Monday, July 26, 2010

Redemption by Revisiting--A Vet revisits the Past

Chef Caballero is a Vietnam Veteran.
You never know when you will come back, and my friend, Chef Steve really has come back.  When you have a discussion with him, you are struck by the amount of issues a combat veteran had to deal with while in a combat theater.

His record stands as follows:
United States Army 4/69 – 4/72
Viet Nam Service 8/ 69 – 7/70
American Division 4/31 196 Inf.
Served with Delta Co., Charley Co., Echo Recon
Liaison to 5th Special Forces Group, Chu Lai  

5th Special Forces.  Holy moly.  This man has seen some serious sh*t.

Returning to Vietnam.
There are a number of sub-stories embedded in this adventure that we call the Fulbright Hayes GPA trip.  Concurrently with the mad pace of visiting 2 countries in 1 month, several members of our team are on their own journeys, Chef and Brian being two of them.  Ironically, the pairing was the result of a need to select out solo hotel rooms.  I responded to the request of a roommate very late, and the result was Chef Steve Caballero and Photographer Brian Doan became roommates.  Both had very complex histories as far as the Vietmam Conflict is concerned. Chef Steve is a Vietmam Vet with heavy combat experience.  He was attached to the Rangers and Green Berets as a forward observer/radio man specifically.  Brian’s family was part of the Southern Vietnam government, and subsequently he was forced to leave Vietnam.  He was jailed as a teenager due to his family’s affiliations. 

Things often converge.  Coinciding with an exploration of Da Nang and Hoi An, the three of us decided to take a look at Chu Lai.  I was trying to reconfigure my project as I have found the lack of suitable titles in Vietnam translated into English to be rather problematic.  Things were not going too good, so I decided to try to develop some visual comparison contrast exercises with archival Vietnam War pictures and current landscape photographs.  This would also prove to be difficult as some locations had a no photography sign posted. 

This was a complex road road trip.  We started in Da Nang and we met with a high official in the local government to sample a local noodle dish.  Sometimes, it is really nice to have a Chef in the entourage.  We had an excuse to eat everything.  This would be a gastronomical and spiritual journey for several people.  I turned out to be the objective observer and documentary resource.  So, with the help of a friend of a friend of Brian, we had this breakfast with a veteran of the NVA.  When you first see him, he is very slight.  No hint that this man was a bad-a$$.  Turns out he was stationed in the same area as Chef Steve.  He was also the survivor of some of the most heated battles like the heat of 72 in the Second Battle for  Quang Tri. These two men were essentially enemy combatants.  In the course of breakfast, the NVA man said that I could have killed you, or you could have killed me.  Now we are having breakfast together.  The past is the past.  We did our jobs.  There was the exchange of business cards.  There was the handshake.  Chef Steve brought our some whiskey, and they did a toast.  The Chef has met the enemy and it turns out he was very cordial and nice.  He also said if he ever comes to Vietnam, he would be well treated in Da Nang.

Getting on the road, we headed towards Chu Lai.  It was a military base that was the base station for Chef.  On the road, he commented that everything has changed.  There was construction everywhere.  Buildings were up.  The motorbikes were everywhere.  You could see small signs of the past with the rice paddies and water buffalos.  Other than those things, change was really evident.  In time we approached the gate of the base.  It was guarded by army personnel.  We got out of the car and asked for a photograph of the gate.  We told the guard of the reason, and he was quite friendly.  I took a few photos.  This was the beginning of a catharsis. 
The Gate

Not allowed to photograph the guard

Not much is left of the base

But the guard was actually pretty nice.

Afterwards, we went to another part of the base in which the old heli-pads were located.  This are was unguarded.  We managed to walk to one of the heli-pads, and Chef began his personal ceremony.  A shot of whiskey was taken and given.  He buried his old picture from the war.  In the car, Brian interviewed Chef.  It was a complex interview that I would leave for Brian to document.  Needless to say, it was pretty hard core.
The Return

Surveying the Helipads

Picking up small bits of memories

Where it all began

Friends bonded by a war

A Toast to the Dead Soldiers

Burying Memories

The Burial of the Past

The Mountains of Past Combat Missions

Those were the hot zones.

Time manufactures a vision of the past.  The past often becomes clarified in the aftermath of time’s ability to focus and clarify what had happened.  This does not always happen, but the comparisons with the past can make things more clear in the present. 

Brian’s journey is more complex.  Being Vietnamese, he was sort of stoic about everything.  He was going back to his hometown.  We went to hunt down a few of his family friends.  Eventually we did encounter them, and I took some photos.  Afterwards, we went to a temple in which he would be bathed as a child as part of a ritual.  I asked him how he felt, and he says he wished he felt more, but he remembers very little of the his past in Vietnam.  For an Asian, this is code for deep thoughts. 

Cau Tra Knuc & home

Standing on the Bridge of a familiar river

Old US/South Vietnamese Bunkers

Trying to find old family friends

A sort of return


Old Neighborhoods

The Temple where his father took him

The well where he was bathed as a child

Washing again

Finally no darn sunglasses

On the road back, we stopped at a chicken place that the locals love.  Now, I have not been eating well on this trip.  With the constant movement, my appetite has been small, and I’ve been living off of light meals and beer since a few of our people got sick from maybe ice, produce or other stuff.  The place we visited was very local, and very Vietnamese.  I knew this by seeing trash underneath of the tables.  Vietnamese don’t seem to believe in trashcans or litter at the table.  We sat down for a meal.  It was the best chicken I’ve had in years.  Marinated and tender, it was cut up Chinese style. 

A comparison of the cultures show different forms of priorities.  Although most Vietnamese restaurants would not pass a health inspection test in the USA, the food generally is more local and fresh.  It isn’t processed either.  The chicken are not as fat, but they have more flavor.  The egg yolks are deep red, as the chicken are all usually free range and in free range in your backyard. 

After our return to Da Nang, we treated a friend to a Vietnamese Seafood feast.  This would probably not happen in the USA.  Pictures can explain better.  Regardless, it was the best food we had for the entire month. 

You first pick your dish from live tanks.

Then they are cooked.  

Enjoy the meal

Review the devastation

Typical aftermaths

I could speculate more on the meaning of the day to Chef and Brian, but I won’t.  It’s up to them to tell their own stories.  I’m just an observer.  

He once told me that all veterans are veterans.  Once there was a person with a cushy job as a personal secretary to an officer.  One day, he was sitting in his office and a mortar landed on him and instantly killed him.  There is no such thing as a non-combat veteran in his mind.