Reader Letters: Stephen Willett

Reader Letters, Veterans, Vietnam

In the second installment of Reader Letters, I’d like to introduce you to Stephen Willett. Stephen contacted me in response to my article in The University of Chicago Magazine.

If you would like to share your story of the war or returning to Vietnam, send me an e-mail at nissarhee {at} gmail.com.

Stephen and his son stand on the Dak To airstrip, where Stephen ferried infantry during the war.

Stephen and his son stand on the Dak To airstrip, where Stephen ferried infantry during the war.

Stephen writes:

I’m a Vietnam veteran, US Army helicopter pilot, and have returned to Vietnam twice in the last two years. My journey from the ’60s seems very similar to those of other vets and their experiences mentioned in your story.  Prior to my tour of duty I viewed the Vietnams much the way I view the Koreas.  Bad guys in the north and freedom loving capitalists in the south.  Of course we’re going to protect and help them.  Within a few months of my arrival in 1970 the reality of what I observed changed my opinion.

When I returned from my year in Vietnam in April 1971, the eventual outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion.  I was actually surprised that it was another four years before Saigon surrendered.

Even before my tour in Vietnam was complete I thought that I’d like to come back someday after the war was over and the country had healed.  That day came in March 2012 when my wife, Sharon, and I joined a tour group composed mostly of pilots who had served in my unit, the 189th Assault Helicopter Company.  There were others who served in other capacities during the war and many of us were accompanied by our wives.  We had an amazing two week visit that for me was surprisingly emotional, even cathartic.

When we returned our son was very interested in our story and photos.  He said that he wished he could haven been with us and asked me if there was another similar tour in the future would I do it again with him.  We returned from our two week adventure three weeks ago.  Again there were twenty-two travelers, mostly pilots from the 189th.  There were also wives and two of us had our adult sons with us.  Our sons were not born until after the war had ended for the U.S. The experience was wonderful but quite different, for me, from the previous experience for a variety of reasons.

***
If you’d like to learn more about Stephen’s 2014 tour of Vietnam, you can read his essay about the trip here.
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