LOOKING BEYOND

A Fall 2001 edition of Retired Officer magazine, had a notable article written by DUSTOFFer Pat Brady. The foreword is from the editorial staff of the publication.

Sometimes we better appreciate events when viewing them through the eyes of others. With this thought in mind, join us on a journey to a distant land and revisit a controversial era of American history. Major General Patrick Brady leads our excursion. This story collects his observations and notes from two visits to Vietnam. Share his insights as he meets a former enemy, visits old battlegrounds, and encounters everyday Vietnamese people.

In two tours in Vietnam, Brady flew some 3,000 missions and rescued more than 5,000 wounded civilians and soldiers, enemy as well as friendly. He is identified in The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War and other books as the top helicopter pilot from the Vietnam War. Brady received the Medal of Honor on October 9, 1969, for a series of missions on January 6, 1968, that began before sunrise and ended after dark, during which he used three helicopters because of enemy fire and mine fields to rescue 51 wounded soldiers. Brady is one of only a handful of soldiers to receive both the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military award.

Twenty-seven years after his Medal of Honor action, Brady returned to Vietnam on behalf of retired Army General William Westmoreland. This visit would inspire Brady to return in 1998 with his wife.

April 1995: He once said, "Every minute hundreds of thousands of people die all over the world. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, or of tens of thousands of human beings, even if they are our own compatriots, represents really very little." He killed benefactors and foes alike. The man who gave him his first job was an early victim. Later, his father-in-law would be executed by the communists, along with some 10,000 noncommunist rivals. His first wife died under the French in Hoa Lo prison, later called the "Hanoi Hilton." The French guillotined his sister-in-law and killed his daughter, his father, and his two sisters. They mocked his military rank by putting it in quotation marks. Later they would call him the "snow-covered volcano" in recognition of a quiet demeanor covering a raging fanaticism that showered immeasurable chaos on them.

He was an ex-convict at age 14 who would join with an ex-cook, and together they would kill many multiples of tens of thousands of their compatriots and enemies and rattle this planet's cage. Today, this ex-cook, Ho Chi Minh, is worshipped as a god by his people. The ex-convict is recognized by many alongside the likes of Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Army General Douglas MacArthur as one of the great military captains in history. He was a master of guerrilla warfare, and early in my career we were encouraged to study his works.

I watched intently as General Vo Nguyen Giap signed my 35-year-old copy of his book, People's War People's Army. His hair now really was snow-covered, but the volcano inside was dormant. He was bright and lively with smooth skin and large hooded eyes. He looked much younger than his 83 years and reminded me of an oriental leprechaun.

It was the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the communist takeover of Vietnam in !975, and I was there on behalf of retired Army General William Westmoreland to arrange a filmed documentary between "Westy" and Giap. We had been told that Giap would go on film and declare (the Tet Offensive) a devastating defeat for his side. That, plus the historical significance of such a meeting, promised for a great documentary and convinced me to go, even though I had a negative itch about ever returning.

The Parade: My meeting with Giap was facilitated by a mysterious lady known as Madame K. She arranged for me to be in the grandstand with the diplomatic corps at the parade celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the communist takeover. She told me I was the only American seated there. As we waited, my neighbors speculated on the nature of the parade. They said past parades had been hard on the vanquished Americans but thought that would not be the case this time because of the current effort to establish favorable trade conditions with us. Earlier, Giap used these negotiations as an excuse to abort the meeting with Westy. Except for the goose-stepping military, a sight that always sent chills up my spine, and a replica of a Russian T54 tank No. 843, which broke into the embassy grounds, the parade was far from warlike. I noticed one motorcycle with Old Glory on the bumper, and Mickey Mouse paraded along with a group of nuns and many beautiful ladies and children. I saw a lot of used American equipment and noticed that the troops stood in stifling heat for more than three hours, and not one dropped.

Across from the parade I could see the cathedral on JFK Square where I worshipped 30 years before, and I recalled a Vietnam I once knew better than any terrain on earth. I decided then to return and see this beautiful land from grunt level.

June 1998: On my return trip I joined a group consisting mostly of Army aviators and their wives and a Vietnam Gold Star wife. She was looking for closure by visiting the spot where her husband died in a helicopter crash. Her "map" was a photo of a hillside with an outcropping of rocks. Those of us who knew the terrain saw little hope for her mission. Our first stop was Hong Kong. It was my first trip there since the Chinese communist takeover. Their presence was clearly evident. The workers at the airport were immaculately uniformed, but the escalator didn't work. And they were out of single-malt Scotch in the duty-free store, a transgression no capitalist country would suffer.

Hanoi: As I looked down on our approach to Hanoi, I recalled many earlier flights where the face of the land was pocked alternately by bomb craters and grave mounds. The terrain around Hanoi still was scarred, like a beautiful woman with severe acne.

The guide briefed us on the drive from the airport into Hanoi. He said some of the land went for $1,000 to $1,500 per square meter. When did the communist party allow property ownership, we asked. Our guide, a communist, proudly described the doi moi (renovation) program that was founded during the severe hunger of 1985. It promoted land reform and farmer autonomy, reduced state intervention in business, and opened the country to foreign investment. Vladimir Lenin went through a similar famine in Russia and called his reforms the New Economic Policy. Americans call it free enterprise. We kidded our guide that the doi moi founder would make an excellent capitalist. Hanoi was a dark town, unlike Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, which was light and lively. The hotels were frugal but comfortable - at least when the air conditioners worked. The food was adequate to good but overall did not match the great French-influenced cuisine of the war years.

Going to church: I was anxious to go to church and see how the communist rejection of God affected the people's faith. Officials claimed to be atheists but said all people enjoyed freedom of religion. We had some trouble finding a church. The hotel clerks could not, or would not, direct us, even though there was one barely around the corner. It seemed they did not want to appear knowledgeable in such matters. Surprisingly, the church was crowded. I noticed how well-dressed everyone was and was embarrassed to be in shorts. As we knelt down, my wife whispered that all the women were together across the aisle. She was not amused when I replied, "No, not all of them." She ordered me up and to the rear.

The mass was colorful, and the entire congregation sang beautifully. At the sign of peace, there was no touching, only a polite bow or nod of the head. One guy did not bow back to me, choosing instead to glare. Perhaps I reminded him of a bomb that had landed near him in the past. Another man bowed but with what seemed to be a condescending twinkle in his eye, as if to say, "We kicked your butt, but you are welcome." I felt like I was at a mass some 30 years ago and enjoyed it.

A new god: Friedrich Nietzsche said, "If we have killed God, then we must become gods to be worthy of it." The communists have tried to kill God and replace him with their dictators. A deified Ho bombarded our senses everywhere. The plaza in front of his mausoleum was packed with children waiting to see his corpse. Their demeanor and dress was as if they were waiting for first communion. The mausoleum was not unlike Lenin's in Moscow or Napoleon's in Paris (except Napoleon was, mercifully, covered with marble, not glass). Apparently Ho travels periodically by special train to Moscow where he enjoys a formaldehyde bath with Lenin. At the Ho Chi Minh Museum, his statue stood outstretched majestically like a lightning rod between Heaven and Earth. Inside was a picture of Ho painted in the artist's blood. People actually bowed to his likeness. The communists spend a lot of time attacking (God as nonexistent) but see no contradiction in worshipping the spirit of Ho, which they say will live forever to inspire and lead them.

Recovery operations: We received an excellent briefing on (U.S. efforts to recover American) remains. The Joint Task Force Full Accounting Office is just that. I would defy anyone to find an instance in the history of warfare where any nation has gone to the effort that we have on behalf of our lost ones. They actually sift the dirt and sort it with tweezers. Some of the video hit those of us with lost ones hard. Our Gold Star wife went to pieces. Plei Ku: On our way to Plei Ku, I mentioned a stick buddy from flight school who had been killed at the airfield there during a communist attack. I recalled some confusion on just how he was killed. I was shocked when an aviator in the group said he could tell me exactly what happened. He had been my buddy's copilot the night he was killed. We did our best to locate and photograph the airfield, now mostly city, for his widow. The countryside: The ghosts of the GI are ubiquitous. Next to his gun, the GI prized his steel pot and canteen. He cursed the weight of the helmet, but during incoming gunfire, he frantically embraced it, squeezing as much of his body as possible under its protective mantel. With his steel pot, canteen, and cup, he also could cook, bathe, and shave. Today the countryside of Vietnam is alive with the tinkle of GI canteen cups converted to bells and hung from the necks of cows. The helmets still protect; they are everywhere perched on the top of haystacks rerouting the rain. Dog tags and Zippo lighters were for sale all over. Someday someone will collect and perpetuate the incredible, albeit raw, poetry the GI inscribed on his Zippo lighter. It was hard not to wonder what happened to the owners of these relics. Untruths: Westy's former home is an atrocities museum, and all museums (in Vietnam) were monuments to untruths. Where there is no accountability to the people, there is no accounting for what they are told. We found photos of "heroic" North Vietnamese females "capturing" American pilots next to photos of American females protesting the war. GIs were shown "praying to God to escape death," which in reality was a field mass. President Ford was shown "planning a major atrocity," but the man shown wasn't Gerald Ford. The most disturbing sight for me was a case full of American flight helmets. It reminded me of the human skulls I saw stacked in the basement of a museum on the French battlefield in Verdun. Robert McNamara's book, a self-serving apology for Vietnam, was under glass in a place of honor. Later we would drive down Nguyen Van Troi Street, named for the Viet Cong martyr who once tried to kill McNamara. Communist sympathizers Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden would name their son after Troi in honor of Troi's effort to kill McNamara. Judging from the comments on our bus, we may at last have found a point of agreement between many GIs and "Hanoi Jane."

Remembering the GI: We visited battlefields from the DMZ to Saigon, many of which are marked with monuments to our "defeats" and the glorious "victories" of communism. Vietnam may be the only place we ever fought where there are no memorials to the GI. I vowed then to try and change this. Communism will someday be gone, but even today we could build a memorial to the GIs incredible medical and humanitarian effort there, one that cared for enemies and allies equally. Such a memorial would add to the healing and unifying of our two people. The people: You have to love these hardworking, cheerful, and amazingly honest people, even those who had once tried to kill you. At Plei Me we met a friendly, rugged chap who had fought the French at Dien Bien Phu and walked the Ho Chi Minh Trail many times, surviving the fiercest combat (against) us only to set off a mine while farming in peace - and blow off an arm and a leg. Vietnam has some of the most beautiful and charming young panhandlers in the world. They remind me of my own personal flower girl whom I dearly loved and would have adopted but for my wife reminding me of our (own) five children. The cyclo drivers are still colorful. They would ask where I was from and then declare they had a daddy about my age in that state. It raised my wife's eyebrows and never helped with the tip. In one village a young girl threw a rock through the window of a tour bus. The police stood down the entire village until they found her and then raised enough money to pay for the window. One wife on our tour left $400 out in her room, which was gone when she returned. The maid had left her money at the front desk.

The children, almost without exception, preferred the United States to all other countries. Their affection clearly had been passed down from their parents and is a tribute to the compassion and generosity of the American GI. One young man spoke glowingly about his favorite American president, Ben Franklin. When I challenged his facts, he immediately pulled out a $100 bill. Sure enough, there was old Ben. I smiled but wondered where in the hell he got a $100 bill.

A parting vision: On our last night we were entertained by a retired North Vietnamese colonel who also was a well-known artist. He had walked the Ho Chi Minh Trail twice making sketches along the way. Through his work I saw for first time the famous lifeline of the communist victory. One picture he showed with pride disturbed me. It was a Trojan horse inside a Buddhist temple  only the temple was really an ammo factory. Going home: I am pleased I returned. My wife learned about a Vietnam much different from the media descriptions. And our Gold Star wife found the site of her husband's death. Through speculation, luck, and the knowledge of our pilots we settled on a pass south of Chu Lai, and she found peace. We must have approached in the exact angle of the photo because we all saw the rocks at about the same time and there was no doubt we were there. I saw many of the battlefields and mine fields I flew into as a DUSTOFF pilot, including some I visited on the day of my Medal of Honor action. It was an emotional experience as I remembered the horrors of communism, the thrill of saving lives, and the enduring inspiration I found in the courage of the GI.

The Vietnam War is the most unselfish war we ever fought, but our work is not quite finished. Our efforts there rang the death knell of communism - they just don't know what to do with the corpse.

For the Future: President George W. Bush recently appointed Brady to the American Battle Monuments Commission. In this capacity, Brady intends to work toward establishing a monument to honor the medical and humanitarian services provided to all citizens of Vietnam by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.