NORWOOD, Mass. — The Vietnam War left Cherie Rankin a legacy of sadness denied and tears delayed.
As a 24-year-old Red Cross worker confronted every day by death and suffering, she was unable to cry. "When you're in a war," she says, "you have to turn off the feelings in order to do the work."
For more than a decade after she came home in September, 1971, just thinking about Vietnam produced headaches, and she'd become sick to her stomach. At a reunion of Red Cross workers in 1984, she threw up. Until then, she says, she had no idea how Vietnam had affected her.
Now, 20 years later, she is making a sentimental journey back to help restore some of what the United States destroyed, and to shed her tears.
Rankin is part of a group of nine Americans paying their own way over to help rebuild a medical clinic near Hanoi destroyed by U.S. bombers.
The team, which is leaving this month, is the third to return to build badly needed medical facilities under the auspices of the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project in Garberville, Calif. During September and October, they will work with former Vietnamese enemies who now are comrades in peace.
Rankin, now 44, will revisit the fields where the men she knew died and walk the grounds of the Da Nang-area orphanage where she fed, clothed and played with the pitifully maimed children of war.
"While I was there, I never felt the sadness, and I carry around some pain for those children," she said. "Being able to do the crying on the spot would be helpful--being near firebases where many men who died I knew, whose faces I see in my mind, to do some crying for them."
She remembers flying in helicopters to the American firebases to boost the soldiers' morale. She is in field hospitals holding the hands of mortally wounded GIs. They clutch her tightly. She is their last link to life.
The baby-face of a young GI she met in Da Nang while he was awaiting his assignment is forever fixed in her mind. He was so new his boots still were spit-shined. A few days later, she saw him lying in a field hospital with tubes sticking out of him and the right side of his face blown away.
"I went over to him and held his hand," she said. "I reminded him I had seen him the other day, and I think I said to him: 'I'm sorry.' He flicked his eyes. He couldn't talk. But he gripped my hand."
Within minutes, he was dead. "That was my first death experience. I marked that as the period of time where I numbed out. When I saw that kid there, I really wanted to run. I wanted to go home. I wanted my mother."
Sometimes, she still can hear the familiar whirring sounds of the helicopters and her mind drifts back. She now feels the fear she repressed, and she shakes at the thought of it.
Dreams of Vietnam invade her sleep. If she doesn't remember them, there always are the pillows across her body to remind her. During the war, Red Cross workers pulled mattresses over their bodies to protect themselves during rocket attacks.
"I will wake up startled . . . and all of my bed pillows are lined up the length of the bed," she said. "Even if I don't have a clear memory of the dream, I'm acting as though I were experiencing it."
Other images are of the children for whom she cared. They are scorched by napalm, blinded by bombs. Their arms and legs are missing.
Among her poignant photos is one of an orphan, an Amerasian boy born to a Vietnamese mother and American father. He sits forlornly. A fly rests on his face. One of his legs is missing, blown away by a mine.
"He represents Vietnam to me," said Rankin. "This is the child of the war and it says it all to me."
But there were rare moments of joy amid the poverty and pain. A reminder is another photo, this one of three grinning orphan boys throwing their arms around her. One is blind, one is missing part of his leg and one is retarded.
"I love it," Rankin said. "Just look at how happy I am to see those kids and how happy they are to see me, how much physical touch is being shared."
Rankin, who originally is from West Palm Beach, Fla., went to Vietnam in September, 1970, just out of Florida State University in Tallahassee. She did not believe in the war but had faith in the men who were fighting, like her younger brother, Doug, a Marine.
"I went to visit my brother," she said. "Even though I had questions about the war, I really understood why the guys were there and I wanted to do what I could to help them. I also wanted the adventure and to find out why we were there, see for myself."
Despite her reservations, and the sexism and sexual harassment she sometimes encountered, she didn't question the U.S. government's morality or motivation.
"I was so red, white and blue my blood was lavender," Rankin said. "I think we fell into two categories in their mind. We were either virgins or whores, their favorite girlfriend or sister, or we were there to be propositioned.