with candy: Ed Tick in Vietnam. Photo:
Connie Frisbee Houde
For some veterans of
the war in Vietnam, a nervous return to a changed nation
provides balm to persistent post-traumatic stress
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.
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
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.
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.
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
children of Vietnam Photo: Connie
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.
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.
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.
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
Leibo Photo: Joe Putrock
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.
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
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
Leibo and Tick have led June tours through Vietnam for the
past three years, but this year, the trip was called off.
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.
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.”
Tick Photo: Joe Putrock .
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”