When the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific visited Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the past week it was not just an official mission mixing defense policy and diplomacy. It was also a very personal journey for a former U.S. Navy aviator who last saw the region from the seat of a reconnaissance jet protected by heavily armed fighters.
Our U.S. military jet flew over the northern Vietnamese port of Haiphong and followed the Red River to Hanoi.
Admiral William Fallon sat in the jump seat in the cockpit to get a good view. He knew the route well. He had taken it on his last mission over North Vietnam in 1970, when he was a young lieutenant, junior grade, taking pictures and using electronic sensors to find enemy positions for U.S. bombers.
"I spent most of my time flying over the North and over Laos as part of the air campaign," he explained. "And so I got a chance to see some very, very beautiful countryside. But the 'greeting cards,' the 'messages,' that were being sent to me from the ground were not exactly the kinds of things that would endear one to the local population. And I think they probably felt the same way about what we were doing."
Frequently, his pilot had to gun the engines to reach twice the speed of sound to evade those "greeting cards" - anti-aircraft gunfire and missiles. Many of his friends flying other U.S. Navy aircraft did not make it home alive.
"There were some pretty tough and often sad times in those days," he recalled. " I left a lot of friends over here, and I'm not going to forget those people and the sacrifices they made, with all the best of intentions. But it's a different time now and we need to reap some of the benefits of interaction. So we'll take it from there."
So does Admiral Fallon think he can now make friends with his former enemies?
"Well, I don't know about the 'friends' thing," he admitted. "I've met some of these people at meetings and things, and we've had calm discussions. I try to make this dispassionate. I think this is pretty serious business that has potential great effect on people in both of our countries, and so it's a time for trying to have discussions in a manner that might be beneficial."
Admiral Fallon says it was a "very interesting" visit to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He met one man who said he was a battalion commander during the war, shooting up at aircraft like his. The man is now a part of the Vietnam-U.S. Friendship Association, and the two shared a laugh about how things have changed.
The admiral also visited a site deep in the jungle in Laos, where a team under his command, and with Lao government support, is searching through deep mud for the remains of other American airmen who did not make it home from the war.
"I had a couple of shipmates that were shot down and lost in this area. And to find myself on the ground, in the jungle observing the work of our teams in the process of recovering remains of lost airmen from that era took me back - certainly, lots of memories," he said.
But the admiral says he tried to focus on the present and the future during his visit, rather than on the past. His hosts in Vietnam and especially Cambodia seemed to take the same approach. But in Laos he found officials eager to point to what they see as the lingering impact of the war on their country, and reluctant to move toward a new relationship with their former adversaries.
Admiral Fallon says he'll keep trying.
"We will have our memories. And if there are bad feelings on all sides, I think it's in our best interest to move beyond," he said. " I think the key thing is that was 35-40 years ago and today is today. And we're really interested in forging those relationships and doing things that are going to be helpful to our country in the future."
Admiral Fallon has several more visits to Asia scheduled for this year to try to build military relationships, including one to Malaysia in November to co-host a meeting of senior military officers from throughout the region. He hopes Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia send representatives to the conference, and one or two of them likely will. But it may still be some years before they all show up at the annual event, and even longer before the heavy legacy of the war fully loosens its grip on all the countries that were involved.