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Stranger with candy: Ed Tick in Vietnam. Photo: Connie Frisbee Houde

Another Country
For some veterans of the war in Vietnam, a nervous return to a changed nation provides balm to persistent post-traumatic stress
By Travis Durfee

For Bill Ridley, the 30 years following his first tour of Vietnam were filled with flashbacks, paranoia and arrests. He was fired from jobs and divorced three times, and never had a solid night’s sleep.

Ridley spent two years as a U.S. Army ranger in Vietnam. His service ended in November 1968, when Viet Cong troops ambushed his patrol unit and Ridley took shrapnel in his right side and a bullet grazed his face. Four of his fellow soldiers died in the attack. Ridley’s scheduled discharge was a week away.

Ridley was sent to the hospital, where doctors removed the jagged metal embedded in his side and closed the gash on his face. The gunshot wound damaged a nerve, making it impossible for Ridley to see without glasses. A few inches to the left, Ridley was told, and the bullet would have taken more than his sight.

When he returned to his native Georgia, Ridley was prepared to deal with the physical scars from his two years of battle. He was pleased with the work the doctors had done; he thought they had done a nice job concealing his injuries. But Ridley hadn’t received treatment for all of his wounds.

“When I got back home, some of the kids in college were asking me, ‘Well, what did you do on your 21st birthday?’ and I was ashamed,” says Ridley, now 56. “I wouldn’t tell ’em. I just said I was in the military and left it at that.”

What Ridley wouldn’t tell his acquaintances was that he spent his 21st birthday fighting on Hill 875. “Imagine a 21-year-old kid, when he should be out having fun and stuff, he’s out killing people or about to be killed,” he now says.

Beyond his troubles associating with his peers, Ridley had even greater difficulties dealing with the everyday aspects of civilian life.

“When I first came back, if a plane or a helicopter flew over, I would immediately hit the deck and dive under a table and reach for my M-16,” Ridley recalls. “That was probably the most embarrassing moment that happened with me and my family. That is probably one of the reasons I pulled back from my immediate family, my blood family, ’cause when I did that they laughed at me.”

Soon after his return, Ridley sought out help at the Veteran Administration. He was prescribed a number of sedatives and anti-depressants and was placed in therapy, but nothing seemed to help. Years passed and he was still having the night sweats, still being awakened by terrible dreams.

In the fall of 2001, Ridley heard a veteran at the VA rave about his journey back to Vietnam and how it affected him. Ridley discussed the idea with his therapists, and after some waffling, contacted the coordinators of the “learning and reconciliation” tours of Vietnam sponsored by the Sage colleges of Albany. Ridley spoke with Steve Leibo, a professor of international history and politics at Sage, and Ed Tick, an Albany therapist who had been leading groups of roughly 20 students, professors, vets and therapists on tours of Vietnam for the past couple of years. Ridley discussed the idea with Tick for six months before he felt comfortable saying that he would go back to Vietnam in June 2002.

A primary goal of the Vietnam tours, Tick and Leibo say, is to bridge the gap between Americans’ stereotypical views of Vietnam and the reality of the Southeast Asian nation as it exists today.

The need for such knowledge is especially important for veterans, says Tick, a therapist who specializes in post- traumatic stress disorder. The trips, Tick says, prove remarkably therapeutic for the veterans like Ridley, giving them an opportunity to see how the country has changed since the war.

The children of Vietnam Photo: Connie Frisbee Houde

“The images of war are so horrible that they get frozen in our minds,” Tick said. “When veterans go back and see that [those images] are no longer there, they can let it go. Seeing life where they caused death and destruction can help them move on, help them release. It replaces their images of death with images of life.”

Beth Marie Murphy, a U.S. Navy nurse during the Vietnam War who now lives in Canada, went back to the country with the tour in 2001 to see how a country she felt responsible for slicing up had healed.

“As a nurse, I felt like being over there and being part of the effort to heal U.S. troops, I was a part of the trauma being committed to the Vietnamese people,” Murphy says. “I mean Agent Orange still wreaks havoc on the Vietnamese people. There are children born today with deformities, and as a U.S. citizen I felt the need to say I’m sorry.”

Murphy had her opportunity to make amends: The tour stops at a hospital for Vietnamese children disfigured at birth. The tour also stops at the My Lai memorial and museum at the site of the infamous massacre, the Vinh Moc Tunnels used by the North Vietnamese Army, and the Hoa Lo Prison (aka the infamous Hanoi Hilton), where a number of U.S. servicemen were held as prisoners of war and tortured.

Stops at such historically significant places in Vietnam also are important, Leibo says, for the professors and future teachers seeing Vietnam, sometimes, for the first time outside of a textbook.

“For most Americans, Vietnam froze in 1975 in black-and-white,” says Leibo. “It’s a period in the past. It’s a period of pain. [But] Vietnam is a country; it is not a war. And we are living in a time right now when students are growing up, going to classes and learning about the Vietnam era, and often they only discover by asking that this had an incredible effect on their families—because their families don’t talk about it.”

Leibo says the effect that our country’s military involvement in Vietnam had on the United States cannot be diminished. He believes that our nation’s population can be divided into two categories: those who know how much the Vietnam War affected our culture and those who do not.

“To me, going to Vietnam for an American should be the same thing as going to see the Grand Canyon or the Washington Monument; it is part of what made us who we are,” Leibo says. “It is like looking in the mirror and seeing who we are. We are forever going to move in history with Vietnamese society—they were transformed by us, we were transformed by them.”

Steve Leibo Photo: Joe Putrock

The tour’s respites at many of the country’s villages and markets allow travelers a glimpse at today’s thriving Vietnamese culture. “I saw the country and the people, [and both] were absolutely, amazingly wonderful,” Murphy says, even though those weren’t her expectations.

“I was afraid that they would hate us,” Murphy continues. “I didn’t know what I was going to do if they said, ‘Yes, we do hate you.’ Even though I was told that that wasn’t going to happen, I couldn’t imagine people being so welcoming considering what we did to their country. Look at 9/11 and what happened in New York, and can you imagine people in America welcoming Al Qaeda in their homes?”

While the tours mainly aim to give a new understanding of Vietnam to the American travelers, another aspect of the trip is to offer reparations to the Vietnamese people. The travelers pool their resources and provide a needy Vietnamese family with a gift. A few years ago they provided a needy mother with a boat to use as a water taxi, and on an earlier trip the group bought a water buffalo for a poor farming village.

Tick has taken the charity one step further and is paying for Nam, a 21-year-old Vietnamese man, to study English at a Vietnamese university. Tick says Nam, whom he met on the street during a trip to Vietnam many years ago, hopes to become a professional chef to better provide for his family.

Leibo and Tick have led June tours through Vietnam for the past three years, but this year, the trip was called off.

“I was starting to plan for it,” Leibo says, “and then the war built up and SARS built up and I said, ‘To hell with it.’ It became pretty obvious that this wasn’t going to be the right year.”

But Leibo’s decision wasn’t shared by all: Murphy couldn’t stay away. So moved was she by her first trip to Vietnam in 2001, and her return trip last year, that she began a research project collecting oral histories of Vietnamese women to compare with Western women. On July 14, she boards a flight for her third trip to Vietnam.

Despite the months of coaching and handholding it took to get Ridley ready for his return trip to Vietnam, nothing could have prepared him for his experience upon arrival.

He missed the flight with the group and flew into Vietnam by himself; Tick was to meet him at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Tick had forewarned Ridley that although much of Vietnam had changed since the end of the war, some things remained the same—namely, the face of the Vietnamese Army, which manned the country’s airports. Vietnamese military uniforms had not changed since the war, nor had the average age of a Vietnamese soldier. In other words, the military would look the same as when Ridley saw combat.

“See, when I got to the airport in Vietnam and I saw all these thousands and thousands of Vietnamese . . . I mean, I was scared stiff,” Ridley says. “I was standing there thinking, ‘Is [Tick] gonna show up? How am I gonna get out of this place?’ You know, you’re 13,000 miles away from home and all kinds of things go through your mind.”

Ed Tick Photo: Joe Putrock .

Tick recalls that Ridley—a tall black man—stuck out in the airport like a sore thumb. Soon after his arrival, a Vietnamese military officer confronted Ridley, wanting to see his passport and know his business.

“I was pretty frightened,” Ridley said. “I wasn’t there with my unit. I didn’t have my M-16, I didn’t have any grenades, any C4. . . . I was just going with a bunch of civilians. Because, see, in your mind, when you leave a place fighting, in your mind the pictures never change.”

The Vietnamese soldier asked Ridley when he was last in Vietnam. Ridley told him 30 years ago. The Vietnamese officer smiled, Tick remembers, and said, “Well then, you have a lot of catching up to do.”

“The experience blew Ridley’s mind,” says Tick. “Veterans often think, ‘[The Vietnamese] hate me, they’re going to punish me, they’re going to kill me,’ but no. ‘I’m a welcome guest?’ When they go back and see that they are no longer hated, they can let it go.”

Tick remembers that Ridley came bounding out of his bedroom after his second night in Vietnam, screaming with joy that he had slept for a full six hours.

“I used to wake up sometimes and I’d be right in the middle of the battle of Kontum, I’d be right back in the middle of Pleiku,” Ridley says. “But I don’t have the terrible nights sweats like I used to have.

“The picture I had was a bunch of people running through the woods and shooting at me and killing my friends and trying to take over the world,” Ridley says. “That was the picture I had. That picture has since been destroyed, and I am glad.”

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