This month, it's been 40 years since the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon. We hear from North Texans who fought, the families left behind, and the legacies they've created at home.
R.D. Foster: Honoring A Fellow Veteran With Song
R.D. Foster made it his life's mission to remember, after feeling how lonely it was to come home from Vietnam as a Marine in 1969. He created a website and helped build a memorial in McKinney for fellow Collin County veterans.
This drive to create havens for veterans' stories began the day Foster first got back. His dear friend and fellow Vietnam vet Gilbert Garza was there to greet him with a gentle word of caution as they drove around McKinney: People weren't interested in hearing about the country or the hell he'd just been through.
Garza was carrying some darkness around. Foster was the friend who listened when no one else would.
"Gilbert told me this story, that the night he got his the worst, his unit was up on top of a hill and they were being attacked by the VC [Viet Cong.] He'd already been wounded twice - he got two bronze stars. This night he said it was raining, it was raining hard and dark, and the flashes of light, when they were fighting these guys coming up the hill, he told me, he said, 'Man I saw the devil, in that light.'"
Ten years later, Garza took his own life.
Foster recalled that fearful night his friend told him about, picked up his guitar and wrote a song called "When I Fight The Devil."
There's an exhibit on this month at Collin County Historical Society and Museum called "Vietnam Syndrome." You can see the Tiger Cage Foster built from bamboo, modeled after the four-foot-by-four-foot makeshift prisons in Hanoi, North Vietnam, where American pilots like Congressman Sam Johnson and others were held and tortured.
Dr. Huong Dang: A Father Taken From His Family, After The War's End
Dr. Huong Dang’s father was a colonel in the South Vietnamese Army. When the war was over in 1975, Huang was 13 years old. He, his mother, and six brothers and sisters saw their father off to a “reeducation meeting.”
"We thought he would be gone for two weeks," Huong says.
His father had been taken prisoner, to North Vietnam. They wouldn’t see him again for 13 years.
“As a young boy, I thought of my father as someone who is strong and healthy and vigorous, and when I saw him, he was old – stooped, and weak, and he walked with a cane. He told me that he left me when I was a boy, and when he saw me, I’d become a man," Dang says. "And he was very proud of the way I turned out.”
The Dang family was considered an enemy of the state because of the colonel’s status, so the children couldn't go to college or work. Huong and his brothers escaped to the U.S. by boat and now he’s a family practice doctor in Arlington.
Besides the hardships involved in adapting to life in America and beginning high school at age 18, Huong says he overcame a feeling of abandonment as he missed both parents during his formative teenage years.
Kay Merkel and Willie Minor: Surviving PTSD, On Parallel Paths
Kay Merkel was teaching English in Vietnam when her husband, an Air America pilot, was killed in 1970. At the same time, Willie Minor was serving in the US Army’s Fire Direction Control Unit, and shooting at the enemy. Their paths never crossed abroad, but the two friends found each other almost four decades later and now help veterans write and perform plays with the Veterans Resource Center.
Photo from the production of "Be-Bop Is Dead," the second play written and produced by VRC Veterans, presented at the Bonham VA Hospital in 2013. Left to right are Kim Conova-Romans, Willie Minor, Kay Merkel Boruff, and Robert Hampton.
We'll air more stories on KERA 90.1 and add them to this space as the anniversary month continues. If you have one to share, email email@example.com.
“Last Days In Vietnam” airs April 28
On April 28 at 8 p.m., PBS and KERA-TV will air “Last Days In Vietnam,” a documentary. Watch Chapter 1 here.
About “Last Days”
“Last Days in Vietnam” chronicles the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on Saigon. With the clock ticking and the city under fire, American officers on the ground faced a moral dilemma: follow official policy and evacuate U.S. citizens and their dependents only, or ignore orders and save the men, women, and children they had come to value and love in their years in Vietnam. At the risk of their careers and possible court-martial, a handful of individuals took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate effort to evacuate as many South Vietnamese as possible.
Explore veterans' stories
In recent months, public media stations across the country have profiled veterans, including memories of war and stories from home as they return to civilian life. Learn more here.