Imagine it: a war zone. People killing each other – gunshots, bombs, chemical warfare. A soldier follows orders and does what is needed to survive, to get home, to be safe once again with family and friends. Photographs in the soldier’s pocket serve as a reminder of what is being fought for, a reminder to attack the enemy who also has orders to follow and photographs of loved ones from a different home, from a different country.
David Land, current Madison resident who fought in the Vietnam War in 1968 as a member of the 101st Airborne Division, doesn’t have to imagine this scenario so much as remember it.
Looking back, Land shared, “For me, the real tragedy of war is that the people fighting and dying on both sides are really so similar.”
That was one of the two main concepts he tried to convey to his son, Justin, and grandson, Eli, who accompanied him on a recent trip to Vietnam 50 years after his tour of duty.
The Vietnam War (1955-1975) saw the loss of 58,220 Americans according to the Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File of the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) Extract Files. That same war, which the Vietnamese call the American War, resulted in around three million Vietnamese deaths, the majority of which were civilians (Brittanica.com). Further and ongoing complications from undetonated land mines buried across the country, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Agent Orange – a chemical herbicide used by the U.S. military that “was later proven to cause serious health issues—including cancer, birth defects, rashes and severe psychological and neurological problems” – affected even greater numbers of people (History.com).
Land, who fell in love with Vietnam and its people during his first encounter there, travelled to that Southeast Asian country twice in the years between 1968 and 2018. The first visit was five years ago with his wife, Shandon, whom he had married in December 1967 just three weeks prior to being deployed. The second visit two years later included his son, a friend, and a solo excursion of trekking in the North Vietnam mountains. Yet this most recent eight-day journey was organized specifically to visit multiple locations to honor soldiers from both sides who had died in the conflict.
“We left flowers and lighted small bundles of incense sticks, a common practice in Vietnam, in a few places – where the first of our own people were killed, at a temple containing a plaque to remember 192 local people who died, and where we ambushed and killed 16 North Vietnamese soldiers,” Land said.
He then went to My Lai where, on March 16, 1968, 504 villagers – infants, women, men, and elderly alike – were murdered by U.S. soldiers. Land, who was not a part of that massacre, felt it was important to be there on that significant anniversary and acknowledge the United States’ culpability.
Land wanted his family to understand the horror and violence that occurred in the war and the fear and sacrifices that took place: “This is something I struggle with. If we try to memorialize war and leave out the harsh details, we may do a disservice to ourselves and to others if we don’t remember war the way it is.”
In a letter Land wrote to Shandon in 1968, he recalled, “It was (my) worst day of the war. He (a U.S. soldier) was in a gully of a dry creek bed which cut through the thick jungle with two medics working over him; others (were) frantically cutting an LZ (landing zone) for a MEDIVAC chopper… (His) head was thrown back straining his neck; mouth agape; no color; a stubble of beard. One of the medics looked at me and shook his head. (He) was dead three minutes later. I was sick, felt like vomiting. Not from the blood or wound, but that he was probably dead because of me. But I am not allowed emotion; I had a company to run.”
Fifty years later, Land asserts, “In spite of millions of Vietnamese whose lives were ravaged by that war, everyone was friendly, gracious, welcoming. In the villages where I had fought, the people who had endured so much opened their homes, lives, and hearts to us, visitors from America. A bond is now in place between three generations of Vietnamese and Americans, a bond of friendship and respect.”