As I journey through life I am always learning new things and one of the most important things that I have learned recently is that perspective is everything. That may seem a rather bold, even all-encompassing statement but I don’t make it without giving it due consideration as to why I believe it to be the case. Perspective, or what I mean by the word, is that point of view or attitude which we hold in our hearts towards people, events, and even places. I bear witness to the fact that a perspective spawned by wounded memories is often the symbiotic twin of despondency. For that reason, when minds are full of the despair of the past they tend to call to remembrance every dark foreboding of which they have been witness. These are dredged up from their gloomy dungeon by circumstances or images in the present; a ruinous, self-defeating cycle. So it is, I believe, that if we allow the dark perspective to be master of the heart, it presents to our minds a cup of mingled gall and wormwood; a bitter cup indeed. This is the stuff of which post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) consists. While the perspective that accompanies PTSD may appear intractable, it needn't be so. Based on my experience, given the right circumstance our perspective can be as malleable as gold and in some cases that resultant change may be even more precious than gold. Here is the story of how my perspective was changed.
When I arrived in Tay Ninh City in the Republic of South Vietnam in October 1968, I was 21 years old and I was there to fight a war. My perspective at that time was that every Vietnamese person I looked at was a potential enemy. In order to understand that statement and how one could own such a deterministic point of view, you’d have to know that the enemy, the Vietcong, recruited not only men, but also women and children to do their fighting. In a very real sense and in every way Vietnam was a hostile environment. From my perspective as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, I was there to perform my duty; to fly combat missions. Since I had been trained to regard all Vietnamese as potential enemies, I expected that my missions would result in the death of many of them. So be it. In the performance of my duty, emotionally, I was prepared to decimate their villages and to destroy their property as necessary. It was war and bad things happen in war. This was not, strictly speaking, a uniquely American point of view, for even the Vietnamese people themselves have a proverb which acknowledges that in war, there is certitude of carnage which befalls the civilian population: When two water buffalo fight; the flies die.
My year at war came and went, and while only six months of it was in and around the environs of Tay Ninh City some of the most significant events of my entire life happened within a 20 mile radius of that place. The things that I remembered most about Tay Ninh and the things which have shaped my perspective on it are deep, painful, and have endured for over 45 years. My perspective was intractably etched in memories of gall and wormwood. I knew I was burdened by my war experiences but I didn’t know what to do about it. I thought that such sickness of soul was the natural, inevitable and everlasting consequence of the soldier’s war. I did not realize that the pain of my wartime memories could be resolved. Nonetheless, in April, 2013, when the opportunity arose to join a short term Christian mission to Vietnam I felt compelled to return to my former battleground. I was determined to revisit Tay Ninh during my travels through south and central Vietnam, hoping to find some closure for the forty-five year old wounds of war. Yesterday I returned to Tay Ninh City with my war-torn memories intact.
This time however, April 12th, 2013, the three-hour drive from Saigon to Tay Ninh was with Pastor Sang, a Vietnamese minister of the gospel who had survived as one of the almost two million refugees of the Vietnamese Boat People debacle. Subsequent to his escape from Vietnam, he had endured seven years of incarceration in Hong Kong as a detainee. His detention culminated in his being forcibly repatriated to Vietnam; a repatriation which he felt would doom him to a life of poverty and persecution. Pastor Sang knows something about perspectives and how they can change. And it was he, who agreed to shepherd me on my journey to Tay Ninh acting as my guide and interpreter. It turned out that Tay Ninh is also important to Sang because his father’s younger brother Vo also lives there with his family. Vo and Sang served their incarceration in Hong Kong together. As we drove along the highway toward the northwest out of Saigon our conversation was free ranging. Naturally, from my perspective the topics we discussed had to include some of my war stories about Tay Ninh but we mostly talked about Christian ministry and living the Christian life. As we progressed up the highway it did not escape my notice that traffic on the two lane road, which was in need of serious repair here and there, was fairly light. A couple of times I mentioned to Pastor Sang that it was actually quite pleasant to make this drive ‘when no one is shooting at you’. The first time I said that to him he looked at me with sort of an odd look on his face. And then I explained that every other time I had made the trip between Saigon and Tay Ninh I was flying a helicopter.
On those many trips, in addition to managing my piloting duties, I had to concern myself with the distinct possibility that someone might want to shoot me, or at least shoot at me. I had a vivid recollection of this particular road and I recognized many of its landmarks as navigation markers I had used to track my course on those flights. I also remembered that flying this route, as I approached Saigon, I was able to receive the Armed Forces Radio Network broadcast of current rock 'n roll hits that were most popular back in the “world” of 1968 (what we called the United States). Yesterday, as Sang and I made the drive we listened to Christian music and my perspective was slowly being altered, unconsciously, new memories were being formed. I also noticed that as light as the traffic was, there was a good deal more of it than I had ever observed on this road; more automobiles, more motorbikes, and more trucks. What I had never seen before along this route and which I was seeing now, was tour buses filled with foreign vacationers. Things had changed since 1968 and I was paying attention to the changes.
When we arrived in Tay Ninh City, Sang made a quick cell phone call to his uncle Vo, who told us to stay put where we were and he would come on his motorbike to guide us to our hotel. Within a few minutes Vo arrived and after a brief introduction, Vo speaking Vietnamese and I speaking English, he led us down some back streets to a ‘one star’ hotel where we would spend the night. I had never overnighted in the city of Tay Ninh because during the war the only relative safety available was inside the American base. There we were surrounded by concertina wire and perimeter guards and we had sandbagged bunkers available to us just in case. None of this was any guarantee of safety, but it was “safer”. This hotel would be a new experience for me.
We entered the old but clean hotel and as we approached the front desk, the faux marble tiles squeaked with each footstep; thus, announcing our arrival to the desk man who was dozing behind the desk. Sang requested to inspect the room before we agreed to take possession of it, so, the desk man escorted us to the broad stairway, up two flights to our double room. When we opened the oversized door it revealed a spacious room with a ten foot high ceiling containing two queen size beds and a single, freestanding, glass armoire. There were no pictures on the walls but we did have two geckos which had free reign to run on the considerable wall space available to them. The wall facing the street was all windows, waist to ceiling, covered by a sheer and a brightly colored, yellow curtain. We had a good view of the street. I poked my head into the bathroom which was completely tile: walls, floors and ceiling. There, to my dismay, I saw that the bathroom contained no shower stall or tub. What I did not know until Sang explained it to me was that this is the most common bathroom design for low budget Vietnamese hotels. Showers are taken using a hand sprayer which I located attached to the wall above a cold water spigot, under which sat a red bucket, half filled with water. I noticed a drain in one corner of the tile floor of the bathroom. I was pleased to see that at least the bathroom had a western style toilet, and a sink. For all this luxury and splendor I paid US$10. That's for two; no phone, no TV, no hot water, no other amenities; one star. We agreed to take it.
Since there was no parking on the street anywhere near the hotel, Sang was instructed to literally drive his vehicle into the open space that served as part-time lobby and part-time parking garage. I really had to smile at this parking arrangement because it is the custom in Vietnam and much of the rest of Asia to remove your shoes when entering a home and many businesses. So, we might remove our shoes upon entry but we would drive the vehicle into the hotel lobby. All of this was shaping new thoughts, creating new images and a slew of pleasant memories.
Sang's uncle lived only a few blocks away from the hotel so we decided that we would walk the distance along the residential streets to his house. There wasn't much traffic on these back streets and it was still daylight. I hadn’t really thought much about it but an American walking down the residential back streets of Tay Ninh City was apparently a novel sight. Along the way, many neighborhood residents were sitting outside of their homes passing time with one another as the day turned to evening and cooled. Nearly everyone smiled and waved as we passed and those who could manage the English said “good evening”. Apparently, the fact I was American seemed to delight them, especially the children. Things had certainly changed in Tay Ninh City. Within a few minutes we were at uncle Vo’s house.
Vo and his wife An met us at the curb wearing big smiles and welcoming us effusively to their typical Tay Ninh City home. We entered through a wrought iron fence into a vestibule area in which the street facing side was completely open. Baskets and plastic containers containing assorted ingredients used in the creation of the special sauce that the family produces for sale in the local markets lined both sides of the vestibule area. Before entering the home proper, we removed our shoes. As we entered, the first thing I noticed was a wooden shrine that took up considerable real estate along the far end wall. The rest of the space on that wall was occupied by an ancestor worship display containing pictures of Sang’s grandfather who died in his 50’s and his grandmother who deceased some years later. Sang’s uncle Vo and aunt An are nominal practitioners of the Cao Dai religion. Their daughter, Quan, who is in her mid-twenties, joined us presently. She is a practicing Christian, evangelized by Sang about two years previous. A three person, very firm sofa was the only available seat, so as the guests, it was offered to us. Vo pulled out from a storage area a folding chase lounge for himself and before he sat down, directed the flow of the fan so that we were the beneficiaries of its gentle, cooling airflow. Within a few minutes of our arrival Quan began bringing dinner out to us, placing the plates of food and our rice bowls on the rather smallish, rectangular coffee table. Although I was thoughtfully offered a fork and spoon I declined them in favor of chopsticks. I was attempting to fit into the culture rather than remaining aloof from it.
The main entrees of dinner consisted of rice, pork, and chicken. These were augmented by two different spicy Asian papaya salads which contained garlic and ginger as well as other ingredients with which I was unfamiliar. Condiments to accompany and enhance the meal included sprouts, basil, and mint. Everything was eaten on top of or mixed into the small bowl of rice we were each given. I found the two different dipping sauces superbly flavorful. The base ingredient of one sauce was Nuc Mam, a type of Vietnamese fish sauce, and the other was a sweet red chili sauce that immediately produced a volume of sweat on my forehead; it was that spicy, but very tasty. The meal was excellent. The company of Sang’s Vietnamese uncle, aunt, and cousin was delightful even though Quan was the only one of the three who had any command of English. I felt very welcomed and comfortable in their home.
Since they hadn't seen each other in several months, the evening passed largely in conversation between Sang and Vo, who were taking the opportunity to catch up on things. Sang explained to me that since he and Vo had endured so much suffering together, their relationship was more like that of brothers than uncle and nephew. Even though I never understood the words exchanged between them I could easily recognize the warm mutual regard contained in their voice tones and displayed by their touch and gestures as they conversed. Periodically, Vo had Sang ask me a few questions about my personal life but nothing about my war experience. For the majority of Vietnamese below the age of 50 the war is ancient history and so it is infrequently discussed. At the close of the evening Vo escorted Sang and I back to our hotel with a short detour through the marketplace.
Even though it was already 9:00 PM, the marketplace was still bustling with activity as we made our way through the crowds to a little stand which served iced fruit drinks. Vo graciously insisted on treating us. He and his wife had been extremely generous and solicitous of our every comfort while we had been in their home and now in the marketplace, the generosity of this Vietnamese man continued. He and his wife couldn't have been more gracious. I did not resist nor could I refute these facts; I embraced them. Even though I could not participate in the conversation I did not feel uncomfortable or unwanted. I was a passive participant in what was taking place and I belonged. It was a strange, even a surreal experience to be sitting in the Tay Ninh marketplace surrounded by Vietnamese enjoying my fruit drink in the cool evening breeze. It was a pleasant memory indeed.
The next morning after a delicious breakfast of Pho, which was made with fish noodles, a specialty of Tay Ninh Province, we went to the Cao Dai Temple. Cao Daism, a religion unique to the Vietnamese, accepts Buddha, Jesus, Sun-Yat Sen (the founder of modern day China) as equal manifestations of God. Although Cao Daism was nearly wiped out when the Communists took over Vietnam in 1975, it has since regained acceptability in the eyes of the government. On this tour of the Temple, Vo told us that senior citizens of this religion are offered an opportunity to come and volunteer their service in the beautifully ornate temple at Tay Ninh. Once accepted, they are cared for and provided for materially as long as they live. When they die, all burial expenses are paid by the church. While touring the Temple, a smiling Vietnamese woman, apparently in her mid-70’s approached me. She was a volunteer at the Temple.
In very clear English she told me that her name was Kim and that she was a Christian. I learned from her that during the war she had been married to a South Vietnamese Army Captain. In 1975 when the Communists took Saigon he was killed and Kim took her two children and fled to the countryside. For ten years, Kim supported her children by working in the rice fields, a labor requiring bending and stooping for hours on end, as the rice was planted and weeded during the growing period. Always fearing that she might be tracked down, Kim moved frequently and never told anyone her real name. Eventually she was able to make her way to the Cao Dai Temple and as a widow, was granted refuge there. I told Kim that I would pray for her which I did right then and there inside the Cao Dai Temple. In some intangible way, meeting Kim was an unconscious bridge between my memories of the war and my present Christian ministry purposes in coming to Vietnam. While I was the one praying for her, I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I see that my meeting with Kim was in fact facilitating my healing. We said goodbye and parted as Sang and I moved on to our next planned stop, Nui Ba Den Mountain.
We drove the ten miles over to Nui Ba Den (the Black Virgin Mountain). This mountain, which rises over 3000 feet above the rice fields of Tay Ninh, was significant in my wartime experiences. But rather than get into a war story here, what happened on my visit to the mountain with Sang was far more important than anything that might have happened to me there forty-five years ago. The mountain is a huge tourist attraction in the area, even drawing people from Cambodia, the border of which is just a few miles away. Tourists and worshipers come by the thousands to take pictures and to worship at the Black Virgin Buddhist Temple situated on the side of the mountain. An aerial tram is provided which takes visitors from the base of the mountain up the steep rocky slopes to the Temple. There is also a stone path one could take, but looking at it from the perspective of the tram, I thought to myself that it would be a seriously strenuous hike.
About half way up the mountainside we reached the site of the Temple and dismounted from the tram. Walking through the Temple area the smell of incense filled the air and the periodic sound of a gong enveloped my senses. I was moved to begin praying in earnest for the souls of the men, women and children whom I had formerly thought of as my enemies. In a brilliant, yet unseen flash of insight, I suddenly recognized that this was my new warfare; indeed, my new purpose for being in Vietnam. This battle however, was a battle on behalf of the Vietnamese people, not against them. In contrast to what had formerly been, this was a war in which I was seeking to introduce the Vietnamese people to the means of eternal life and peace with God rather than the squandering of their precious lives and the destruction of their property. Sang and I moved a bit higher on the mountain. From our vantage point we could easily see the twenty mile radius of the Vietnamese landscape around Tay Ninh City; that same landscape that had held such horrific memories of my long ago war. As I surveyed the lush green rice fields to the south and west, I prayed for a bountiful harvest for the people who were utterly dependent upon these fields as their only source of life sustaining nourishment. Looking to the jungle covered areas to the north and east I prayed for the peasants who daily eke out their living in the thick forest. I then prayed for the masses of impoverished peasants within the whole area I was surveying in that moment. I prayed not only for their physical feeding, but also, that their spiritual hunger would be satisfied by the One who alone could provide such satisfaction and peace of soul. I prayed earnestly, even fervently and for several moments and as I prayed something deep within my soul suddenly changed.
Inexplicably, while I prayed, I experienced a change of my perspective and I realized the pain of my soul was gone. It was a completely transformational moment. I was no longer concerned with the dark foreboding of a long-ago war. That point of view had been replaced by a new concern for the temporal as well as the eternal well-being of the Vietnamese people living within my field of view as I stood on Nui Ba Den. In that transformational instant my old perspective which was drawn from the gloomy dungeons of my personal history was replaced by God's eternal perspective. Now I was able to see the Vietnamese people and countryside through God's eyes and to think about what I was seeing with God’s thoughts. It was His thoughts and His concerns for the Vietnamese people that had overcome and replaced the gall and wormwood of my memories of war. Isaiah 55:8-9 came to mind:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. KJV
On that mountain so full of wartime memories, old things had passed away and all things had become new. I now possessed memories of Tay Ninh that included the smiling faces and the generosity of people who were new but not strangers to me. My new recollection of Tay Ninh was of the incredible hospitality I had been shown by my hosts and the countless friendly smiles and waves I received from the unknown residents I passed on its streets. While I could recall my old wartime memories, I no longer felt the pain of those recollections. I had been set free; free to love and to care about the people I once sought to destroy. Spiritually and psychologically my life had become intertwined with their lives as I actively sought their well-being through the act of fervent prayer on their behalf. My former enemies had become my new friends. Like gold, my perspective on Vietnam and its people had been malleably reshaped, it had become precious to me, even more precious than gold.