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Winona Post Online April 16, 2003

April 16, 2003

A long, hard trip to visit the past and see the future

by Cynthya Porter

"This is not a vacation," the letter said.
Although Jim and Nancy Bambenek would be traversing rolling mountains, glimmering beaches and quaint villages, this two-week trip would be anything but.
For Jim, it was to be a trip of healing, of exorcising the demons shoved far below the surface of his calm life. For Nancy, it would be a trip of sharing, of understanding the year of her husband's life that she only knew of through his thrashing nightmares that crept into their bed at night.
When Jim went to Vietnam in December of 1968, at 23 he was old by most soldier standards.
He was sent to the Central Highlands as a movements control specialist, but his picture taking hobby ended up landing him a job as an Army photographer instead.
For a year he followed troops, taking pictures and writing light news stories to send to home-town papers.
Along with his bag filled with a camera, eating implements and well worn photos and letters from home, Jim began to carry something else, the burden of memories that would only get heavier as the days wore on.
When he returned to Winona in December of 1969, he packed away his uniform, his pictures and his memories from his time in the jungle, considering it an ugly chapter closed in his young life.
Vietnam veterans were the scourge of American sentiments for the war, and it was just something you didn't talk about. "The crazy thing about the Vietnam War is that when people got back, they were shouted at, spit on and called baby killers. If you get a homecoming like that, you just don't want to say anything. It just gets buried," Jim said.
Still, as more vets returned to the area, something of an ad hoc fellowship took shape in the back room of the Four Queens Lounge.
There, over tequila and a bowl of limes, Jim and other young vets would gather as many as four nights a week to speak in hushed tones of their grim memories from Vietnam.
No one else was invited, not even Nancy, because no one could understand unless he had been there.
Years passed, and the fellowship faded. Still, the memories lingered just below the surface, rearing their head occasionally at a particular sight or sound. Such errant thoughts would be wrestled back into the tightly sealed box of memories in Jim's mind, and life would go on.
Jim Bambenek had long since pronounced himself "fine," carrying on a normal daily life of family and work, but a painful trip to the Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., started the demons to rumbling and Jim to thinking.
Maybe it was time to go back to Vietnam.
Tours of Peace (TOP), founded and operated by Vietnam vet Jess DeVaney, is not a travel agency.
On highly specialized visits, it takes vets like Jim or their family members back to Vietnam for an intensive trip that includes humanitarianism for the people of Vietnam and healing for those who visit them.
And they won't take just anybody.
First there was an application many pages long, then there were the interviews with the TOP psychologist. Such a rigorous process, Jim explains, weeds out those who are just not ready to go back. Loose cannons, those with pronounced mental illness issues and people with deep-seeded ill-will toward Vietnam cannot participate in a TOP tour.
Groups are small and handpicked, matching veterans who served in similar regions and family members with similar scenarios together. Such a blend, the Bambeneks said, helps facilitate the bonding that is a hallmark of one of these tours.
So in February at the Los Angeles airport, the journey began.
The group, led by Jess DeVaney and a staff psychologist, consisted of Jim and another vet named John, Nancy, three daughters of Vietnam vets who wanted to know why their fathers were so miserable and a woman whose cousin had been killed after six days in Vietnam.
Each carried three bags, one filled with personal items and one filled with humanitarian items to give away. The third bag was the emotional kind, filled with private pain decades old, a bag that would hopefully be emptied and refilled with good memories during the two-week trip.
Landing in Saigon, Jim's demons choked him with apprehension. Unsmiling military men scrutinized them in Customs, and the sight of their uniforms spurred a familiar fear for him.
Once in the street, however, the fear waned at the sight of a country that is much changed from 30 years ago.
No bunkers or barbed wire, no guard posts or soldiers with weapons, only hundreds of mopeds and pedestrians bustling by, oblivious to the magnitude of the moment for Jim Bambenek.
Over the next two weeks, the group embarked on a mission to replace old memories and bitter hurts with the smiling faces and heartfelt appreciation of a people who have long since forgiven America.
With one thousand American dollars, they bought six thousand dollars worth of goods on the streets of Saigon and set off on a trip that would change their lives.
They visited orphanages bearing toys and food, dwelling for hours with scores of children hungry for human touch. "The most important thing was just to touch them," Nancy said. "They would sit as close as possible and want you to put your arms around them."
At orphanage after orphanage, including one for blind children and one for disabled children, it was the same. "The kids crawl all over you," Jim said. "They don't get many visitors, and they don't have anybody."
One day the group stopped at an outdoor restaurant for some lunch. Rather than indulge themselves in a meal, they asked some Vietnamese people to help them round up street children so they could buy them lunch. "I think we started with 14 kids, but it had doubled by the end of lunch," Jim said. The children devoured enormous plates of rice, ice cream bars and soda pop before scurrying back to the streets that they call home.
Also in the street were beggars, men with their arms or legs blown off, men that the government would not care for because they fought for South Vietnam.
"There were a lot of guys, multiple amputees my age, who were reduced to begging," Jim said. "They were on the wrong side of the war when it ended. You knew they were South Vietnamese soldiers, because more than one of them actually saluted us when we gave him money."
At a senior citizens' home, the women sat with residents, combing their hair and listening to them tell in Vietnamese and broken English about their memories of the war. The men sat too, sometimes side-by-side with soldiers who 30 years before would have had to try to kill them.
In Vietnam, Jim said, they call it the American War, and all points in recent history are defined as either before the war or after the war.
Still, he said, there is no animosity. "They have forgiven us," he said. "A long time before we forgave ourselves," Nancy added.
Visiting a lepers colony, the group delivered care packages for the scores of families isolated there, as well as bulk supplies of rice, medicine and whatever cash they could spare.
At each place, the group was greeted with a formal tea ceremony followed by warm acceptance of their company, and slowly, the wounds of war were fading for these Americans.
But the group revisited old hurts face to face too, stopping at Vietnamese war memorials and museums and the specific locations where the each vet had been stationed.
The memorials, Jim said, were hard, particularly because they were written from a North Vietnamese perspective.
The pictures, usually taken by Americans and obtained by the Vietnamese through the AP wire, depicted the "miserable Americans" and cast a very pro-North Vietnamese light on the war.
But Jim can't blame them.
"I didn't like the pictures and the quotes that I read, but this is the history that is theirs," he said.
At one memorial, a government tour guide boarded their bus and asked, "Would you like to hear the history from your point of view or from ours, because I can tell you either way." All 12 passengers, the Bambeneks said, asked to hear it from the Vietnamese point of view.
Perhaps the most difficult memorial to visit, Jim said, was that of the My Lai Massacre, a bloodbath in which American troops killed 504 Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children.
There, an elderly woman sits everyday, solemnly weeding the grass around the spot where her family died. She is one of only four villagers who survived the carnage.
She rarely sees Americans there, Jim said, but she was willing to tell them the story of how she was taken for dead and thrown into a pile of bodies, nearly drowning in the blood of her family members as they were piled on top of her.
Jim and Nancy, the other TOP members, even their Vietnamese guide cried throughout her story, and it was, Jim said, one of the most painful things they encountered.
To help the group balance grief and joy, Nancy said, DeVaney had painful visits interspersed with the uplifting ones, and each night, group members bared their souls to each other to coax the demons out and stare them down.
Piled into someone's room, group members would take turns saying what their high and low points were for the day, usually ending up in tears but somehow feeling better at the end.
"Some nights you almost dreaded to go there because you knew what was going to happen," Jim said. "Everyone is balling their eyes out, sharing things they haven't talked about for 30 years, and I thought, 'We're going to do this every night?'"
By the second night, Jim had already spent the entire day trying to figure out how to get out of it.
Earlier that day, he had an epiphany of sorts, and knew he would probably have to share it if he went. "I admitted something to myself for the first time," he said. "I'm the first to admit I had some really bad times in Vietnam, but not nearly as bad as some guys. Sure, I'd been shot at, rocketed and mortared, but I felt like I had it too good to be going on this trip."
Jim did go to the group meeting and shared his feelings, and was surprised at DeVaney's response. "Jess said every group has the same theme," Jim said. "I didn't have it as bad as you did, your group had it worse than I did; he said he has heard that on every single trip."
One of the brightest spots for Jim was locating the orphanage that he and other soldiers helped build during his year at Vietnam. Perhaps he clung to memories of the orphanage, he said, because it was one of the few pieces of good that he could recall from his days there.
Tearing through pictures that have been put away in the basement for 30 years, Jim was able to bring along photographs of the original building as well as some of the children he came to know there.
He met a man who knew one of his favorite children, a little boy everyone called General George, who was reportedly living five miles down the road and doing well.
The other places the group needed to visit were not filled with quite the same joy.
They located the site of the battlefield Khe Sanh, where one of the girls' fathers lived in a hole under siege for 77 days.
They also found a distinct hill where the other vet, John, had been ambushed. And while there were times for sharing, there were also times for solitude, and the group sat patiently by while John walked off into the forest by himself for a while. Some demons have to be killed alone.
And as their time in Vietnam drew toward a close, Jim realized several things. The red clay is just as bright and the elephant grass is just as tall, but the cities and people of Vietnam bear little resemblance to his memories of 30 years ago.
Slowly, new images were replacing the old, and the demons were hard to find below the surface. "It doesn't change any of the things I saw or did," Jim said, "it just made it history. Now I don't feel like the typical Vietnam vet who doesn't like to take memories out of the box and talk about them, because for me there is no box left."
The Bambeneks cannot recommend this trip highly enough for those still dealing with the Vietnam War.
"If there was any vet that read this that wanted to dump a huge amount of baggage, I'd tell them to go," Jim said.
For him, that baggage-dumping moment came on an airstrip in Hue, the day before they were to leave for home.
Inside the airport, Jim and Nancy noticed something that seemed oddly out of place, yet tied the final strings of closure for Jim. In the corner of this small airport on the other side of the world was a bulky cream-colored air conditioning unit made in La Crosse, Wis., 30 miles from Jim's home.
"Most vets have a 'moment' where they feel the load is lifted off them," he said. "That day when we took off, I saw all my garbage laying on the tarmac. That was my moment when I left it all behind, all that weight that I didn't even know I had."
For more information on Tours Of Peace for Vietnam Veterans, visit call (520) 305-0586.

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