Vietnam: Why We Return
“It was the best thing I ever did. I was mad at myself for all the bad things I had done when I was there during the war, so it gave me a chance to see how the country turned out.”
-- Robert Kirkland
I arrived in Vietnam in 2008, four decades after some of my companions were first in country.
It was the summer before my senior year of college and I traveled with a small group of American students and a Vietnam War veteran. A few of us had visited the country before while others wanted to see for the first time a setting so prominent in American history. I wanted to experience firsthand a place that seemed to still vividly exist in our collective, national consciousness and attempt to understand how it has evolved since the war. We all wanted to learn more about Vietnam, an exotic country, rich in history and natural wonder.
We traveled with Vietnam War veteran Robert Kirkland, known affectionately as Bobby Lee. He served in the war from 1969-70 and has since traveled back to the country many times. His presence on the trip provided us with powerful historical insight and his personality made the trip truly special.
Long after we arrived back in the United States, I asked Bobby Lee what it meant to him, as a veteran, to return to Vietnam. I wrote to him, “How does it make you feel, and why do you enjoy going back?”
To start with, I am glad you asked me to help you out with this, it means a lot.
So, what it means to me as a vet to go back. First I talked to my dad, also a vet in Korea, and asked him if I should go back to Vietnam on my first trip in '98. He said to me that everyone goes back to all the places we had been at war: Korea, Japan, and other places so why would you not go back to 'Nam? So I went.
It was the best thing I ever did. I was mad at myself for all the bad things I had done when I was there during the war, so it gave me a chance to see how the country turned out. First, the people were not at war anymore; they had some sort of freedom that I think we helped them get, and it helped me to meet the people. I was never around the people that much so I didn't like them back then. Now by going there I get to be around them more and enjoy them more. I see them in a different way. Now I love the people. I have made so many friends there. I also feel good about helping out my best friend Thao, who I met in 2003. I give her money all the time to help her with school, or other things. I feel like I am helping them instead of hurting them like I did during the war. It puts me at peace knowing I am doing some good now.
The other thing is I get to see where and how other vets lived and fought during the war. I had a friend here that said to me the first time he went back with me that he thought the war was only being fought where he was. He didn't think about all the other guys, and where they were and what was going on where they were. So it helps me to understand more about the war and what it was all about.
These photographs depict the places we went, the things we saw, and the people we met -- all an attempt to illustrate why we return.