A Marine Returns to Iraq

Book, Veterans, War sites
Benjamin Busch in 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Benjamin Busch in 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Photo by Sgt. James Letsky, via Facebook).

I just finished reading a fascinating article by Marine Corps veteran Benjamin Busch about his return to Iraq a decade after he served there. Busch first went to Iraq in 2003 to lead a light armored reconnaissance company. He served as provincial military mayor of the desert town Jassan, near the Iranian border, and was part of some early democratic efforts in the region. After leaving Iraq, Busch had a successful career as an actor and writer, penning a memoir about his time as a solider called Dust to Dust in 2012. Throughout his ten year absence, however, he wondered what had happened to Jassan and the people he had come to know there. So in December 2013 he returned to Jassan to find out, a trip that the US State Department emphatically tried to dissuade him from taking.

He told The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry what it was like to go back to Iraq:

It was very interesting, because driving through the country in 2003 I had been way up on top of a light armored reconnaissance vehicle. I kind of had viewed even the road from a position of height. And now I was in the back of a cab. I had lost all of my authority. I had grown a beard and I had gone in disguise as much as I could. I wanted to find out what they thought of me and us. The sad thing about Iraq, of course, is that they kind of have come to a point where the future is an impossible world. No one gets to live there. They’re living day to day. They really feel that as bad as things are right now, it will get worse.

Busch said that by returning to Iraq, “I realized finally my place in history.” I hope that other Iraq War vets will have the same opportunity in the years to come.

What I’m reading these days

Book, Novel

Rory Fanning and his book

With the birth of my daughter at the end of October and the cold weather here in Chicago, I haven’t been getting out of the house much these days. Luckily, I received two books in the mail recently to keep me busy indoors.

The first is by Chicago author and veteran Rory Fanning — “Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.” The book chronicles Rory’s journey by foot across the United States to raise money for the Pat TIllman Foundation and to find peace after fighting in Afghanistan. Rory was so moved by what he saw in Afghanistan that he become a conscientious objector to the war, so his perspective as a returned veteran is particularly unique.

Hearts Minds and Coffee

The other book I’m currently reading is also a peace odyssey, but one set in Vietnam. Kent Hinckley’s novel “Hearts, Minds, and Coffee” takes place during the war and follows the story of one American soldier sent to a dangerous Viet Cong stronghold as punishment for his anti-war views. The soldier must “wage peace” with the Vietnamese people in the area in order to survive. Kent was so kind as to inscribe the book he sent to me:

hearts minds coffee inscription

What books are you reading this December? Are there any veteran or Vietnam-centered books you’d recommend?


Interviewed in San Diego Union-Tribune

Articles, News, Press Coverage, Veterans, Vietnam

UT San-Diego screen shot

I was interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune recently for an article about an American veteran who reconnected with his wartime friend when he returned to Vietnam. You can read the article here.

General Mike Neil was just 26 years old when he went to Vietnam as a Marine in 1967, but he became a father figure to the 12-year-old Vietnamese boy he nicknamed “GTO.” After Gen. Neil’s tour was up, he left Vietnam and for years wondered what had happened to his young friend. Finally, in 2009 he returned to Vietnam on a battlefield tour and was able to track down GTO. The two have kept in touch since then and GTO recently visited the United States to see Gen. Neil.

But Neil’s return to Vietnam and his reunion with GTO is about more than a decades-long friendship. As one U-T San Diego reader put it, it was about finding peace after struggling for years with a difficult war.
UT San Diego reader letter

To remember the days of war

We have come to you this afternoon

Our old battlefield still here.

Yet how do we find your graves

Now hidden by 30 years of growth.

In your youth like the leaves so green

Your blood soaks the earth red

For today’s forest to grow.

Words cannot describe how we miss you

Our fingers trace the bark for clues of days past.

We imagine you resting for a thousand peaceful autumns

Feeling the loss of each of you.

We come to rejoin a span of bridge

For the happiness of those living.

On a calm autumn afternoon in Ia Drang

Veterans join hands.

After 30 years we relive that battle

Between two sides of the frontline.

Now we stand at each other’s side

Remembering generals and soldiers of years past

Bring back the months and years of history

Untroubled by ancient rifts

We look together toward the future

Hoping that generations to come will remember.

Our people know love and bravery

We leave old hate for new friendships.

Together we will live in peace

So that this land will remain ever green

Forever in peace and harmony.

– A poem composed by NVA veteran Col.Tran Minh Hao upon meeting American veteran Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore in Vietnam, as translated in We are Soldiers Still

Veterans join hands: A poem

Poem, Poetry, Veterans, Vietnam

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} gmail.com.

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 ongjon11@yahoo.com.

First Kill documentary

PTSD, Veterans, Vietnam

Recently, I watched the Dutch documentary “First Kill” about the experiences of veterans and reporters during the Vietnam War. The film delves into the complex psychology of killing and the American military’s obsession with “body count” during the war. In a war where territory acquisition was difficult, the military measured its success by the number of enemies its soldiers killed.

As Nick Turse so compellingly argues in his book “Kill Anything That Moves,” the body count obsession led to the killing of countless non-combatants, including the elderly, women, and children. Each corpse was added to a unit’s tally and military leaders rarely investigated whether the corpses were actually those of Viet Cong.

What caused so many young American men to act so viciously in Vietnam? While Turse blames the military’s efforts to dehumanize Vietnamese (for instance, using racial slurs), the documentary “First Kill” suggests that the answer has more to do with crossing a moral line. After being told your whole life that murder is wrong, soldiers were put in a situation where they were expected to not only kill, but kill lots of people. Under those conditions, murder becomes normal.

As veteran Billy Heflin in “First Kill” recalls,

When I was in America I was called a baby killer, because we killed kids. It was easy to pull the trigger. Just another trigger out there. It was the enemy. They had to be killed. You didn’t think about. You didn’t say, man, I killed a little kid. You didn’t think about that.

Later in the film, Billy talks about how difficult it was for him to come back to the United States after being trained as a killer. He says he misses killing and the good feeling that came from shooting the enemy.

How does one go back to a society where killing is immoral after being told by your government to kill? Certainly, some veterans have an easier time at it than others. But for vets like Billy, it is something that they will struggle with for a long time.

For Vietnam veterans suffering from “soldier’s heart,” I recommend checking out psychotherapist Ed Tick. He and his wife lead healing journeys back to Vietnam each year with a focus on forgiveness and reconciliation.

Anti-war protests then and now

Articles, Protest, USA, Veterans, Vietnam
December, 1967 Stop the Draft Week

Draft cards burning in front of the door to the Oakland Army Induction Center in December 1967. (From the Harvey Richards Media Archive)

Forty-six years ago this week, a coalition of 40 anti-war organizations staged “Stop the Draft Week” demonstrations. Protesters burnt their draft cards — an act which Congress had made illegal two years before — and rallied outside of military centers. The week was just the latest in what had turned out to be a year of anti-war actions. In April, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam led 400,000 protesters on a march from New York’s Central Park to the UN headquarters. Well-known peace activists like Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Dr Benjamin Spock addressed the crowd, along with Vietnam veteran Jan Berry Crumb.

Crumb had served in Vietnam in 1963 as part of a group of military “advisors” the US had sent to Southeast Asia to train the South Vietnamese Army. What he saw in Vietnam disturbed him and not long after returning to the US, he resigned from the military. In June 1967, Crumb and five other veterans joined together and founded the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The organization would become a critical voice for anti-war veterans in the years to come. As Gerald Nicosia writes in “Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veteran’s Movement”:

The organization would put Richard Nixon into a panic, provoke FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover into breaking the law in order to destroy it, precipitate the last major conspiracy trial of the era, and bring to prominence at least one leader of national stature, John Kerry.

(Nicosia 2001:5)

A 1971 ad VVAW ran, which explained their reasons for protesting the war. This ad was funded by Hugh Hefner.

A February 1971 ad for VVAW, which explained their reasons for protesting the war. This ad was funded by Hugh Hefner and ran in Playboy magazine.

The Vietnam veterans who protested the war in the 60s and 70s blazed a trail for modern anti-war veterans. But American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today protest without the support of a large anti-war movement. They are more easily silenced because fewer people are paying attention. Afghanistan vet Joe Glenton wrote a piece in Vice magazine last week highlighting some of the American and British veterans who are speaking out against war. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in peace activism.

In the news part II

Articles, Veterans, Vietnam

University of Chicago magazine cover

In more alma mater news … I was featured in the alumni section of the November-December issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. I graduated from the U of C in 2006 with my Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities — a mix-and-match major where I studied human rights, international relations and creative writing. It was an unusual combination at the time, but it has served me well in my career as an international journalist.

You can read the excerpt from the magazine below.

Excerpt from university of Chicago magazine

More about the Monitor story

Articles, Veterans, Vietnam

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 1.31.05 PM Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 12.54.37 PM

I’m happy to report that I got a lot of good feedback about my cover story in The Christian Science Monitor’s magazine, which was published last week. I’m currently wading through the many e-mails in my inbox about the article. So if I haven’t responded to your note yet, please accept my apologies! I hope to get back to everyone by next week.

Monitor editor Pat Murphy interviewed me about the article for the Monitor’s website. You can watch that very short interview in the video above.

Go News

Lastly, one of the veterans I featured in the piece, Greg Kleven, told me that the article has been partially translated into Vietnamese for the VTC website Go News. For those of you who understand Vietnamese, you can see that translation here.