Daughter finds forgiveness in distant land

By Scott Herhold
San Jose Mercury News

Sunday, September 26, 2004


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Heather Mocabee can recall seeing her father's Purple Heart in a trunk of mementos from his Navy days in Vietnam. She can remember the circular scar from the shrapnel wound on his chest. She thinks the cancer that killed him four years ago at 55 might have to do with Agent Orange, the chemical used to denude Vietnam's jungles.

Yet she always sensed a mystery about the war that was America's wound as surely as it was Norman Mocabee's. What it meant, how it changed him, how it scarred him, remained out of his daughter's reach.

Part of that was because of the divorce. After Norman Mocabee and his wife split, when Heather was in seventh grade, he moved to Oregon. Even after she reconciled with him, a few years before his death, she learned only fragments of his war.

Search for reasons

So when she left for Vietnam in February 2002, she wanted a better understanding of why her father, an ex-Navy seaman who served on river patrol boats near Danang, left their family. She got something more -- and something less.

In an election season in which the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have been circulating untruths about candidate John Kerry, Heather talks about her own quest for the truth -- and how finally, honoring her father didn't require excising every piece of emotional shrapnel from her memory.

A legal assistant at a Santa Clara biotech firm, Heather is a tall, brown-haired woman of 30, a Presentation High School graduate with a soft voice and deep roots in San Jose: Her mother came from the Corbisiero family; her grandmother from the Keesling clan.

She talks with an almost-painful honesty about why she went to Vietnam with an organization called Tours of Peace (www.topvietnamveterans.org), a humanitarian-oriented group that takes veterans to visit the scenes of combat. ``I just wanted to figure it out, to give him an excuse for leaving us,'' she says. ``I wanted to smell and see the country, to put myself in his place.''

Norman Mocabee came from a family with a flying tradition. His father had been a Navy combat pilot. Norman had dreamed of flying since childhood.

His Vietnam career, which came in 1967-68, was less glamorous. Having volunteered for the Navy, Norman served on the 32-foot PBR boats, about two-thirds the size of the Swift boats Kerry skippered.

Hazardous duty

It was hazardous duty; the boats often were fired upon by enemy patrols. One grim job was retrieving the bodies of American soldiers in the river. The family story is that Norman's crew once poked a body with a stick and saw it disintegrate.

Though Heather didn't know the site where her father was wounded, she climbed a bridge above a river near Danang, a bustling city where the wrecks of the American bases are still visible.

From other veterans on the trip, she gathered more of what her father experienced, learning how long stretches of tedium mixed with short bursts of terror for Americans.

She went to a memorial for the dead of North Vietnam. She shook hands with an ex-North Vietnamese soldier who was passing by on his bike. And she saw the site of the My Lai massacre, now surrounded by children who wanted to hold her hand. Everywhere she found a people who did not hold a grudge.

Heather is headed back to Vietnam with Tours of Peace in November. This time, it's a humanitarian mission more than a personal quest. She's raised money for T-shirts and toiletries for Vietnamese children.

The memory of Norman will go with her. In the end, forgiving her father was something she says would have come anyway, Vietnam or no Vietnam. ``At the end, I think I knew him better,'' she says. ``I was still unsure about what he really went through. But it doesn't matter. He was a good father.''


Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5877.

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