A delegation of U.S. military veterans and their families recently traveled to Vietnam, more than 30 years after the war in the southeast Asian nation. A private organization, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, organized the trip.
Many U.S. military veterans of the war in Vietnam remember the country only as wartorn. But what greeted a group of veterans and other Americans who recently returned there was very different.
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"The country is really moving forward. They're not looking back at the war," said Patrick Pellerin, a veteran of the fighting there. "The rural areas of Vietnam still do look the same, but the cities have changed dramatially. They're hustling, they're bustling". Pellerin, his wife and other U.S. military veterans of the war participated in a recent presentation about their trip to Vietnam in January.
It was Pellerin's first time back to Vietnam since he served in the U.S. Army during the war. "I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know whether the people were friendly, unfriendly. I didn't know how we were going to be treated. I didn't know what we were going to see and what changes we were going to see," he admitted.
One unexpected reality for several of the Americans is how the war is still devastating lives. More than 1,000 Vietnamese a year are killed or injured from leftover explosives. "It's something we don't think about over here," said Pellerin at the Washington, D.C. presentation. "I suspect the thought never occurs to us that there is literally tons and tons of unexploded ordinance over there."
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has been helping to de-mine problem areas in Vietnam. "Through using public education we were able to drop casualities from unexploded ordinance by 75 percent and that continues," Jan Scruggs stated. Scruggs is the organization's founder.
The U.S. government recently awarded $1 million to the organization to continue its de-mining efforts. The organization says more than 350,000 tons of old explosives remain in Vietnam, most it from U.S. forces.
Pellerin's wife, Sally Seiler, saw some of these bombs during the trip. "It just looked like a rock. and I can see how little kids and farmers would pick these things up," she said.
Even with the remnants of war, many Vietnamese seem to have moved on. On the trip, the U.S. delegation met with former enemies.
"It was really interesting, they were very nice," Pellerin told VOA. "They greeted us at the door like we were long-lost cousins or something. They were very nice. We had a very interesting exchange with them. I think they've put it all behind them and certainly our guys have put it behind us."
But Pellerin says there are some veterans who have a hard time putting the war behind them. He recalled seeing an outpouring of emotion at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. "And they were bringing flowers and dog tags and pictures and it floored me," he said. "It absolutely floored me."
Pellerin says he wishes other U.S. military veterans who served in Vietnam could return there as he did, so that they, too, can have some closure.