietnamese company that runs a range of tours designed for American veterans, along with a wide array of leisure-focused itineraries.
“When I take a group of guys [to Vietnam] I can see that moment in their face when they’ve suddenly said, ‘It’s okay,’ ” said Ed “Tex” Stiteler, a USMC Vietnam War veteran who co-founded the nonprofit Vietnam Battlefield Tours with four fellow Marines in 2005. “When they hit that spot, you can see it: A smile comes on their face; tears run down their face.”
The concept of veterans returning to their former battlefields for remembrance, reconciliation, and personal closure is nothing new. As early as 1913, some 50,000 American Civil War veterans marked the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg with a three-day gathering at the site that included emotional embraces between former adversaries and exchanges of flags and medals. Organized tours of World War I battlefields were popular in the immediate post-war period, including 11,000 veterans and war widows making such a pilgrimage in 1928. Today, organized battlefield tours are available for veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
There is anecdotal evidence that, for some veterans at least, returning to places where they were physically and emotionally scarred can be therapeutic. An estimated 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans experience PTSD in their lifetime, with many still having symptoms in 2022. Revisiting the source of their trauma in peacetime, especially when accompanied by fellow veterans, can help former service members reframe memories that have haunted them. For family members and friends who often accompany them, these trips can lead to a deeper understanding of, and empathy for, what their loved ones went through in Vietnam and have often been reluctant to discuss.
“I wholeheartedly support Vietnam veterans going to Vietnam,” said Paul Reed, a 173rd Airborne Brigade veteran whose unlikely friendship with a North Vietnamese Army officer he’d faced in combat inspired the 1999 documentary Kontum Diary: The Journey Home. “Once they see the beauty of the country and experience the friendly nature of the people, those things are very healing in and of themselves.”
San Antonio-based Vietnam Battlefield Tours ran its first trip in 2006 and has organized 92 excursions, each with an itinerary built around the desires of participants. Many want to visit casualty sites where they lost buddies or were wounded — places Stiteler and his six-strong stateside team locate using archival research and GPS.
“We want to take guys back because we had been back, and it kind of put a lot of demons to bed,” said Bob Burke, the secretary, director, and a tour guide for Vietnam Battlefield Tours whose 20-year military career included two Vietnam War tours.
‘IT NEVER LEAVES YOU’
Bob Burke made his first solo trip to Vietnam almost on a whim while working in the Middle East in 2001. Intrigued, he joined an organized tour two years later, in which Stiteler was his roommate. He has since returned repeatedly, has a Vietnamese wife, and even lived in Saigon for three years.
“I’d never thought about going back,” said Burke, who has PTSD and Agent Orange-caused health issues. “It didn’t hit me, initially. Later on, I started thinking about it because it never leaves you, it’s always in your mind.”
Stiteler and Burke said that recurring Vietnam War-related nightmares drastically diminished after they revisited the country. Vietnam Battlefield Tours’ website includes dozens of testimonials from clients, many of whom attest to the healing nature of their trips.
“For myself, a grunt, I never saw this side of Vietnam,” one Army veteran wrote. “I buried a lot of horrible stuff for 52 years in just this short time I felt closure.”
Vietnam Battlefield Tours offers trips in the Vietnam War’s four Corps Tactical Zones, as well as others designed for veterans who served in certain regions or roles. For example, next March, they have a II, III, and IV Corps tour scheduled, as well as a Marine Reconnaissance trip. With participants sharing bonding wartime experiences, such tailored itineraries can be especially therapeutic.
“I’m sure a lot of veterans would say, ‘Why do I want to go back there?’ ” a Marine wrote on the VBT website. “I know it brought my experiences to the surface again, but being around other men who also served, hearing their stories, and sharing mine was healing in a way.”
VBT aims to keep the trips affordable, with the goal of enabling as many veterans as possible to go back. Recent trips have been priced below $4,000 per person, based on double occupancy. The prices include everything except airfare for getting to and from Los Angeles, for the international flights, and for beverages and souvenirs in-country.
“We’ll meet in Los Angeles and it’s the first time these guys ever saw each other,” Burke said. “By the time we get on the airplane, it’s like they’ve known each other forever.”
Tour groups average 12-16 people. VBT has had clients as old as 84 and as young as 13, with diverse motivations. One middle-aged man, for example, wanted to go where the father he never knew was killed in action. Many have PTSD or some form of survivor’s guilt.
“I took a guy from Hawaii. He was a door gunner on a helicopter. I took him to his spot, and he walked off by himself,” Stiteler said. “Tears were streaming down his face. He gave me a hug.” After that, “he was the happiest guy on the darn tour.”
VBT’s I Corps tours, which fly into Da Nang, always include Hue, as many Marines fought there during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Tours to II, III, and IV Corps begin and end in Saigon, including visits to the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Hall, the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace. Time is set aside for participants to explore on their own. Add-on tours are available to sites including Dien Bien Phu, where the French were defeated in 1954, and the renowned Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
While some might worry about how they’ll be received by locals in Vietnam, Stiteler and Burke stress that they only have experienced warm receptions. They sometimes run into similar tours of NVA veterans who invariably want to chat and have their photos taken with their American counterparts.
“There’s no anger; there’s no hatred toward America,” said Paul Reed, who has visited Vietnam ten times and founded in 2017 the nonprofit Valor Veterans that takes veterans back for emotionally healing events and programs. “It turns out they love Americans and America. These guys will just fall in love with the people.”
Reed, who said PTSD had made him angry and violent prior to returning to Vietnam, has written two books about his experiences: The Healing Box: When Flowers Again Bloom in the Killing Fields and Kontum Diary: Captured Writings Bring Peace to a Vietnam Veteran.
“It was amazingly healing for me,” he said. “I am of the opinion that veterans cannot heal properly until they make that journey back to the place of their original wounding.”
After a pause due to the pandemic, tour groups are slowly returning to business as usual.
“We didn’t get into this to make money off anybody,” Stiteler said. “We got into it to take our brothers back and to get closure ourselves.”
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