For sixteen months, in 1967 and 1968, I served in Vietnam, assigned to the 214th Combat Aviation Battalion, a unit of the 1st Aviation Brigade. We were physically headquartered at Camp Bearcat, the home 9th Infantry Division. Our primary mission was flying support for 9th Division.
Camp Bearcat, a sprawling base that was hacked out of the jungle by the Army Corp of Engineers, was in the middle of nowhere, less than 30 miles, as-the-crow-flies, from Saigon, 7 miles from Long Binh, the home of a huge logistical base that included the Army finance center for the entire III Corp Area, our immediate command, 14th Aviation Group, Lycoming Engine Companies’ on site offices, and countless other centers that sprawled over the huge complex. A couple of miles from Long Binh, just across Highway 5, the only paved highway to Saigon, was Bien Hoa Airbase, the second busiest airport in the world: the busiest was Ton Son Nhut, in Saigon.
We couldn’t bring all of our supplies in by chopper, so we usually had two or three trucks on the road between Bearcat, Long Binh, Saigon, and Bien Hoa. There was no shortage of volunteers to man the trucks in spite of the danger. There’s a line in Billy Joel’s song Goodnight Saigon, that explains the problem – “We held the day in the palm of our hands – They ruled the nights, and the nights seemed to last as long as six weeks.” After dark the road wasn’t secure. Occasionally Viet Cong snipers worked the road for an hour or two after daybreak, but the biggest issue was landmines left by the VC the night before. Everyone knew that, and still there was no shortage of volunteers to get out of Bearcat for a while.
The road to Bearcat ran from Long Than, a tiny hamlet made up of a few farming families and a small detachment of ARVN (Army of Vietnam). The ARVN were often the target of VC attacks. When they occurred, the ARVN radioed us, and we put a couple of gunships in the air to try to find the VC. We never did, but after the excitement, we usually managed to sleep the rest of the night. When I was in Vietnam and for years afterwards, I wondered about the families who lived in Long Than, and how they could stand living between two opposing forces the way they did. Many times, I flew over or rode through their hamlet and marveled at their serenity as they worked their rice paddies, played with their families, and cared for their small herd of livestock and flock of ducks. It seemed I was more concerned for them than they were.
I returned to Vietnam in 1993 to find out if I’d created a myth about the place, or if it was the geographical center of my life. I had a short list of places I wanted to visit. On the list was Saigon, Bien Hoa, Long Binh, Long Than, and Camp Bearcat. At Bien Hoa, I saw the old French barracks that had been occupied by the U.S. Air Force when I was there. We used to go by those barracks, when we had time, slip into the latrines and flush the toilets, just to hear that sound of home. There was nothing at Long Binh. In fact, had it not been for the crossroad, I would not have known it was Long Binh, the home of a major U.S. military base.
At Long Than, what appeared to be the same families, same rice paddies, same water buffalo, and same ducks, were still living and working in their serene fashion. The ARVN outpost was gone as though it were never there. In place of the outpost, there is a magnificent Buddha (that’s it in the photo). I asked my driver to pull off the highway, and I walked over to Buddha. I couldn’t talk, but Buddha read my thought – “What was that all about?” He spoke to me on the soft breeze that warmed the afternoon, “Before men can embrace peace, there is war. Now the war is over, and peace is here.”
Back in the car, my driver/translator asked, “You like Buddha?”
Still not trusting myself to speak, I nodded. He smiled and said, “Good,” and we drove away. But I haven’t forgotten Buddha, and what he told me that day. His words can be applied to every aspect of my life, and since writing is now a major part of my life, I often hear him say, “Before you can write, you must find peace in your heart.”