PHO VINH, Vietnam — It's been seven years since Steve Lemire last slept with a loaded .44 on one side of his pillow and a bottle of whiskey on the other. Buck Anderson has a new wife--his eighth--and the marriage is working. Chuck Owens is sober. Walt Bacak no longer thinks of suicide.
Progress. Real progress. But not home free yet. And that's why the Vietnam War veterans had returned to the land of their nightmares--why, middle-aged and out of shape, they were humping down a dirt road to a village no foreigner had set foot in for 28 years. They were headed toward a meeting with their former Viet Cong enemies and hoping that somewhere out here among the rice paddies and jungle-covered hills--or perhaps in the meeting itself--they would find the secret to finally coming to grips with one simple fact: The war is over.
"I feel like I've been walking guard for 30 years," said Mike Farquhar, 49 and five times married. "Up at night every two hours, smoke a couple of cigarettes, then try to sleep. Can't. If I get anything out of this trip, if there's something I'd pray for, it'd be to go home and get some sleep. The funny thing is, being back in 'Nam, I've slept really good every night."
Only a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam have returned. But for those still scarred by their wartime experience, tours such as this one, which was being led by Bacak, have become an increasingly popular--and successful--form of therapy. Bacak, who runs the nonprofit "A Quest for Healing" out of his home in Lakewood, Wash., charges $1,675, including air fare, for the two-week trips he offers twice a year.
Welcomed Back as Friends
In a little one-room building used by the Communist Party, three former VC guerrillas awaited the group of American vets--12 in all, each wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the words "Vietnam: I Came Back." An electric fan groaned overhead, and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh hung on a blue wall. Outside, by the open door, villagers stood 10 deep, trying to get a good look at these broad-shouldered visitors who towered over their hosts, and the crowd kept growing until an old man in a frayed security guard's shirt arrived to shoo everyone away.
Doan Vinh Quay, 62--who wore a fedora and over his best shirt had pinned a black medal commemorating his parents, killed by U.S. artillery in 1967--spoke first. He said he was honored to welcome the Americans back as friends. He showed them scars where a bullet had shattered his hand. He asked what unit each had fought with and noted, "They were good, very tough," when someone said 101st Airborne. He smiled when a GI asked how long a tour of duty had been for a Viet Cong. It was for the duration, Quay replied. He had fought for 15 years, some of his friends for much longer.
Back in Quang Ngai, at lunch before the meeting, Bacak, 58, had tried to ease the Americans' apprehension.
"When you meet them," he said, "just keep it light at first. They won't speak English, but we've got a translator. Be polite. Ask about their families. Don't ask, 'How many people did you kill?' or any shit like that. Then play it by ear. If they want to talk about the war, OK. You're going to find they're very gracious."
So the Americans did as they were asked, and amid tea and picture-taking and conversation increasingly filled with banter, the ice melted, the anxiety faded, and it was clear to both sides that this was not a gathering of enemies.
"I just want to say that, during the war, we had a lot of respect for the VC," Lemire, 50, said. "You were good soldiers."
Quay nodded in appreciation, and one could almost hear him thinking, "I know."
"I've never brought anyone back that didn't find the trip positive," said Bacak, who spent a year in the hills around Pho Vinh where Quay's forces operated. "It doesn't eradicate all the problems, but it allows the vets to change the mental black-and-white photos and put in new pictures. It lets them put a human face on the men they fought.
"Over weeks, maybe months, they go home and find the nightmares diminish. They start sleeping better. They don't get angry so easily," Bacak continued. "Before my first trip back, alone in '97, I was real bogged down with drugs. The only reason I didn't try suicide was because I'd spent so much time trying to stay alive over here. I got back to Washington after that first trip, and my wife, Joyce, says it was like having a new husband come home."
Camp Slowly Being Reclaimed by Jungle
Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans Assn. Foundation, who made his first of many trips back in 1981, put it this way in a telephone conversation from his Washington, D.C., office: "You could probably shut down a lot of VA psychiatric clinics simply by bringing the vets back to Vietnam. It's better than any medication, and the angrier the veteran is, the more powerful the experience seems to be."