Open letter from a U.S. soldier to a family he came to admire in a Vietnam village during the American involvement in the Vietnam war

This was an unsent “letter” my dad wrote to a family he met in a village in Vietnam.  I edited some punctuation to make it clearer and tried to add paragraph breaks where appropriate.

To the people of Vietnam whom I came to call friends, I feel a deep loss ever since I was forced to relocate to Khe Sahn.  A few weeks after arriving in Danang I ventured out on my own one day and walked into your village.  Having spent several years living in the streets prior to being drafted conditioned me to feel confident in just about any situation.  The first day I walked into your village, all eyes were upon me.  I can only imagine what you must have been thinking about a lone U.S. Army soldier suddenly appearing.

I remember two men, one on each side with me in the middle as they slowly circled around me, first at a distance of 100 feet and gradually moving closer with each rotation until finally one stood almost toe-to-toe and looked me in the eyes.  He asked what I was doing there and where were the others.  I told him there wasn’t any others and that I came as a friend – to get to know them.  This pleased him evidently as he looked at me and broke out a semi-toothless smile.

A short time later, I found myself having a meal with his wife, mother, daughter.  Nothing like a bowl of fish heads & rice to get you off to a good start.  Over the next couple of months, I visited as often as possible, and you and your fam always greeted me with a smile & shared a meal.

Communication was a problem with your broken English and my total ignorance of your language.  One thing we did have in common was a curiosity toward one another and we always treated each other with respect.  We also discovered the value of a handshake, a smile, and yes, sometimes a hug.  I had a love for you all along because in my heart I always knew the bottom line was that we weren’t any different.  We had the same needs and desires to have a better life.  The only thing standing between us was our respective governments.

When I was in your home, we came together as true friends and genuinely enjoyed each other as such.  One afternoon, as we were visiting, a stranger “to me” walked by and said something.  Immediately both you and your wife took my hands and led me between the walls to a secret hide-away and signaled me to be quiet.  I heard men talking and walking by several times during about an hour’s time and finally you came and led me out.  I asked what happened and you told me that the VC had came through the village and had they found me, they would have killed me.  This would happen at least one more time during my visits.  I felt bad knowing that not only did I put my life in danger, but yours also.  The VC would have killed you for protecting me and possible your family as well.  I told you that I wouldn’t be back for that reason and both of you and your wife and several others from the village asked me not to stay away.

Although I have no recall of your names even though you used American names, and I can’t recall your faces, I will never forget how you treated me like part of the family.  You let me into your hearts as I opened mine to you.  We shared a common sense of humanity and genuinely cared about one another.  This was the first time in my life that I ever witnessed what a true, loving family was.  You’ll never know what it meant to me to finally feel accepted by someone and to have them really [gave?] for me.  It was new, it was awesome, and I hungered for what you freely offered me.

Back home no one cared for a young boy living in back alleys and sleeping under bridges alone in all kinds of weather.  Many days, I went totally unfed, cold, wet, rainy nights, freezing weather, no jacket, and people would walk or drive by never offering anything.  I fly thousands of miles into a strange country and find an unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar village who have virtually nothing to spare and see you give willingly & abundantly to a total stranger, even willing to risk your own lives to protect me.

This brings me to probably my saddest regret of Vietnam – the day I had to load up in a truck & head for my new station, Khasahn.  I never got the chance to say goodbye to your beautiful people who had become my family in my heart.  I wanted to protect you and I’ve often wondered what became of you and your village once the Americans left.  I wondered if you ever thought about me, was I killed, did I go back home, did I just decide not to visit anymore, did I not really care, why I never said “goodbye”?  My heart aches because I feel like I betrayed you, I abandoned you, I threw you to the wolves, I turned my back on you.  Truth is, I had no warning I was being shipped out and no time to see you and explain.  To this day, I wonder about you and everyone in the village – did you miss me as I missed you?  I guess I will never know.

I do ask for your forgiveness if somehow I let you down.  It wasn’t my intention to just disappear.  I apologize for my country pulling out and throwing your village and your country to the wolves.  I will always remember you and the sacrifices you made for me and the danger you put yourselves in for the sake of a U.S. soldier.  You proved that to you, all life is sacred and were willing to sacrifice your life for mine.  How can I ever return that favor?  No, I was pulled away.  That’s how you were thanked.  It haunts me now and will always haunt me that I was not able to do something more.

Ben Sweeten
SP4 Vietnam 70’-71’
Fuel tank truck driver

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