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.
went to Vietnam in December of 1968, at 23 he was old by most soldier
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
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.
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.
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
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.
of Peace (TOP), founded and operated by Vietnam vet Jess DeVaney, is not a
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
Still, he said, there is no animosity. "They have forgiven us," he
said. "A long time before we forgave ourselves," Nancy added.
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.
group revisited old hurts face to face too, stopping at Vietnamese war
memorials and museums and the specific locations where the each vet had
The memorials, Jim said, were hard, particularly
because they were written from a North Vietnamese perspective.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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."
cannot recommend this trip highly enough for those still dealing with the
"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
For more information on Tours Of Peace for Vietnam
Veterans, visit http://www.topvietnamveterans.org/or call (520) 305-0586.