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Participants in the tour share a meal with a Vietnamese family in Hoi An. (Photos Courtesy Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans)
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The Military.com Interview

Jess DeVaney Talks About His Group, "Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans"



President Clinton's may be the first U.S. commander-in-chief to visit Vietnam since the war ended in 1975, but veterans of the conflict have been returning in droves for a decade. Some go as battlefield tourists, others as trauma victims seeking closure more than 25 years later.

Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans, a non-profit organization, offers two-week "healing visits" for Vietnam veterans. We talked with Jess DeVaney, a former Marine and president of the group, about the healing qualities of going back for veterans of the eight-year conflict.

MILITARY.COM: How did this idea for "Tours of Peace" come up?

DEVANEY: To cut a long story short, I had a few friends who said it'd be great if other veterans could have that same experience that you had. So that's when the light bulb clicked and I tried to make that experience available to other veterans regardless of their financial status. The foundation will sponsor them.

What programs are available from your organization?

We do several things. We go the Wall. And we go back to Vietnam. And what we offer that's very different than everybody else is a program that's really geared toward the psychological and emotional support where the group of people go over as a team and support each other. We have an onboard psychologist and we offer support before, during and after a trip to Vietnam, or the Wall.

What happens after you get to Vietnam with a group of veterans?

We have several objectives. We go back to their old haunts, some of the places they have a lot of memory from. It could be old base camps or

Finding remains of a soldiers boot at Camp Carroll.

places where they had a fire fight that was memorable. And we also feel that a big part of our program -- part of the healing process -- is to help others. We do that several ways. We do humanitarian projects while we're there. The other way is having veterans helping themselves and supporting each other. And we also bring back special effects, such as dog tags, and reunite them with surviving family members.

What are the emotional issues that linger for veterans even 30 years after the war? In a sense, what are things that drive them to want to go back to Vietnam?

Most of us who went to Vietnam were so young and very impressionable. Then we came back and we had this image of Vietnam imprinted in our minds. We tend to stagnate in this and never really move forward.

But now Vietnam is nothing like the Vietnam of the 1960s any more than the U.S. is like the U.S. of the 1960s. Half the people there today weren't even born or are too young to remember the war. So you might ask, "Well, I'd like to speak to a former NVA," and they don't even know what an NVA [North Vietnamese Army soldier] is. And, of course, all the terrain has changed.

And that's part of the point of going back is to see Vietnam as it is today, and that allows them to move forward and leave the Vietnamese of the 1960s behind.

How do the Vietnamese people remember the war?

They really don't talk much about the war. If you approach them, they might say, "Well, we've fought two wars since we fought you."

So what is the general reaction by the Vietnamese people -- especially those who used to be known as North Vietnamese and their sympathizers in the south -- at the sight of all these Americans? It sounds like it's not an issue.

Not at all. In fact, the Americans are very popular. When I went back five years ago or so, I got off the plane and the first thing I saw was a TV monitor at the airport showing the World Wrestling Federation. And that was the beginning. After that, you'd see the Vietnamese wearing American flag T-shirts and hats. You hear Mariah Carey music being played on the radio. In downtown Saigon, you see Kentucky Fried Chicken and Baskin Robbins. You kind of scratch your head and wonder who really won the war!

Is going back to Vietnam truly for all veterans? Or can there be a downside?

I don't think so. It's a positive experience for everybody who goes back. Now, I will qualify this and say not everybody's ready to go back. I don't think some people are emotionally ready?

How does one emotionally prepare for such a trip?

I think you have to be open to it. I certainly understand the reasons why some veterans are against going back. But every year we get more people who show interest in going back, and more people are going back.

What do you think will happen as a result of President Clinton's ongoing visit to Vietnam?

I just got back from Vietnam in late September, and they are nuts about it. They are so excited about Clinton coming. Everybody I talked to wanted to go see him and meet him and shake his hand. I tried to explain that not everybody will get a chance to see him.

Why such enthusiasm for an American president?

They're very much attuned to what's going on in the U.S. The know all about Clinton. I remember one time one lady approached me, and she said, "Can you tell me about President Clinton's homestate Arkansas?" She wanted to know everything about Arkansas. They like Clinton.

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