“Healing Long Overdue”

Today we toured the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue.  We started out by taking a leisurely cruise down the Perfume River which separates the northern and southern parts of the city. Afterwards, we visited The Citadel, a massive walled structure which was home to the Nguyen Dynasty, who ruled the country from 1802-1945.  The Citadel was also the site of one of the most fierce battles of the Tet Offensive. Even though US forces were vastly outnumbered by the North Vietnamese Army, the battle for Hue is known as one of the Marine Corps’ finest hours. My veteran, Corporal Joseph Tiscia, Jr., fought here.

Joe was drafted in 1967 at the age of 24; he was also newly married. Although Joe was placed into the Army, he preferred to serve as a Marine. He requested a transfer and soon found himself in Okinawa serving as a fiscal Marine allocating funds for the Vietnam War. Joe felt that since he was drafted, it was his destiny to fight, so every three months, when the commanding officer visited the base, he asked for reassignment to Vietnam. After ten months, he finally got his wish.

Joe was sent to the 2nd BN, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division in Phu Bai. He arrived early in January of 1968. A few weeks later, the NVA launched the Tet offensive, and Hue was a primary target. Since Joe was a Corporal and had a wife back home, his commanding officer kept him at Phu Bai, ten miles away, to supply the newly arriving Marines. Joe could not stand equipping soldiers and sending them into Hue only to have them come back a few days later in body bags, so on 7 February 1968, he joined a convoy that he thought was going into Hue. Instead, the convoy of 50 Marines was going to resupply an artillery base south of Hue. But as they were passing by a graveyard, two battalions of NVA ambushed them; Joe was suddenly in the fight of his life.

The Marines were heavily outnumbered.  Both sides used ditches on opposite sides of a small road for cover, but hand to hand fighting was commonplace.  Joe took out a heavy machine gun that had been firing on the convoy and rescued two of his wounded brothers. Soon afterwards, a grenade exploded nearby sending him flying through the air.  Even after he was injured, Joe tried to offer cover fire as he came in and out of consciousness.  He told me that as the NVA were waiting for nightfall to finish them off, he prayed to God, “If it is your will, take me. I just want to go home; I miss my wife; I miss my family.” He still feels a lot of pain and regret from that day. As he finished his story, he said, “I wanted to do more, I could’ve done more, but I didn’t.” He blames himself for the loss of his friends, but for his heroic actions, Joe was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.

This snapshot of history has haunted Joe for over 50 years. He still remembers the young men who fought desperately and died alongside him, and he continues to stay in touch with those who survived the fight for Hue. He also devotes time to an organization that holds proper military burial services for Veterans. Joe is very passionate about ensuring that Veterans receive the benefits they deserve for answering their country’s call.

Joe came on this trip with one mission in mind—he wanted to return to the same cemetery. Yesterday, March 27, 2017, we found the site. The cemetery has changed since the last time Joe had seen it, but it still offered the same painful memories. He needed to free himself from the burden he had been carrying. Joe brought with him a bottle of Holy water that he had received as a gift from his mother, who was told it held healing powers. As we departed the bus, Joe walked with a newfound energy. He was determined to accomplish his mission that had been on hold for far too long. As he sprinkled the Holy water, it was as if his chains were lifted. He held with him pride for every man he had fought alongside. As he prayed, our group couldn’t help but be filled with joy for the miracle of healing that we had just witnessed. Afterwards, Joe said, “I feel like a new man.” As with any true soldier, Joe accomplished his mission. If his fellow Marines could have witnessed this, I know they would have been proud. I know I am.

Sam Scaggs

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“The Hard Truths”

Our day began with a bus ride to Khe Sanh, a former United States military launch site located south of the DMZ on a remote hilltop near the border of Laos and Vietnam. It was also the site of a major NVA assault as part of the Tet Offensive.  Standing on the former runway, we had a clear view of the surrounding ridges and rugged terrain which enabled us to visualize the enemy’s advantageous location.  MACV-SOG Veteran Jim Rougeau referred to Khe Sanh as his “home away from home,” while fellow MACV-SOG Bill Werther recalled his 77 day fight against the NVA.

Our Veterans were members of an elite fighting force, MACV-SOG (Military Advising Group Vietnam—Special Operations Group). This group of men conducted clandestine operations throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the only military entity granted permission to do so during the war. This strategic task force infiltrated enemy territory to gather intelligence, such as the number of NVA moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also attempted to liberate prisoners of war, set up various reconnaissance technology, or simply harass the enemy. It has been estimated that as many as 20,000 – 40,000 NVA were assigned to police the Ho Chi Minh Trail due to the efforts of MACV-SOG. The United States government only declassified MACV-SOG operations in 2003.

Jim was assigned to FOB (Forward Operating Base) 1 in 1966 while Bill was assigned to FOB 4 in 1968.  Each of our Veterans worked in groups of three American soldiers coupled with nine indigenous men of that region, often Montagnards, a docile people that the Special Forces partnered with to accomplish its missions.

Looking at the bunkers that remain in place, Jim told a story of a close friend who had been wounded on the landing strip.  He remarked, “I never imagined I would come back here.” We are continually reminded by Jim, Bill and the other Veterans who have shared their stories that this land still harbors painful memories, but they have been able to bring a sense of humanity to history. Our Veterans have given us the unvarnished truth — not everyone was a hero and death was commonplace.  In a culture saturated with the seemingly attractiveness and glamour of war, we so easily forget these facts.

As students of history, we are humbled and grateful to be able to walk side by side with Jim Rougeau and Bill Werther who have relayed the hard truths to us–that both sides committed wrongs, but who are finding peace and healing in a land where their history still lives.

Canyon Smith and Crenna Firestine

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“Sometimes Ugly Becomes Beautiful” 

We started our Sunday morning with songs of worship and a message from Dr. Marci Linson, who spoke on Nehemiah 4. We learned that Nehemiah and the builders “answered the call.” The 12 veterans we have the honor of traveling with also “answered the call.” My veteran, Michael Bruce, will be the first to tell you those who served were all brothers, no matter the branch, working hard towards the same goal. Mike said, “the goal was to keep everyone alive and get them out.”  He has taught me war is an ugly thing, but sometimes you can take something ugly and make it beautiful.

Mike volunteered at the age of 18 and became a medical evacuation pilot in the 101st Airborne Division, flying the UH-1. He made left seat the following year and achieved the rank of Chief Warrant Officer (CW2) during his year tour that began on December 10, 1969. Although he flew an unarmed helicopter, Mike saw numerous tragedies, severe injuries, and many deaths. He told a story of a dustoff helicopter that crashed. When Mike and his team arrived, they found that there were no survivors. This accident was an ugly part of war. But Mike also remembered a small village north of Hue where they picked up a Vietnamese woman who was ready to give birth. They were able to get her to the Citadel before the child was born, providing Mike with the opportunity to help save lives. This was a beautiful part of war.

This morning we travelled at the DMZ (17th parallel) which was the dividing line between North and South Vietnam. I asked Mike if he was ready to cross. He told me it “was the last thing he expected to do,” since he had never been in North Vietnam during his tour. We locked arms and crossed over. The feeling was indescribable. Words cannot do justice to the sense of appreciation I have for the 12 Veterans who were standing around me and many more back home who have served and are currently serving our country.

We also visited the Vinh Moc Tunnels which were used by the local South Vietnamese to escape the bombardment of war. The tunnel is 1.3 miles long, only a few feet wide, and around 5 feet tall. There were lots of steep stairs, rooms used for sleeping, eating, and simply surviving the war.

Overall, we have had a rainy, but wonderful day. This trip has truly been a once in a lifetime experience. Each one of the Veterans have poured their stories into all of the students lives, giving us a whole new perspective that I am now able to share with others. On the way back to our hotel, I realized Mike Bruce has taught me much more than just about the war. He was taught me about the importance of keeping God first, how important relationships with others truly are, and how you can consider a tragic war to one day become something beautiful. Because without the war and the veterans who served, this beautiful opportunity for us students would never have occurred.

Sarah Pogue

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“Committed to do the Best We Could”

This morning we set off from Quang Nam Province overlooking the East China Sea and drove north towards Da Nang. As we neared Marble Mountain and Monkey Mountain, my Veteran, Fred Pfohl, began to describe his experience during his 15 months in Vietnam. Fred was a member of the Navy Civic Action Division and spent the majority of his time on Village Assistant Team 13 (VAT 13) which lived on the Tien Sa Peninsula with five other Navy men. VAT teams were scattered throughout South Vietnam to work with local villagers as well as to support the Marines by guarding warehouses and sending out supplies.

Fred volunteered when he was 23 years old. “I was willing to go to Vietnam and do whatever I could to help both our country and theirs.” This attitude applied to his entire experience in Vietnam. As we drove through Da Nang, Fred pulled out his camera and showed me a picture of the patch he wore on his uniform. The patch had a Vietnamese flag on one side and American flag on the other with an American and Vietnamese handshake in the middle. This demonstrated what he came here to do. ”Our main purpose was to help the Vietnamese people however we could making life better and easier. We came to befriend them and do our best to represent our country in a positive light.”

The VAT team started every day at a local school teaching the children English. They  also helped with construction throughout the village, dug ditches to aid irrigation, and improved farming techniques by passing out seeds and fertilizer to produce more crops. “We got results because we were willing to work hard and get things done.” The VAT team was even able to find a generator and set up an electrical system that provided lights in their homes for a few hours each night. And since there were few hospitals in the area and medical care was almost non existent, the VAT team committed themselves to doing everything medically possible to treat the Vietnamese.

We stopped for American style hamburgers and fries in Hue City and ended our day at Dong Ha near the DMZ. Our group of students and Veterans may have started out as strangers, but over the last week we have become one—almost like the mission of VAT 13 and my Veteran, Fred Pfohl.

Courtney Bressler

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 “Identity”

We found ourselves on the road again today. Driving from the beachside city of Qui Nhon, we travelled north along Highway 1, through rice paddies that grow in the shadows of jungle covered mountains. Steve Henton lived in these mountains. He breathed the thick jungle air. He felt the spray of waterfalls. He smelled the dirt of the untouched jungle floor. His experience brought us an up close and personal perspective of the war.

As a Long Range Patrol member, or LRP, Steve took part in 48 missions from June 1968 to May of 1969 throughout the Central Highlands.  At the age of 21, he was one of the first Army Rangers in Vietnam as part of Charlie Company, 1st BN, 75th Ranger Regiment.  He was specifically trained to disappear into the jungle in a four man team for days at a time to gain intelligence on the enemy. Their goal was to stay completely undetected, which was easier said than done.

On many of their missions, Steve’s team was discovered by superior numbers of Viet Cong. The team was forced to make contact and then move to the nearest defensible landing zone. Steve remembers relying on relentless practice to deal with these events. On their days off his team would perform drill after drill. Each team member needed to not only know where he would go when shots rang out, but also where the other team members would be going. The idea was not “practice makes perfect” but “perfect practice makes perfect.”

I am honored to experience this journey. Being here as a 21 year old myself, it’s hard for me to comprehend the things Steve saw and did. But I’ve learned how quickly war comes to the forefront of a man’s identity. And how slowly it fades in to the background. For most, war’s powerful force defines pieces of who they are indefinitely. For Steve, war was the force that brought him to a fear of the Lord. Twenty years after leaving Vietnam, he began to recognize God’s hand in protecting him and his soul’s need for a Savior. Now, Steve Henton’s relationship with Christ defines his identity more than the war ever will.

Grayson Ketron

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“The Minor Details”

Today was full of travel. We left the historic Rex hotel in downtown Saigon this morning and were in the air by noon, headed to Qui Nhon, a city bordered by the South China Sea to the east and the rugged Central Highland mountains to the west. Our tour guide, Quan, even found a small pizzeria for our lunch, to the delight of the entire group. But there was a greater significance to this day than any other because my veteran shared his story with our group.

As a 19 year old, with a wife and small son, Larry Ernsting volunteered for the Air Force in 1968 and became a member of the 821st Security Combat Police, stationed in Phan Rang. He also received Army and British Ranger training, becoming a member of the elite “Blue Berets.” During his three tours of duty, Larry traveled to many hostile sites in Southeast Asia. As part of Operation Safeside, Larry’s Fire Team was to report on short notice to any airbase believed to be a potential target of the enemy.

Rewind to the several days ago when I met Larry at the San Francisco airport. He started telling me stories and always ended with the words, “minor details though.” SGT Larry Ernsting is a modest man who continually talks about the bond of brotherhood he had with his Fire Team. “My attitude is that I put everybody else over me because that’s what I did in Vietnam.” I found this quite fascinating because his stories are not just minor details—they impart advice for a lifetime of service. Thank you Larry. I am honored to stand beside you on this journey through Vietnam.

And that young three month old son that Larry left behind during his first tour of duty, well, he is the college’s own Director of Bobcat Food Services, Craig Ernsting!

Shaundra Sprinkle

“There’s still a lot of pain”

This morning as we drove towards the Cu Chi Tunnels, northwest of Saigon, my Veteran, Rick Hokenson, began to share with us his war experience. In May of 1969, as a 20-year-old, he was sent to Vietnam as a Specialist with Charlie Company, 2nd BN, 8th Calvary, of the 1st Calvary Division.  Over the next year, Rick became an experienced sniper in an area known as the “Dog’s Head.”

On April 1, 1970, his company was positioned at the Firebase Illingworth, by the Cambodia border.  With just six days left in his tour of duty, the NVA attacked with overwhelming force, making it the “single deadliest day” of the year. Rick was injured in the fight, but he was also thankful to have survived.  Upon arrival in the states, he had to cope with the realities of what happened in Vietnam while dealing with rejection and judgment from friends and family. As he finished his story, Rick shared in a soft tone, “There’s still a lot of pain.”

Near the end of our day, our group visited the Reunification Palace, or as the Veterans referred to it, the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace.  In April 1975, it was overrun by the NVA, bringing to an end the war for the Vietnamese people.  As we went onto the rooftop of the palace, I had a surreal moment. I was trying to picture the communists in tanks, bulldozing through the front gates onto the palace lawn. Instead, what I saw were tourists in buses, walking calmly through the grounds.

As a 22-year-old college student, I cannot fathom having to go through the struggles of war.  It is a sobering thought that these men on our trip did exactly that, often at a younger age than me.  This travel opportunity has linked students with Veterans who are sharing their individual stories with us, so that their history is not forgotten.  Hopefully, for some, it will also bring closure to a painful chapter in their lives.

Caden Peterson

Service by Heroes

After graduating from The Citadel in 1967 and completion of required training, Col. John Flock served in the 1st Infantry Division from November 1968 to December 1969. He worked in two different units—the 2nd BN, 2nd Infantry Regt., and the 1st Medical BN.

Even though Col. Flock was not directly on the front lines, his positions were close to the enemy, with base locations often fired upon by NVA and Vietcong forces. Col. Flock shared one story about when his company was attacked because it was next to an airstrip and a rubber plantation. “We ended up taking 29 rockets in our area,” he stated, as tears swelled in his eyes. “The support company commander, that I knew real well, got killed. He was next to the chaplain…who got wounded in the back of his neck… almost paralyzed.”  Flock then explained that the enemy harassed them for the next 56 days.

The stories shared by these Veterans amazes me due to the amount of courage, strength, and resilience it took in order to overcome the enemy and protect their brothers in arms. All of these men are defenders of freedom. Col. Flock has taught me about leadership traits and the attention to detail that is needed to succeed not only in the military, but in life. Thank you all for your service to our nation. May God bless you, and may we never forget the price paid by our heroes.

Michael Galioto

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