Thursday, April 30, 2015

Last Helicopter from Saigon

On this day 40 years ago, the last helicopters left Saigon.  I've been listening to a week of commemorations; I particularly enjoyed this episode of On Point about April 29 and 30, 1975, as the U.S. did its final exit from the capital city; troops were already gone.  Even though I heard this story about Operation Babylift days ago, my thoughts return to those airlifted children, many of them Vietnamese orphans.

I love this stories about how humans try to do the right thing, and how these efforts sometimes actually do work out.  One of the people interviewed for the story was a child who was evacuated; he has gone on to engineer planes for Boeing.  Obviously, if he had been left to his fate as an orphan in Vietnam, his story would have ended very differently.

I think of those children who were evacuated, how they were similar ages to me and my sister.  We were born in 1965 and 1970.  But unlike those evacuated children, I don't have many memories of the war.

If you look through family photos, you will see one year of Christmas pictures when we all wore our POW bracelets.  On the silver cuff was the name of a prisoner and the year he was captured.  We were supposed to wear them until the prisoner was released.

I wonder what happened to those POW bracelets.  I wonder how many of those captives came home.

I have memories of going to Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama to see troops return.  But did I really see that?  Or is my brain claiming classic photos of children and wives throwing themselves into the arms of returning men as memory?

My dad served in the Air Force as a navigator, but the closest he got to Vietnam was Thailand, I think.  He did join the Air Force because he knew his draft number was coming up, and he didn't want to be in the Army.  And because he did that, he met my mom--otherwise, he'd have never made his way to the Dallas area, where she had her first job as a parish worker.

During my childhood and teen years, I was surrounded by veterans, but they seemed to be relatively unscathed by their experiences.  It was only later that I heard about an older friend's brother's death from diseases that had their origin in Agent Orange exposure.  Still, when I count up the Vietnam era veterans that I "know," I see people who seem relatively undamaged.

It's sobering to think about how old these veterans are getting.  In my brain, they are forever 20, lanky, smoking cigarettes as they move through distant jungles.

It's also interesting to me to think, as I so often do, about how these wars and various conflicts, motivate migration.  I heard one of the commentators talk about getting on one of the last helicopters out of Saigon and looking down at the sea below.  He saw all those tiny boats, people fleeing in any way they could.

I have more memories of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees than I do Vietnam vets.  The churches of my youth were always helping to resettle refugees.  The churches of my adulthood are not doing that activity, at least, not as openly.

In fact, as I look around, I'm not seeing anyone with similar commitments to resettling refugees these days.  Perhaps that's a good thing.  Maybe it's because we're doing a better job at figuring out ways that people don't have to leave their homes.

I'm too much of a realist to let myself believe that for long.  It's more likely because refugees are washing up on different shores these days.  I'd have a different view if I lived in Spain or Italy and saw significant numbers of refugees coming from various war-torn places in Africa and the Middle East.  This year, refugees are drowning in a different sea.

Years ago, I thought about the Cambodian refugee who rode my school bus in the 7th grade.  At the time, I knew that she must have been overwhelmed by her experiences.  But she didn't speak much English, and I certainly knew no way to communicate beyond smiling at her. 

Long ago, I wrote a poem that spoke of her.  I don't like the whole poem, but I think the first stanza is striking.  I'll end with it.  The whole poem, "Seventh Grade Refugees," was published in The Julia Mango.

They fled from Cambodia to Charlottesville
during one of the coldest winters of the twentieth century.
They left that harvest of corpses to come to the fertile
crescent that created vibrant democracy, Jefferson’s back yard.

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