Vietnam veteran discusses return visit decades later
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Many military personnel following any combat or service in a foreign land may not want to return to the site of where they served in the past. Local Vietnam Veteran John Fedyszyn served in the war in the late 1960s but decided to go back nearly 30 years after the conclusion of the conflict.
Fedyszyn heard about veterans returning to Vietnam while attending military reunions after the war. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a radioman and served time in a free fire zone, a three-mile wide strip of property where anything living – human or animal – would be shot. Going back, he traveled with 13 other veterans during a 17-day trip in the late 1990s. Fedyszyn said there were three main reasons why he wanted to return. He said the first reason was to honor a former unit member, T.J., who died in combat who was a fellow radioman like Fedyszyn. He said during the war, if a soldier died there was no stopping to pay last respects.
“In the combat unit, as you walked patrols … as you’re walking incoming (fire) comes in, snipers or an ambush and the guy next to you gets shot or killed, he lies down and you keep walking. You don’t stop to gather around to pay last respects. A corpsman behind you will pick him up and they evacuate him,” he said in a phone interview.
Fedyszyn said there were three books that were written following the war which recount the death of his fellow unit member. He said the first 20 years following the end of the war, there was no information released on the war until the year he returned. According to Fedyszyn, each book had T.J. dying on the correct date but two of the books had him dying in two different places in two different ways; only one book had the correct information. Fedyszyn wanted to go back to the exact spot where his fellow unit member was killed. He had maps still from the war and was able to return to the exact spot. The experience, he said, took him back 30 years to the war.
Other reasons Fedyszyn wanted to go back was to assess the damage caused during the war, and to see if Vietnamese residents had better lives and if the military did any good during the war. He said the military forces did much damage during the Vietnam War, including the Agent Orange areas.
“We eliminated a lot of villages. … There were different things that had to be taken out so we could keep going on patrols (during the war),” said Fedyszyn. “Agent Orange areas we went through there is nothing living, it’s bare. All the combat bases we were at, they’re all grown over now. It’s like you were never there.”
While in the country, Fedyszyn noticed everything from the Vietnam War has since been removed from the country and the residents do not speak about the war. He said the country’s war with the French is highly publicized throughout the country, however.
The group which Fedyszyn traveled with each veteran was able to request places around the country they wanted to go back and visit. He said he was amazed how vivid memories the other veterans had. They would remember exactly where landmarks were and how beautiful the views would be from specific areas.
Fedyszyn said the residents of Vietnam treated the group of veterans very well and the hotels were comparable to American hotels. He said the one hotel provided housekeeping four times a day, brought cookies and would provide 10 items for each meal. One hotel even offered an complimentary massage and some hotels cost as low as $18 a day.
“It’s a really good place to go back. They do treat Americans extremely well. They have very, very strict laws. Anybody touching an American, anybody forcing an American to purchase anything (would be punished) … as you walk down the street they will move aside for you,” he said. “They’re very knowledgeable of Americans. They treated us very well. They knew as 18 and 19 year olds, we came to help them.”
While in the country Fedyszyn spent time in schools, which are very disciplined and strict. In high school only students in the top 25 percent of the class are allowed to attend college, while the rest of the class is sent to the workforce. Fedyszyn said he visited the school where former Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh attended, met with General Vo Nguyen Giap and visited a monastery where young boys swore a vow of lifetime silence.
While he was there, a typhoon hit the country causing about 6 inches of water to flood the streets. He said the residents of the country continued on as if the rain was not an obstacle.
“When we woke up and they said ‘Don’t worry about it. We can still move around.’ You walk out into the main streets and there’s 6 or 8 inches of water. It didn’t phase the people at all; it was like any other day,” Fedyszyn said.
Another unique thing about the country, Fedyszyn said was the country only would recognize $1 bills and nothing bigger. He also found it unique many houses did not have mirrors. He had taken his digital camera with him to schools and was photographing the students. The students would see the photos and look around at each other in awe. A teacher told him that was probably the first time the students had ever seen what they looked like.
The group of veterans also visited various cemeteries, many with graves of children who died as young as 11 years old, and museums. The museums all told war history from the Vietnam side, which Fedyszyn found interesting. He said the museums told the history of the National Liberation Front, a group of high school and college-aged students, which were renamed the Viet Cong. According to the museum, American military were more capable of killing a group of young men with a more ominous name of the Viet Cong and not the National Liberation Front. Another place he visited was the Hao Lo prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, a prisoner of war camp. He said the country was starting to tear the prison down while he was visiting but they were keeping former presidential candidate John McCain’s cell. McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war starting in 1967.
“It was amazing to see. They were starting to tear it apart. They had John McCain’s cell and they keep his cell. They actually have a monument in the water in exactly the spot he landed with his plane. He was their most important prisoner,” Fedyszyn said.
Fedyszyn wants to return to Vietnam for another trip, this time with his wife. He suggests other veterans return to Vietnam only if they have a reason to go back. He said he understands some veterans will not want to go back.
“To all those who had served in the Vietnam War, my advice on a return trip would be to only return if you have a reason to return. Many (military personnel) were given jobs they hated, many were placed in places of danger that they didn’t want to be, many were separated from loved ones and many came back wounded or scarred,” he said. “It’s a place to go back to see exactly the good that we’ve done. There’s good from every war. For those who went there and had felt they had done some good, it’s well worth it to go back and see the good you’ve done.”
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