Reader Letters: Joe Sciacca

Reader Letters, Veterans, Vietnam

In the latest installment of Reader Letters, I’d like to introduce you to Vietnam War veteran Joe Sciacca.

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

Joe Sciacca embraces two children he helps in Vietnam. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie site)

Joe Sciacca spends time with children he helps in Vietnam. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie website)

Joe Sciacca is a US Army veteran who served as an orderly in the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang, South Vietnam from March 1968 to April 1969. After returning to the United States and pursuing a career as a roofer on Long Island, Joe made his way back to Vietnam in 1998.

Joe contacted me earlier this summer and sent me a documentary about his charity efforts in Vietnam. The short film is called “We Do What We Can” — a fitting title for his work over the last 15 years to help poor and sick families in the Southeast Asian country.

Joe Sciacca in Vietnam during the war. (Photo from  Ordinary Joe movie site)

Joe Sciacca in Vietnam during the war. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie website)

Joe first returned to Vietnam in 1998 as a tourist hoping to visit his old hospital. In the film, he describes how that trip led to his humanitarian work:

“[My friend] and I were down here just on vacation. We were going to take a couple of boat rides, but the weather was bad. We went back to the hotel and waiting for us in the hotel was an old nun. I don’t know how she knew we were there, but she knew we were there and she wanted to us to go visit 500 families in Hue — sick, elderly, poor and lepers. I agreed to go to five and we did. And then I came back the next year by myself and we visited 10 more houses. The year after, because of generous donations from back home, we were able to visit 30 homes.”

He now spends a couple months each year in Vietnam handing out donations he has gathered in the United States. Those who donate can ask Joe to give the money to a particular family or someone struggling with the effects of a certain medical issue, like Agent Orange or leprosy. Joe doesn’t run an official nonprofit or charity for his work; instead, he prefers to facilitate person-to-person giving by carrying money from the US to people in Vietnam.

Joe visits a boy in Hue in 2009 who is struggling with the effects of Agent Orange. (Photo from Newsday)

Joe visits a boy in Hue in 2009 who is struggling with the effects of Agent Orange. (Photo from Newsday)

In 2012, Joe told Newsday, “I live in the United States, but I’m alive in Vietnam.” For this reason, Joe says he will continue to travel to Vietnam for as long as he’s able to.

For more on Joe, check out the feature-length documentary “Ordinary Joe.” You can contact him with questions or for more information on donating at

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}

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.

Reader letters: Tom Whelan

Reader Letters, Veterans, Vietnam


Today, I’m introducing a new feature on my website, “Reader Letters.” Many veterans have sent me their stories since I started publishing articles about the return of veterans to Vietnam. While I’m not able to include these stories in my book, I think they are important and should be shared with a wider audience. So, with their permission, I will publish excerpts of their letters in the coming months.

Do you want to share your story of the war or returning to Vietnam? Send me an e-mail at nissarhee {at}


First up is Thomas Whelan.

Tom and Kim during the war.


Tom as a soldier during the war.


Tom with Thu.


Tom with the “flower girls.”

Tom writes: 

I was a high school senior dating a junior in 1964.  We went steady for 8 months.  We talked about getting engaged, maybe as soon as 1965, but we didn’t make it to ’65.  I even daydreamed about marriage.  I decided we would marry in August 1967 and honeymoon in Hawaii.  Instead, in August of ’67 I got orders for Vietnam.  Forget Hawaii, I was going to southeast Asia.

I was supposed to be an usher at my brother’s wedding in December ’67. Missed that.  But I didn’t miss the Tet Offensive in January ’68.  Still marvel that on the same day as the My Lai massacre (March 16, 1968), Bobby Kennedy  announced his candidacy for president.  I was on R & R in Taipei when a brother told me over the phone from New Jersey that Martin Luther King had been shot.  There was a bar in the lobby of the hotel and the jukebox was playing “For What It’s Worth”*.  Missed a brother’s high school graduation in June ’68.

I was cleaning my rifle on my bunk on the 2nd floor of the barracks when a soldier came running down the aisle yelling that “Bobby and Teddy were shot in San Francisco”.  They say journalism is the 1st draft of history, so I guess rumors are the 1st draft of breaking news.  Obviously Bobby was shot in Los Angeles.  The next day, a friend of mine, a black soldier, came by and shook my hand and shook his head.  I always remember that I was sitting on a bunk cleaning a rifle when I heard Bobby Kennedy was shot.  Cam Ranh was like living in the desert but you were right by the South China sea (China Beach), or the East Sea as the Vietnamese call it.

The war went on, and on some more.  Cam Ranh Village (the Ville) gave us some distraction.  You could nurse a cool beer (cold is better), and flirt with a bar girl.  I don’t think the bar girls wanted to be bar girls any more than I wanted to be a soldier.  But everybody has to be somewhere, doing something.  You don’t always control your circumstances.  Tuy Hoa was a different experience, closer to the action.  In Cam Ranh I pushed papers in a tent, in Tuy Hoa I worked in a make-shift Education Center until a month passed and guys shipped out and I became the guy in charge of the Education Center.  Spec. 4 Whelan at your service, but keep your rifle near by.  Finally September came and I made my first trip to Saigon to catch a plane back to the ‘world’.  Spent a week in San Diego with my brother Bill who was in the Marines, before flying back to New York City.

Funny thing, in the army, with army shorthand, I was a city boy, a city slicker.  But I might as well have been from Nebraska.  The first plane ride in my life was in September ’67 flying to the west coast, and then on to Vietnam.  I was 21.  My first night in a hotel was in January ’68 in Hong Kong on R & R.  I was as worldly as any farm boy.

Returning to America I resumed my American life.  Interesting thing, if you don’t get wounded, either physically or emotionally, and if you didn’t lose your best buddy, then war is a young man’s adventure.  Sure it was a little scary at first, then the routine set in, and finally you were looking for daylight, counting the days until DEROS (Date of Estimated Return from Overseas).  My DEROS was 26Sep68.

So Vietnam was just a young man’s adventure that faded into history and memory as I went about my life.

That is, until 2002, when I returned on a brief 3 day vacation while traveling around Asia.

I have traveled to Vietnam every year since.


Tom founded the organization Burke House to help support the Vietnamese children he’s met on his trips back to Vietnam. You can learn more about Tom and Burke House here.