Monday, October 12, 2009

Washington, DC

Washington D.C. was the last part of our journey that took us from home, to Vietnam, back home, then to D.C. I thought it was fitting to take Dad to the nation’s capitol since we had the opportunity to visit Vietnam’s capitol two months prior. All decisions on war come from this city. I am reminded often that Washington D.C. is our city. We the people own it. The monuments, memorials, and museums are open to all with free admission. We can enjoy many things that make us proud to be Americans. However, D.C. is also a place where we can go to voice our concerns, to march, to protest. I’m taken back to all the images and footage of the many protests of the Vietnam War. It was a troubling time of complex issues. Many people wanted their country out of a war with a seemingly lacking purpose. The media were handcuffed or handcuffed themselves with information and misinformation. The administrations sunk deeper into political turmoil, personal gains, and indecisiveness. And stuck in the middle were the soldiers who were fighting for a freedom that they were told was in jeopardy.

In D.C. there are breathtaking monuments to presidents that inspire the individual to rise up to accomplish great things. There is the Washington Monument standing taller than all others, seen from great distances, providing an exclamation point, reminding the country of our liberty and unity. There is the White House, whose occupant we have the right to choose, to lead us as we need in good times and in bad. There is the Capitol spread out and expanding, providing structure and stability, while reaching to the sky in grasps of progress. There is the Lincoln Memorial with its steps, one after another climbing to reach one of the best views in the nation. The steps are reminders of our past struggles, of our troubled history, but also of our triumphant glories. You can’t help but here Martin Luther King’s voice with each step as you ascend to visit Lincoln. And then off to the left, looking back out into the mall, huddled in the trees, humble and sincere is the Vietnam Memorial.

Our walk to the Vietnam Memorial, or “The Wall” as many refer to it, was similar to our trip to Vietnam. I had no idea how my father would react when seeing it. We walked through the trees from the Reflecting Pool and came over a hill to see the wall unfold in front of us. Its power, persona; its spirit and haunting reverence attracts you. We entered similar to how you enter a cold swimming pool, slowly wading in the shallow end until your body gets used to the new environment. However, I can’t say we became comfortable in a typical sense, but we felt welcomed. A pair of memorial assistants asked my son where he got his Vietnam hat and we began telling them of Dad’s journey back to Vietnam just a few months prior. My father spoke with them for a while then decided to try to find two people that he knew on the wall from his hometown. We discovered the book to help us locate the names but only found one. We searched every possible spelling for the other but turned up nothing. I could see my father’s frustration and imagined many other veterans returning to find people they have lost in this sea of names. And all they want is to visit those names etched in the black marble, to see those faces in their memories, to be reunited on different terms, and to say good bye or maybe even hello.

Although my father found one name in the wall, I knew he was bothered by the many others he had known or had seen killed in Vietnam without names he could remember. He still saw their faces in his dreams, in the day and in the night. As we left he told me again about a guy who was there less than a week, who walked right into a landmine right in front of him and blew up. He said, “I didn’t even know his name. He wasn’t there long enough. I didn’t get to know him. He just got blown to pieces. It was our landmine. He blew up.” As he started walking up and out of the memorial, I could tell that there were tears swelling up behind his sunglasses. I could tell the true weight of the wall, the true weight of the war, in how my father walked. He got to the end of the memorial and stopped with the Washington Monument behind in the distance. He was fighting in Vietnam for that monument, that symbol, that liberty. But now all he could see were the names in the wall and his own face forty years older reflected in the black marble.

The Vietnam Memorial is not a celebration of triumph, but it is not a concession of defeat. It is neither. It is a memorial, a quiet place for introspection and a place to remember people who have passed on. It is a place for reunion and reminders of the outcomes of war. It is an honest reminder that many people lose their lives, good people enter and exit differently. For some, war is quick and final, leaving voids for those left behind to never fill. For others, war lives on every day and every night, echoing the past over and over. The subtle wall is a quiet reminder of these things that we must keep with us. We must help each other, just as the many Vietnamese wanted to help my father while we were there. They wanted the past to be behind him. They wanted him to see the bright future as we continue to learn from the past. We must respect each other and our differences, just as my mother and father immersed themselves in the culture of Vietnam, using chopsticks, bowing in temples. A foreign country is not so foreign when you understand the rich diversity of people and the interrelated family of humanity. We must listen to each other, especially when someone lacks the voice or emotional strength to fully share something important. Speaking can only be productive when actively engaging in listening. We can’t help others unless we listen to them. And we must remember that we are all in this together. The issues that my father has fought through for forty years had an enormous effect on my family and on me from childhood to today. But because I love him more than anything and I know that I am not the only child of a veteran, I take war very seriously. If there is one thing that this whole project has taught me, it’s that we should avoid war at all costs because the costs of war are beyond what any one person can understand or be forced to endure.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

West Virginia

Now back from Vietnam, we’ve had time to digest all that we took in while a half a world away. People have been very supportive the whole way through this project and are very interested in the trip now that we are back. I am often asked how my father handled going back to Vietnam. I tell them that it seems that he needed the last forty years to prepare for his return. And although there were difficult moments, he was able to appreciate all the things he saw this time around and all those people he met. I had no idea how he would take being back in the place of his flashbacks, but I have to say that his ability to achieve what he did is a testament to all the hard work he’s put into his life after his return in 1970. I am also quite often asked if I think he reached some sort of closure. I asked my father the same question, although I knew the basic answer. He said he does not know what closure is. He will always have the memories, the nightmares, and the past can’t be erased. But now he has other images to go along with the war images. I now understand that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not something that can easily go away, it is something that needs to be acknowledged honestly and negotiated with care. It is something that is personal and something that needs family. But it is also something that no one other than someone who has the same experience can truly understand. My father has been working on finding those people he was in the Army with for about five years now. And now only two months after returning from our trip to Vietnam, I was able to take my father on yet another adventure to meet up with a man he hasn’t seen in thirty-nine years.

After returning form Vietnam, I decided to invite my father to travel to Washington D.C. with my son and I. I wanted our three generations to visit the Vietnam Wall. A day before our drive he informed me that someone he was in Vietnam with lives in West Virginia, a state we would be driving through the next day, and wondered if we could visit him. The coincidence was amazing and seemed meant to be. We traveled all day and met whom my father still refers to as “County” in the hotel lobby. The greetings were warm as they stood looking at each other. Right away my father said to the man facing him, “you look just the same.” And Country said the same back to him. My father over the years has spoken quite a bit about Country. In fact he was able to find him just a few years ago and called him on the phone. When they were about to hang up Country said, “I am so glad you called, you made my day.” Now they were face-to-face, thirty-nine years after they last saw each other. They sat down and my father pulled out his photo album with a picture of himself, Country, and a few others. My father pointed at the photo and remarked about how Country always had an apple, then reached in his bag, pulled out an apple, and handed it over. The man next to him gave a smile and their conversation took off. They shared their memories, helped each other remember names and places, and the whole time Country took bites out of his apple. You could see the pieces fitting together. Where my father had forgotten, Country could remember, and vice versa. They sat on that couch together in the hotel lobby for hours that night, sharing back and forth their combined memories. You could see their relief.

Veterans need veterans. I can’t help my father in ways that Country can. I don’t know what those two men went through, even though they shared their stories with me. Their bond is cemented in something very difficult and something that cannot have closure. But I’ve realized that closure or forgetting may not be the answer. There is no answer when your past follows you around. You can’t outrun Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You can only work through it in your own way, at your own pace, at your own time. It is something very personal and individual and requires patience, respect, and love.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Friends Abound

Ed, Carla, and Chris Wubbena recently completed their trip to Vietnam. It was Ed's first time in that country since the conclusion of the Vietnam War. In the coming weeks, we'll have more information about their trip and the Speaking While Listening art project.

In his last audio journal entry, Chris talks about a stop at the Cao Dai Holy See and an encounter with a woman who also survived the war.

After riding back down the mountain our driver took us to the Cao Dai Holy See, which is a temple for a religion unique to Vietnam called Cao Dai. We entered the temple and were overwhelmed by the vibrant colors and imagery. We walked around the perimeter of the temple taking photos, when a woman approached my father. She was small with white hair, 70 years old, and dressed in white, which indicated that she was a follower of Cao Dai. She, as many have, asked my father where he was from and they immediately struck up a conversation.

She talked about her trip to the US. She talked about loving the fruit in the U.S., especially cherries. She talked about how big everything was in the U.S. She spoke with such delight in the things she was saying. You could tell that my mother and father loved talking to her.

Then at one point in the conversation the topic of my father being in the war came up. It has come up in every conversation we have had. My father mentions that he was here in Vietnam 40 years ago. When it comes up in conversation, I always wonder what the other person will say and am always surprised by the response. When he told her he was in the war she said that he was lucky to have made it out of the war and he said so was she. After that, she pointed out the window to the distance, indicating where she lived and then told us that there was bombing around her house during the war.

I think if there is one thing that we are learning from this trip, it is that war can destroy land, it can eliminate people, it can do any number or horrible things; but it cannot totally take away what is good. We have met so many people here who have greeted us with such warmth and generosity. Total strangers who want to talk to us, who want to hear about us and share about themselves. This trip to Vietnam is about reconciling the past for my father, but it has grown into more than that. I think that more than anything this trip is confirming that the past is history and the present is filled with many friends and family who love him and support him, and that those friends are not just in the United States, but in Vietnam as well.

Listen to Chris talk about his father's experience at the Cao Dai Holy See.

Nui Ba Den

Following their visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Ed, Carla, and Chris Wubbena headed to Nui Ba Dan. Chris anticipated that this would be the most emotional leg of their travels. He wrote:

Nui Ba Den is a mountain in the southwest part of Vietnam near Cambodia. It isn’t a part of a mountain range, but rises out of the flat rice fields that surround it. In 1969, when my father was firing howitzers just outside of Tay Ninh, Nui Ba Den was their target. The mountain was a hotly contested site as it sat at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route stretching from north to south for the North Vietnamese. There were North Vietnamese troops attempting to take the mountain and US troops trying to prevent it. And it is this mountain that I have heard my father talk about more than anything else. We were finally back.

As we drove up to the mountain where we were going to enter a park to take a lift up the mountain, I wondered what this must mean for my father. Is this going to be the pinnacle of the trip? Is this going to be greatest emotional test? What is going to be revealed from this trip, today, here, at this former battle zone? Then my father said, “well this is the closest I’ve ever been to the mountain,” and it seemed that he was at peace with the mountain and that maybe I was anticipating the wrong thing.

We took cable car lifts up to a Temple for the Black Virgin, which the mountain is named after. The temple was beautiful. After taking innumerable photos we sat to take a break. All of a sudden a man we had spoken to earlier came and sat down beside my father and began to ask where he was from and things like that. Ultimately we met his family and learned that they were from Ho Chi Minh City. It was such delightful conversation outside of the temple that we almost forgot to go inside. The conversation ended after the man gave my father his phone number just in case he needed any help when in Ho Chi Minh City.

Listen to Chris talk about their visit to the Nui Ba Den.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Remnants of War

After checking out Reunification Palace, Ed, Carla, and Chris visited the emotional War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Chris wrote:

Inside the War Remnants Museum we were confronted with disturbing images of the war. With documentation from a North Vietnamese perspective each image was displayed in gruesome detail. The whole exhibit was a reminder of why war should be avoided at all costs. There were sections of the museum that both my mother and father had to leave. I saw my mother tear up when seeing the affects that agent orange had on children. If that wasn’t bad enough, she had to leave yet again when she saw more images of the affects of agent orange still on children today. The brutal honesty of the museum was hard to take at some moments, maybe even most moments, but it was a truthful reflection of war from the people whose land the war was fought on.

Outside of the War Remnants Museum we saw a collection of old US war planes, tanks, and artillery. Right away, my father found the howitzer that he used to operate. I felt like I knew this large weapon personally. Over the past five years, since my father started talking about his involvement in the war, he has detailed his job as a gunner. As he stood at the howitzer he started to tell us again how the machine worked. It was nice to actually see one as he told the story. I imagined a 19 year old boy working this large metal creature. He retold the stories in great detail. It always seems like it is a load off of his chest every time he tells us about being a gunner and this time it seemed to be even more.

first full day in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon to many, was full of emotions. We saw the affects of war and a country united. But there are things that can’t be seen, which are the most important parts of our trip. There are the memories of my father, both good and bad, the time in his life that is forever sealed in his memory, the times that he cannot get back or get away from. There are the many people who have been killed in war, who remain in the hearts of many still to this day. There is the confusion of war in general. But there is also the independence of a country that you cannot physically see. I am reminded of the people we have already met here since being in Vietnam. We can feel their intense pride in what they have accomplished as a people and as a country. They now have their country and they have been more than happy to share it with us and we are eternally grateful.

Monday, August 3, 2009

This Is Good For Vietnam

Ed, Carla, and Chris Wubbena visited Ho Chi Minh City, also known at Saigon. They first went to the Notre Dame Cathedral and the main post office. At the post office, they were greeted by large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, a stark reminder of Vietnam’s communist regime. They also visited Reunification Palace. Chris wrote:

We continued on our journey to Reunification Palace the sight of the dramatic last days of the war when the North Vietnamese tanks came storming in. It was amazing to think that this was the place where South Vietnamese forces and US military met to discuss war strategy. This was somewhat the center of the war.

We looked through the gates and I could tell that my father was having trouble with seeing the palace. It now stands as a symbol of victory and loss; victory for Vietnam and loss for the US. He stood there and said, “This is good for Vietnam. They now have their country and they can do with it what they want to.” And he said, “It was never our country.” And he was right. Vietnam had been under the rule of other countries for it’s entire existence and they wanted independence. That realization seemed to be an easing gratification but also a bitter pill. He was thinking about all of those US soldiers who had died for a cause that was not realized, but he was seeing the benefits of the Vietnamese having independence. And the most important thing is that he has seen the same pride in country coming from the Vietnamese here that he himself shows in his own country. I could see that his mind was reeling trying to come to terms with the contradictive perspectives.

Listen to Chris as he talks about his father's impressions of Ho Chi Minh City.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Art Brings Old Enemies Together

Ed, Carla, and Chris Wubbena visited the Hanoi Art University, and met with the former president and current president of the Vietnam Fine Art Association. The meeting brought former enemies to the same table. Below are some of Chris' impressions.

My mother and father had a great time seeing the students and looking at their artwork. We were also shown the University’s Art Museum where they had photos of the University in wartime. They explained to us that the school had to be moved to the countryside because it was being bombed by the US. After we were told that, I saw my father going over each photo, and I could tell that it was bothering him. He asked me to take photos of the photos and he said, he couldn’t believe that they had to move their art school because of what our country had done.

The day wound down nicely with a meeting with the former president and current president of the Vietnam Fine Art Association. The conversation was warm but ultimately found its way to the subject of war. The president mentioned, as he looked at my father, that he was in the war and although they were on different sides, that the war was in the past. Then he looked at me and said that now we have a new generation to help. I could not have said it better.

I am always amazed at what art can do. Our trip here to Vietnam began as an idea for a new body of artwork to explore the Vietnam/American War from many sides, from the side of US soldiers, to Vietnamese soldiers, to sons and daughters of veterans. But it has already grown to be much more. We have been reminded of who our friends are and have made wonderful new friends already throughout this project. Art has brought my father, mother, and I to Vietnam to understand all of our parts in true history and the celebration of cultures. I undoubtedly know that this is not only helping my father with his involvement in the war, it is helping others as well, both in the US and Vietnam.