The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

May/June 2003

The Wind Beneath Their Wings


It was a hot, sticky June afternoon when Sons and Daughters In Touch Chair Tony Cordero stood in front of a crowd on the knoll adjacent to The Wall. It was Father's Day 2000 and SDIT was celebrating its 10th anniversary. Cordero announced that he felt SDIT was ready to go to Vietnam.

We had found one another and rejoiced with one another at four Father's Day celebrations. Now, he said, we were ready to see, smell, touch, and taste the country where our fathers gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Some in the audience were stunned, some were uneasy. After all, how could we possibly visit the country that stole our fathers from us? Having journeyed there nine months earlier, I was not nervous. I saw only the same healing I had experienced being offered to those I had grown to love. How could anything but good come from this journey?

VVA member Bill Duker was chosen to chair the Planning and Logistics Committee. He was a planner, counselor, negotiator, and troubleshooter for the next 30 months. SDIT appointed me as co-chair of the committee. First, the committee selected our staff support and team leaders. We looked for strong leadership skills and an understanding of SDIT and the mission we were about to undertake. SDITwas literally besieged with dozens of offers from people across the country to help. Medical personnel were of primary importance. We selected a group of nurses, most of whom had served in Vietnam.

We also added a psychologist with extensive experience working with veterans suffering from PTSD and their families. Two SDIT daughters and two Catholic priests were asked to act as spiritual advisers. We could not have achieved the level of success that we did without our team leaders and staff support. We expected a great deal of these men and women during our 18-day journey, and they delivered all that we asked and more. We expected each to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We expected each to act as counselor. What we didn't expect was for each leader to take on these roles and to embrace them in a way that made each son, daughter, widow, brother, and niece feel as though they were part of an extended family.

Our journey was as much of a healing experience for our team leaders and support staff as it was for the sons and daughters. What began as hundreds of interested applicants eventually thinned out to a group of 77 individuals. Never before has a group of sons and daughters traveled--not as individuals, but as a family to retrace the footsteps of the fathers who were lost in a war three decades ago.

From the onset, the veteran community rallied around us. Donations poured in from every state. More importantly, love and support surrounded us from veterans across the nation.

At the farewell barbeque hosted by the VVA California State Council, veterans, and AVVA members sent us off with well wishes, lots of hugs, kisses, and more than a few tears.

One coordinator, Bob Johnston, presented me with a pin in the shape of Vietnam, with the words ``My Father served in Vietnam.'' Then he presented Chuck Gregoire with a similar pin that said, ``My Brother served in Vietnam.'' Chuck was with my father when he died. Chuck pulled him out of the bunker, baptized him, and carried his body to the helicopter for transfer to the Danang Mortuary.

I realized that these men and women understood in a way that no one else could that each of us, veterans and family alike, were at a crossroads in this journey for healing. Many veterans will never set foot in Vietnam for reasons that only they understand. But they understood why it was a step we needed to take.

Our farewell party began the bonding process. I thought how similar our group was to the groups our dads comprised. They watched each other's backs, and they took care of one another. They were brothers, family in every sense of the word. And so it was with the sons, daughters, wives, brothers, and nieces.

Although the plane was noisy and rowdy, I watched something happen: Slowly, small groups started to form. Kimberly Kendrick, daughter of Richard Kendrick, confided, ``I don't know if I can do this.'' I gave her the biggest hug I could and told her she could. She was strong. She was her father's daughter, and I knew every person on this plane could do this.

Saigon was everything we hoped it would be: noisy, crowded, and exciting. We were met at Tan Son Nhut airport by beautiful women dressed in ao di, bearing signs welcoming SDIT to Vietnam. Each SDIT member was presented with a red and yellow rose, SDIT's symbol for our fallen and missing fathers.

We knew there remained many unanswered questions and more fear than anyone would dare admit, but the next two days were dedicated to spreading our wings and getting our feet wet. We were experiencing the Vietnam of 2003; the Vietnam of the '60s and '70s would come later. We visited Tay Ninh, where we explored the tunnels of Cu Chi, gazed at the Cao Dai Temple, and climbed Nui Ba Den, also known as the Black Virgin Mountain.

Each team was assembled according to the area of operation of the father being represented. Our success in matching each member to each site was the work of Global Spectrum's Dick Schonberger. Our success in this area was remarkable and unprecended.

Although we tried to prepare each member for the physical and emotional rigors of the team visit, nothing we said could quell the fears that each member faced as we stood in the lobby of the Rex Hotel and said our good-byes. 

My best friend once told me that the most important things a parent can give a child are roots and wings. We had given them roots in the short time we had together. Their fathers had given them roots as well, ones that ran decades deep. As a leader of this group, it was my turn to help these people grow their wings.


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