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The Great Snuffie Trek Home

Get some. I’m not sure what that some was anymore. A remnant of war, slip of the past, a time when everything was at its worse and you and the men around you were at their best—when you were really one for all and all for one? But, in our case, to get some meant you had to get there.

Enter Tim Davis and The Greatest Generations Foundation. Capt. Dale Dye, USMC Ret., a fellow First Marine Division Combat Correspondent had gotten to know Davis a few years ago. A trip most of us avoided for 50 years was in the brewing. A trip down the rabbit hole.

Some of the guys already prepared for an emotional ambush. We were U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents, and our Holy Grail was the press pass. It was the most bastard unit in Vietnam—in any war for that matter—and it was also one of the most casualty-ridden. One of our fellow loose cannons was Gustav Hasford, now deceased, author of the novel The Short Timers, which was turned into the movie Full Metal Jacket. Other correspondents had slipped beyond the perimeter. Now, seven remained who agreed to make the run, eleven Purple Hearts and three Bronze Star Medals for valor between them. Mostly sergeants at the time, they included Dale Dye, Mike Stokey, Steve Berntson, Robert Bayer, Eric Grimm, Richard Lavers, and Frank Wiley. We signed the dotted line to go back again. To go back with each other. To go back alone? Sorry ‘bout that.

As TGGF had planned previous WWII veterans’ tours, ours was tailored to our particular battlefields. For Nam, it wasn’t so easy. There were few landmarks as in Europe. There were no markers pinpointing beachheads in the Pacific. Most of our fighting was in the jungles and rice paddies, places unrecoverable, impossible to retrace, impossible to find or plant your feet on again. There were exceptions, static outposts like Khe Sanh and, in our case, the infamous battle for Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. So, along with Danang and An Hoa, that was our itinerary.

Retracing their locations seemed accessible for Berntson and Dye. Their moments were smack dab inside the Citadel on the north side of Hue. They were already honed in, and with the help of our Vietnamese guide, Phan Van Vinh, they found the exact spots where they became casualties.

Hoping to vanquish some of the demons he carried, Berntson brought the shrapnel they dug out of him when he was wounded—a collection he brought for a donation. He found his spot, doggedly climbed the steep, uneven stairs onto a sloping hill. An odd site for a deposit—or so the raucous patrons of a close-by bar must have thought. They watched this American, obviously a veteran, struggle with his cane and emotions. And the dancing and din and music went soft. They knew why he got his wounds. By the time Berntson threw the twisted bits of metal into the dirt there wasn’t a breath.

Down the road, barely a block away, Dye recreated his own crucible. Leaning to fire around a corner, a sniper opened up on his flank. One round hit his rifle stock, sending a piece of plastic up through his chin, pinning his tongue to the roof of his mouth. One of his more fortunate wounds. Bullet holes were still in the wall above his head.

I may have been the only one who didn’t anticipate a trigger. My face-downs with terror came in the bush. Except for smells, what was there to find? In Hue I escaped unscathed, physically and psychically, and had no ghosts in waiting. But the funny thing is, I think mine came first, on our second day in Danang.

We were taken to a tiny bar called Tam’s in the midst of the teeming ramshackle jungle of Danang. I don’t know why it hit me so hard. Like the time I was struck by the first round fired before there was the urgency to duck. It smacked me like a shockwave.

Like the others, I entered the shack which advertised food and beer and scooters and surfboards. I didn’t notice any surfboards or scooters because I was drawn into the shack like a tunnel. Gilding the walls were hundreds of photos of the war and soldiers who fought for the south. It was like a blast furnace sucking me into the heat. Photos everywhere, on the walls, the furniture, the shelves. Snapshots of Marines in villages, soldiers on the hump, soldiers holding babies. There was old, rotted military fatigues and gear, canteen cups, and jungle boots. They still had a smell to them. Grunts know it; a mixture of dirt and chlorophyll, sweat and blood. A dank, sick sweetness. There were old dog tags. I picked one up to take a look when Tam, the owner, pulled me down to talk.

She spoke in good English. She was 65, yet to those of us who still seemed spry, she seemed the perfect caricature of an elderly mama-san. Hell, we were older than her. She spoke fast, her words a rush, incredibly grateful to host veterans in her pub. And she talked.

As a young teen, the Viet Cong gave her a booby-trapped Coke can and told her to walk it to the 1st Marine Division security gate. Rounding the hill and out of sight, she struggled with pidgin English to tell the guards it was a bomb. She pleaded with them to safely explode it nearby. The explosion was important—proof to the VC she delivered the device. There were other tests, but in time the Americans left and the communist armies swept south. Declining to join the exodus of boat people, she was ushered to one of the notorious reeducation camps.

After her release, she eventually opened her pub. As more photos went up, more pressure by the state was applied. Through the years she had been closed down, maligned by the press, jailed for treason, and unremittingly threatened. Even today it wasn’t completely safe. But things were looking up and opening up.

I listened and looked around again. Then I saw another photo…of a buddy I wasn’t able to save. It wasn’t him, but it looked like him, enough to send me plummeting.

I needed air and it all flooded back, the staggering memories, the hurt and despair, overwhelmed again by the carefully buried loss and futility. It was a 30-second shutdown, another 30 to stop the tears and shakes. My brothers stood guard…but left me alone. In a flat minute I was collected again because there’s no point being stuck on a battlefield. And through it all Vietnam seemed just fine.

That was the hardest to reconcile. It wasn’t just us. Tam was stuck, too. Stuck in her courageous shrine.

Socialist slogans and billboards abounded. Propaganda was sublime. The museums would impress Lewis Carroll. While I found great humor in it, Dale Dye did not, refusing even to enter the museum at Khe Sanh. As I opined to a Dutch tourist who was visiting the plateau, “I knew we lost the war. But I didn’t know until now that we lost every battle.” But the North Vietnamese weren’t the only ones who penned the history of the war.

Flags flourished everywhere you looked or drove, outside every house, hotel, and hamlet. Typically, a secondary flag with a gold hammer and sickle flew adjacent. You don’t know if they are planted by the government or are displayed by the people lest the bureaucrats suspect their allegiance. When the Montagnards have flags flapping outside their huts, you know Big Brother is watching.

City life is noisy and vibrant. As Dye so eloquently alluded to in his final post, it may call itself the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but the thriving underbelly of capitalism is alive and kicking. And that was tough to resolve. Lest you think this evolution is automatic, I posit a little shop of horrors called North Korea.

You still see scores of caged chickens and piglets on the backs of motor scooters but now the drivers are texting. The burgeoning population of dogs are well-groomed and there’s scarcely a sight of beetle nut. The girls wear masks (for pollution) and fewer ao dais. Ramshackle huts fill the urban sprawl but so do luxurious hotels. Our interpreter, Vinh, tells us even the water bo are friendly. Most impressive of all, a massive fire-breathing Dragon Bridge spans the River Han in Danang. Welcome to the new Nam, Skippy.

As of our arrival, Vietnamese likeability of Americans hovered at 87%, compared with a 13% favorability for the Russians and Chinese. If America shunned her surviving troops, the South Vietnamese seemed to acknowledge them. Worth it? It has to be. Along with the wall, it’s all we got. But it would not be so if Oliver Stone’s portrayal of our troops was all we left in our wake.

Finally, we begin to pack our gear. This just in: Students and teachers riot, burn the American flag at Berkeley. No, the headline isn’t from the Chronicle’s morgue in the ‘60s. The news is current.

Ten heady days and we were back on the Freedom bird, heading back to the Land of the Big PX. Ten days of grace and glee and ghosts with our brothers. And gratitude. It was Tim Davis and The Greatest Generations Foundation staff, Brandon Cope, John Riedy, Embry Rucker, Adam Weissman, Jason Inglis, Jeffrey Nuttall, and two fellow veterans, James Hackett and William Reynolds, who generously and gratefully took us back inside the wire.

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Michael Stokey served three consecutive tours in Vietnam during which he was involved in some of that conflict’s most brutal fighting. His book River of Perfumes is gritty and emotional, capturing the contradictions of the times and what the brutality of war does to young men in battle, and a country that stayed home and abandoned them.

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