“Gooooooooooodbye Vietnam”

It has been an amazing two weeks. We have listened and learned from a dozen veterans who served their country honorably in Vietnam. We have seen the wetlands of the Mekong Delta, the rugged terrain of the Central Highlands, the beaches along the South China Sea, several important battle sites, and both major cities (Hanoi and Saigon) that were the respective capitals of North and South Vietnam.

Words cannot express our gratitude for this opportunity, but we want to thank our tour guide, John Dewing, photographer John Luck, Retired Navy veteran Bill Graves and active duty Army Major Matt Cuviello. We also want to thank our college family, President Jerry C. Davis, Vice President Fred Mullinax and his wife Rachel, and faculty and staff Donn Russell, John Tate, and Nurse Lori Vanderpool who accompanied us on the trip and a special thanks to Dean of Character Education Sue Head, Paul Baker, and Sara Franks at home. Most importantly, we want to thank our newest family members, our Vietnam veterans, Bill Bailey, Don Ballard, John Clark, Bill Duncan, Tom Egleston, Lou Eisenbrandt, Paul Frampton, Jim Greer, Steve Hansen, John Ligato, Tony Nadal, and John Sorensen. We leave Vietnam with a lifetime of memories and a much greater appreciation for the veterans who have and continue to serve our country. Thank you.

Blaine Bias, Sara Cochran, Chase Davis, Haly Johnson, Taylor Johnson, Molly Matney, Caleb McElvain, Jonathan Minner, Jacob Mullet, Cody Pentecost, Devan Spady, and Jessica Turner

We say goodbye to Vietnam with a few last photographs of our experiences.

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“I Refuse” and “Sacrifice, Suffering, and Strength: The Story of An Ex-POW”

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Today I visited a prison; a prison that for years held many soldiers; a prison that concealed the terrible treatment of many American pilots; a prison that was a huge part of a very special man’s life. I call this man Bill, and I have had the honor of accompanying him on his return trip to Vietnam. Commander James “Bill” Bailey served in the Navy for 25 years before becoming an educator. After teaching for 17 years he retired and now lives in South Carolina with his wife, Susy. Bill is an incredibly grounded man and I have learned so much from him. This is only a small slice of his story.

In June of 1967, Bill was flying an Alpha strike mission for Operation Rolling Thunder when his aircraft, a F4Phantom, was shot down by what he thinks was an 85MM anti-aircraft gun. He blacked out as the plane went into a spin and his seat ejected. When he regained consciousness, he only had about twenty seconds before hitting the ground. Vietnamese militia were waiting and Bill was taken to a prison camp that Americans came to call the Hanoi Hilton. He was tortured for three days straight. When he realized that he could not endure any more, he knew had to give the enemy some sort of information, but he did not want to betray his country. So with some quick thinking, he came up with a plan to tell his captors the names of men he had served but who had already finished their military career, and only the targets of missions which he had already completed. After this false confession, the torture ended, but he was put into solitary confinement for the next six months. Eventually he was given a roommate, then a couple more, and finally was moved into a group cell which he called, sarcastically, “the lap of luxury.”

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Bill was a prisoner of war for five years and eight months. He became accustomed to things like “sewer grass soup,” rats running around, and all sorts of illnesses and diseases which led to a 30 pound weight loss. When I talked to Bill about the emotional and mental effects this type of situation caused, he told me that he went through a time of serious depression while in solitary confinement. Then one day he looked at himself and said, “You’re in a bad place” but “self-pity is the most destructive attitude a person can have.” I was shocked. Out of everyone I know, Bill had the best reason to feel self-pity as a POW, but he does not feel either. Listening to him calmly talk about what he went through continually amazed me. He is one of the most courageous men I’ve ever met–courageous because he made it for almost six years as a POW, but more so because of the courageous way he has accepted his story, learned from it, shared it, and moved on from it.

As we walked through what is left of the Hanoi Hilton today, I watched as Bill quietly observed what we were seeing, and calmly shared with myself, other students, and other veterans about life as a POW. One of the veterans marveled at how well Bill was taking this return and said, “I don’t know how you’re doing it, Bill. I wouldn’t have been able to come back,” to which Bill chuckled a little and said, “I got to leave this place. That’s how I can come back.” Having moments like these has been commonplace on this trip. I have heard stories of courageous men and women doing things I can’t even imagine, risking their lives for others, and fighting for the honor of our country. However, I’ve learned the most from my time with Bill.

I think one of the most impactful things I’ve learned on this trip was when Bill said to me, “I refuse to let my experience as a POW dominate the rest of my life.” I have witnessed many refusals on this trip. A veteran who refuses to let his trying, past- experience in Vietnam keep him from returning and teaching my generation about it. A local Vietnamese man who refuses to let what he has heard about America and it’s people affect how he treats our tour group. An American who lost a family member to the war but refuses to let that grief keep her from coming to this country and learning more about the war and the brave men and women who fought in it. A group of college students who refuse to live in ignorance of what happened in this country years ago. And finally, Bill, who truly has refused to let his experience dictate his life.

I also want to refuse. I refuse to let the stories I have heard on this trip be forgotten. I refuse to ever stop giving veterans the respect they deserve. And I refuse to NOT be changed by this experience. Bill Bailey, I will be forever grateful for the time we have had together, the experiences we have shared, and the friendship you have given to me. You are “Ichi Ban” and you are my hero.

Haly Johnson

“My internet isn’t working. How will I check facebook?”
“That traffic jam ruined my schedule for the whole day!”
“This dress is from last year. I have nothing to wear.”
“My hamburger is 1/2lb, not 2/3. I’m starving!”

As embarrassing as it is to admit, most Americans make comments like this on a daily basis. We have been conditioned by our culture to believe that these “first-world problems” are a true measure of suffering. However, join me for a moment in imagining a world where day-to-day issues bear a heavier consequence. Imagine a world where your very survival is a constant struggle. In this world, you are sequestered from your society, isolated from your comrades, and aware that your life is in the hands of those consumed by a vile hatred for your country. You only eat an unappetizing, slimy broth with very little nutritious value every day; have no proper protection from the bitter cold or stifling heat; and if you get sick, you will be left to die in the small, dismal room you call home. You have been tortured, interrogated, and fed propaganda to rob you of any hope that you have struggled to maintain. If you can possibly force your mind to imagine this world, then you will have a mere glimpse into the life of an American POW in North Vietnam. I have the honor of knowing one such former POW, a man named John Clark, and he is the bravest person I have ever met.

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Colonel John Clark always dreamed of being a pilot. After graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in mechanical engineering and the ROTC program, he received his officer’s commission and went to pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. Following subsequent survival training, John was assigned to the East Coast, flying aeromedical evacuation. He eventually became the aircraft commander but was moved to South Carolina for RF-4C training. He spent the next couple years stationed in Alconbury RAFB, England, before receiving the news that he was going to be joining the war effort in Vietnam. He began flying tactical reconnaissance missions into Vietnam from the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. His assignment was for one year or 100 missions. After five months, he had already flown 85-90 missions, primarily counter-missions, and was well on his way to an early completion. However, on March 12, 1967, his future drastically changed when his plane was shot down, leading to his immediate capture by the North Vietnamese. He was 27 years old and would spend the next six years as a prisoner in the famous “Hanoi Hilton” and other camps in the Hanoi area.

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Today, 47 years later, John returned to what is left of the former prison for the first time. Prior to our arrival in Hanoi, I had asked John if it felt like that much time had passed. He shook his head no. “It feels like a year ago.” As we entered the museum which now occupies the prison grounds and boasts of the American POW’s “humane” treatment, I looked up at John. I couldn’t help but wonder what his reaction would be. Trepidation, fear, anger–none of these emotions flashed across his face. Instead, I saw a resounding sense of determination. It was that same determination which called him to serve his country where she needed him most, despite the risks. It was determination which kept him from giving into despair when he was captured and held in solitary confinement. It was determination which held him between optimism and pessimism as the months turned into years, and he remained a prisoner. It was determination which pushed him to rejoin society after his release, living a life of faith, love, and thankfulness. That determination is what drove John Clark to gather students and veterans alike around him today, sharing his knowledge with us, his enraptured audience. As we boarded the bus to leave the old “Hanoi Hilton” behind, John turned to me and said, “I wish I could have shared more with you all. I just didn’t recognize that much.” At these words, I felt my eyes grow moist and a knot began to form in the pit of my stomach. I wished I could have found the words to express how I was feeling, but I believe he understood that he had taught me more than I could ever express. What I have learned from John Clark is something that really cannot be taught in books or classes. Walking beside him the last couple weeks, I have learned the meaning of true courage, and it is a lesson that I will never, ever forget.

Molly Matney

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“From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of China Beach”

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“From the halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.”

John Ligato walked Point for the 1st Fire Squad of the 1st Platoon of Alpha Company of the 1st Marine Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division fighting in the I Corps of Vietnam, making him either one of the most brilliant and ferocious warriors in the history of the war, or lucky beyond all reason. Being a Marine, it is probably a lot of both. The “few and the proud” are trained survivors, and you can guarantee that when the Marines show up, the job will get done.

John enlisted in the USMC in 1966 and after learning Vietnamese for interrogation purposes, he was sent to Con Thien where for thirty days he endured the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacking in human waves. It was here that John earned his first Purple Heart. John left the mud hole that was Con Thien and arrived, with what remained of Alpha Company, in Phu Bai and had his first hot meal and shower in months. Then, around midnight, enemy rockets fell on the camp. Being “Jarheads,” John and his buddies joked around and played games like “Run-Between-the-Rockets.” This was no big deal compared to Con Thien.

During the Tet Offensive of 30 January 1968, John and the other 150 Marines of Alpha Company were called up to Hue to help a Military Assistance and Command Vietnam (MACV) compound. 150 Marines … against as it turned out, an NVA Division … 10,000 strong. Timely and much needed reinforcements led to some of the most fierce fighting of the war, the battle for Hue City, which lasted over a month. But US forces eventually regained control of the ancient capital of Vietnam, and John earned two additional Purple Hearts.

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“Our flags unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in ev’ry clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far off northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes;
You will find us always on the job –
The United States Marines”

For the first half of our trip, John was quiet and reserved. However, a few days ago we arrived in Hue and, as we were driving, he spotted a bridge on the Perfume River, a bridge that looked eerily similar to one he helped to destroy in 1968. It inspired him to get up in front of everyone and talk about how 150 Marines crossed that bridge, and within about an hour, 50 were dead or wounded. John said the river, and the bridge on it, focused the war for him. It was the first thing he recognized, and the first thing to make him truly aware that he was back in Vietnam.

Our journey is almost at an end, but it has been one of the most important experiences of my life. My grandfather served in Vietnam, and was a Marine. He came home physically, but not mentally, and died when I was very young. I never had the chance to talk to him about his experiences, but I am honoring my grandfather by wearing his cap or “cover” as the Marines call it. And I am honored beyond words to have a United States Marine as my veteran. John often says to me, “I have trouble thinking of Vietnam as history.” To him, he was simply going there to do a job, and to fulfill his duty as an American citizen. On this trip, I have wondered what constitutes a hero. To me, a hero is someone who sacrifices everything for someone or something outside of themselves. And to me, at least, that defines my veteran, Mr. John Ligato.

“Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States’ Marines.”

Devan Spady

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Proud to be a “Replacement”

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“I knew I would not die on the battlefield, because I had other things to do.” Colonel Bill Duncan was right; the Lord still had a long life and many plans for him to carry out. Col. Duncan was born in Texas and enlisted into the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 17. He had expressed to me at the beginning of the trip that he had wanted to be a warrior from a very young age. He acquired the title of Commander of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division in Vietnam. Throughout his 31 year military career, Col. Duncan served in more than 80 countries and received many decorations including the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, two Purple Hearts, a Marine Command Medal, and 22 area and combat decorations from his service in Korea, Borneo, Malaysia, Africa, and Vietnam. He retired from the Marines in 1979 as a Colonel of Infantry and Special Reconnaissance Operations and then founded the CIS Church Development Foundation and, along with his family, spent 18 years in the former Soviet Union working in Christian ministry. He is also co-founder of Veterans Against Jihadism. Colonel Duncan is married to his high school sweetheart, Arlene, and now lives in Bentonville, Arkansas. He has also been blessed with four daughters, two of which have been adopted from Russia. As you can see, Colonel Bill Duncan has lived a very busy and fulfilling life.

I was surprised and pleased to have the opportunity to meet Col. Duncan two days before we left for Vietnam. The group was having a last minute trip meeting when I walked into the Presidential Board Room and was greeted by the Colonel. I had no idea who he was but he knew me. “Are you Taylor?” A little confused, I responded with a “Yes sir!” His face lit up. “I do believe you’re my host for this trip!” Right away I walked over and stuck out my hand for a proper shake but was pulled in by a warm embrace that was much like a grandpa’s. We hit it off from the start as we were both excited to start this journey together. Throughout this last week, I have learned more than I could have possibly imagined. Col. Duncan is an overflowing fount of knowledge, and I have yet to stump him on a single question. He is one of the sweetest, most gentle and loving men I have ever met, making it hard picturing him as a rough and tough Marine Colonel. At the beginning of this trip, he explained to me that he didn’t want to come back to Vietnam, but after praying and seeking God’s help, he felt like he was supposed to return to teach us, his “replacements,” the importance of this war as well as to honor the men who died while serving.

Yesterday we had the opportunity to visit a couple of the sites where the Colonel fought, but the moment that will forever be etched in my mind was when we were at Con Thien, north of Hue, near the former DMZ. Col. Duncan told us a beautifully haunting story about fighting, honor, and brotherhood. It was by far the most emotional part of the trip for me. The Colonel’s men were engaged in a fierce fight and NVA artillery fire inflicted many casualties upon them. The Battalion doctor refused to take responsibility for which men were too wounded to be saved, leaving that decision to the Colonel. As he retold the story and his voice quivered, my heart broke as did most others in our group. He had been placed in an impossible situation of having to pick one brother over another. But the Lord used him to love and show compassion to those in their last minutes of life as he stayed with them until each had drawn their last breathe.

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The Colonel once told me, “I did whatever I had to do to save my men, myself and my country.” These are the words of a true hero, a man who put his life on the line to ensure the freedom of future generations around the world. Thank you Colonel Bill Duncan.

Taylor Johnson

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“Just Doing My Job”

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Colonel Donald E. Ballard, or as I and many others call him, “Doc,” enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1965. Doc originally wanted to be a Dentist and joined the Navy to help pay for his education. He had no idea he would be deployed to Vietnam. Doc was selected for service in the Marines in 1966 and was assigned the First Battalion, Sixth Marine Division. Doc served as a frontline Combat Corpsman and had a life changing event on May 16, 1968. In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, the NVA launched a fierce assault on the Marine position at Khe Sanh, which was in the northwestern corner of the former South Vietnam, near the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. While treating a wounded soldier, an enemy grenade landed nearby. Doc dove for it, tucked it in under his chest, then decided to throw it away saving many American lives.

On May 14, 1970, President Richard Nixon presented Doc with our nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, for his heroic action. Doc also received eight Purple Hearts for wounds he received in combat. Doc explained that he wears the Medal of Honor for every brother who was lost in Vietnam and for the people who saved his own life. After the Vietnam War, Doc joined the Army and was stationed in Japan as well as the States performing orthopedic and neurological surgeries. He returned to his hometown, Kansas City, MO, and served as a Fire Department Captain and since 2000 he has owned and operated a funeral home business dedicated to helping veterans and their families who cannot pay for their burial expenses.

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My father served in and survived the Vietnam War, but it was not until he passed away and I was presented a burial military flag that the true impact of war hit me. My dad never spoke of the war, but as one of the veterans on the trip explained to me, no veteran will willingly speak about it; they simply think we won’t care. Yet as students, we do care and our veterans are willing to share their stories with us. I have learned so much from all these men and women; they are answering questions I wish I had asked my dad long ago. Never miss an opportunity–I have learned this lesson the hard way. And don’t let bad experiences keep you from learning. As Doc explained, you don’t forget the past by washing away the blood from your hands or wounds. He was conflicted about returning to Vietnam; “Why come back to a place you spent your whole life trying to forget?” But he stated difficult situations make you stronger and no man left Vietnam the same as when he arrived. As Stephen Crane put it, “You can’t choose your battlefield, God does that for you, but you can plant a standard where a standard never flew.”

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Today we visited the Khe Sahn battle site. Doc recounted his job and day to day duties. He pointed out the rugged mountains and retold, reluctantly, the story of his heroic deed. To hear Doc tell it, he and the other veterans were just doing their jobs. But sometimes, an ordinary man just doing his job becomes an extraordinary experience. I’m so thankful for my relationship with COL Donald “Doc” Ballard and all the veterans. Today, Doc makes people around him laugh; he said he had to learn to laugh because he spent so much time shedding tears in Vietnam.

Sara Cochran

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Observations

We have been “in country” for a week and have had a variety of experiences with Vietnam and its people. Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words. We will use far fewer and instead rely on the photography of Mr. John Luck to convey our observations thus far. In short, Vietnam seems to be a enigma–a communist state that embraces capitalism, and a forward looking but backward living country in many aspects of daily life.

Pristine Government Buildings and Depressed Homes

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Urbanization and Scooters (with Face masks)

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Jungles, Mountains, and Beaches

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Stern-looking yet Friendly to Americans

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“Just What the Nurse Ordered”

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Mrs. Lou Eisenbrandt, whom I’ve now come to refer to as Mrs. Lou, is a native of Mascoutah, Illinois. Before Mrs. Lou’s senior year of her nursing program she volunteered for an Army program which paid her a salary to finish school. In return, she was required to serve her country for two years. In 1968, Mrs. Lou went to officer’s basic training at Ft. Sam Houston, and upon completion was given her first orders to report to Ft. Dix in New Jersey. After nine months, she received a manilla envelope which said, “Congratulations, you’re going to Vietnam.” Mrs. Lou arrived in Vietnam and was asked where she would like to go. She knew nothing about the country, so she randomly put her finger on the map and said, “This looks like a pretty good place.” Mrs. Lou was assigned to the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai where she remained for the rest of her time in Vietnam. Her first three months at the 91st Evac was spent in a medical ward where she cared for soldiers who were hospitalized for reasons other than war wounds. After three months, Mrs. Lou was asked if she would like to serve in the ER; she accepted. Mrs. Lou spent the rest of her time in Vietnam treating many different types of war injuries and saving as many lives as possible.

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When I learned that I was going to be paired with the only female veteran on the trip, I was excited beyond words because she would provide a completely different perspective of the war, in addition to being a nurse. And unlike most of the other veterans, Mrs. Lou has been back to Vietnam on several previous occasions. With that in mind, both of us understood that our experience would most likely be different than most of the other veteran-student pairs, and agreed that we were both interested in observing the other veteran’s reactions to being back in Vietnam.

We were not sure what to expect from the veterans who had not been back since the war, but we are astonished at the poise and composure of these men. As far as we can tell, all of the veterans are overjoyed to have this experience. We have observed that they are willing to share story after story with us. We have also observed how amazed the veterans are at the dramatic urbanization of the places where they fought over 40 years ago. Finally, we have observed that for some of the veterans, being on this trip and seeing how much this country has changed has provided a sense of calm for their minds and hearts.

We are only half way through our adventure, and Mrs. Lou and I are having a wonderful experience. We are observing, learning, and listening to the veterans, and laughing most of the time about how much I like food. I could not have received a higher honor than being paired with Mrs. Lou Eisenbrandt. Thank you for your companionship on this trip; thank you for your service; and thank you for the lives you have saved.

Chase Davis

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