Vietnam Veterans Involved with VDS
Following are pictures and memoirs of Vietnam Veterans
who are supporting Vietnam Dream for Success Mission
Mr. Jerry Harlowe in 1968.
Mr. Jerry Harlowe returns to Vietnam in 1991.
Since then he has been helping the children in central highlands.
October 24, 2009... Memoirs of Mr. Jerry Harlowe
My Vietnam journey began when I joined the Air Force with two high school buddies in 1966, Ron and Larry and eventually I was assigned to serve at a place called Pleiku by November 1968. Now, here it is 43 years later, as of this writing, and that journey has not ended.
Of the group of guys I hung around with several of us ended up in Vietnam. Thankfully, no one in our group was killed and as far as I know, only one was wounded, Don, a helicopter door gunner. In addition to my two tours of duty, the other guys I remember going to Southeast Asia were; Ron, Gary, Bob, Chip, Don and Larry.
My Vietnam experience came, as I stated above, at a place called Pleiku Air Base, in the Central Highlands. I arrived there Thanksgiving Day 1968 and remained at that assignment until July 1970. While stationed at Pleiku I had the opportunity to travel throughout Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Details I will not relate, they don’t mean nuthin’, however it was in Vietnam where I really grew up, where I came of age and the experiences and people seared my soul in such a way that I would always be a part of Vietnam, and Vietnam would always be a part of me.
I separated from the Air Force at McChord Air Force Base, Washington and arrived back at the old Friendship Airport in Baltimore on July 4th, 1970. I settled down and married my wife, Pati, in September 1971, had two daughters who have further blessed us with 2 fine son-in-laws and 6 grandchildren.
I worked for the Social Security Administration and in my spare time I wrote and eventually I had the pleasure to author several small books on U.S. and local history as well as writing many magazine articles. I am always working on some bit of writing but I think it is more an exercise than a want to publish.
In 1991 I went back to Vietnam for the first time since I left in 1970. I took my wife and we met a friend, Joe, there. However, we could not get into the Central Highlands as there were riots by the minority tribes against the anti-religious and social pressures being brought to bear on them by the government.
I returned in 1992 with my friend Joe, and this time we got back into the Central Highlands but were arrested by the local police and taken to jail because we were asking too many questions as we searched for Joe’s friends from 1968 – 1969.
Long story short, we were released and kicked out of town and sent north to Kon Tum to wait 3 days until the next flight out of Pleiku. In that time I found my way to the Vinh Son orphanage and all those little stinking, half clothed kids rekindled my connection with Vietnam and the people. Something inside spoke to me, and there was only one answer, yes.
I have been active in the Central Highlands with several organizations, mainly the Friends of the Central Highlands, Inc. and now I wish to accept a new challenge and see if I can also assist with Vietnam Dream for Success.
On a personal note, I became a baptized Christian in the Holy Roman Catholic Church at the Easter vigil 2006, which for me was actually a long journey home. Then, the month after I was baptized I was diagnosed with prostate cancer which has been linked to Agent Orange exposure while in Vietnam. Of course I was shocked and dismayed, but God brought me to a quiet place where I could rest beside the still waters where He could and did restore my body and soul. Amen.
I do thank God for my life and the manifold blessings of family and friends and I will continue walking this path of service to the poorest of the poor as long as God sees fit, His Will be done.
I wish you all cheers and blessings as you too move along the path of your life.
Our trip to Vietnam, a journey that seeks to heal the wounds
of the past and an opportunity to help the children of the future
Mr. Richard Johnson shaking hands with a Vietnamese man
Mr. Garrette Peck and Mr. Jim Dyer remembering friends
who sacrificed their lives in Vietnam
Mr. Jim Dyer prayerfully remembers a special friend
who lost his life here
US Marine Corps (1966-1967, 1972-1973)
Mr. Richard Johnson during the Vietnam War
Mr. Jim Dyer during the Vietnam War
Mr. Garrette Peck during the Vietnam War
October 1st, 2007... Memoirs of Mr. Richard Johnson
Vietnam veterans return to ‘the Nam’ for various reasons … or not. Over the 40 years since I returned from my first tour as the company commander of Hotel Company, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines in 1966-1967, or the 35 years since I returned from my second tour as an operations officer in the MACV Command Center in 1972-73, I frankly had little desire to make that journey back. I never felt I had to go back for ‘closure’ or any sense of guilt or whatever. However, over the last few years I began to have a sense of curiosity of what it must be like now … how it looks, how it smells, how much it had changed, what the people were like and a somewhat haunting desire to revisit old battlefields … maybe it WAS a need for closure of some sort.
The trip turned out to be in memory of our killed in action, missing in action and wounded in action Marine comrades … never to be forgotten. A special ‘plus’ of the trip was a new beginning, thanks to Vietnam Dream for Success (VDS).
To back up, last summer, while visiting my good Marine and lifetime friend Jim Dyer in Colorado, we decided to make the return journey. The catalyst for us was the book Con Thien, by James P. Coan. We had both operated in and/or around Con Thien and had lost several Marines in that area. Jim had been a battery commander of 105’s in 1966-1967, while I was commanding officer of Hotel Company 2/9. We didn’t know each other at that time, but attended a military school the summer following our return to the US, and became fast and lifetime friends. We served together again in Saigon in 1972-73.
The third member of our ‘return team’ was Garrette Peck. Garrette and I had served together in Hotel Company in 1966-67. He received the Silver Star and Purple Heart while with Hotel Company, although some 35 years after the event. He had been back last year in conjunction with VDS. Garrette and I had discussed returning together several times, but it had never come together, until now.
Once Jim and I decided to make the trip back, we contacted Garrette in order to hook up with him on his next trip back with VDS. After several date changes, we locked in 3 March to 17 March 2007 for the trip. Since we had our own agendas and wanted flexibility in country, we decided to make the trip on our own rather than go with a tour. Garrette knew the lay of the land, had recent experience on his own in country and had the availability of an interpreter from VDS. These were invaluable during the trip.
Each of us had a special agenda, in addition to just returning to the battle sites. We each had Marine KIA and MIA comrades and friends we wanted to memorialize. While there were many, and due to limited time up country, we narrowed it down to the following. Jim had an ANGLICO Corporal, Jimmy Worth, MIA from when Con Thien was over run in 1973. His remains have never been recovered. He also wanted to return to the Delta where he served on ‘junks’ on his first tour in country as a navy lieutenant. We wanted to return to the battle site from which Garrette was awarded the Silver Star for exceptional bravery under fire. I wanted to return to the site where a friend of mine, mustang platoon leader Second Lieutenant Frank Westerfield was KIA near Con Thien, and to Khe Sanh, where another friend and classmate, Delta Company 1/9 company commander Captain Francis Shafer was KIA in March of 1968. One of the Marines from Hotel Company, PFC Robert Gayle Davidson was also MIA in the Fall of 1966. His remains were recovered in the 1970’s near the site from which he disappeared. Garrette and I wanted to visit that site in memorium also.
The flight over was relatively uneventful. On the leg from Hong Kong to Saigon (I still have trouble with Ho Chi Minh City -- HCMC!), we sat next to a young Vietnamese man returning to complete paperwork to bring his bride of a few months back to the States … fantastic story of perseverance and will to survive on his part. When the new government took over the south, he and his whole family were kicked out of their village and forced into the jungle with literally nothing. They cleared land, built a thatched hut and started a garden for survival. They eventually grew enough food to sell, and began scratching out a living. When he was fourteen, his family got him out of country by boat to Thailand where he ended up in a refugee camp. He eventually made it to the States, learned the language and got a good job as a mechanic with Lexus on the East coast. This was but one of many similar stories we would hear from young Vietnamese who are striving to make their country the kind of country we had hoped for in our endeavors there in the 1960s and 1970s. VDS turned out to be highlight of those efforts!
Upon arrival at the Saigon airport, we were met by Garrette and the whole crew from Lavang House … welcome flowers and all! What a neat welcome! Certainly not like that first arrival for each us of back in the mid 1960’s. Once again, it was culture shock! Jim and Garrette had experienced it on recent trips back, but it was like nothing I ever expected. We arrived around 10:00 PM at Tan Son Nhat airport. Upon landing, we could see a few of the old military buildings and hangers left over from the war … but not nearly as many as I expected. Very few military aircraft visible. You could have been in any international terminal in the Pacific, although not as modern as many. We later found out that plans for a new terminal are underway. Clearing customs was our first contact with the communist government. Seeing the uniformed customs officers made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and instant animosity hit me. Very formal procedure, strict line enforcement, NO smiles or welcome greeting (my attempt at friendly American conversation ignored … no real surprise there), hard looks and deliberately slow processing of documents. However, it went smoothly and we were on our way.
There was a throng of people waiting where we met Garrette outside the customs area. We waited around for our new found Vietnamese friend returning for his bride … he was apparently delayed considerably by the customs people. We were later told that this was not unusual for returning Vietnamese Americans. We crammed everyone into a van from the boarding house and took off. The ride was almost surreal, especially after the long flight. There were lots of lights, HUNDREDS, if not thousands of motorbikes and taxis even at this time of the night, now close to midnight. As we were to find out, Saigon is a city on the move, day and night.
Our arrival and welcome at Lavang House was especially warm. We immediately felt like family! Even though we were exhausted from our long flight, the smiles and laughter from the girls and staff re-energized us!
We spent the next three days in the Saigon area. Prior to coming into the Marine Corps, Jim had been an officer in the navy. He had served a tour in IV Corps in the delta on junks based out of Vung Tau in the 1964-1965 time frame. He then took a commission in the Marine Corps as a Captain of artillery. One of our first side trips was a drive down to Vung Tau to check out his old haunts. Like many parts of the country, it is undergoing major renovation to restore it to it’s previous French tourist status. The beach area is being developed and amazingly, a huge statue of Christ still stands on a major hill overlooking the beach area.
A trip to My Tho and a Mekong River trip was next. These were also places where Jim had served while in the navy. A ‘dugout’ trip up one of the tributaries was an eye-opener. You couldn’t help but cringe at the number of potential ambush sites along the waterway!
During this time period, Jim and I came to know and understand the whole purpose and mission of VDS. Garrette had done a good job of explaining it to us, but being there really pulled it all together. The facility itself is fantastic. Sister Cecilia and Garrette, along with many others, did an incredible job of getting it built, particularly considering the number of bureaucratic issues that had to be overcome. Mr Duc and Ms Tin are the heart and soul of the operation … they keep it humming! Their hard work and love and care for the girls is so apparent and heartwarming.
One of the requirements for the girls to be accepted into the VDS program is that they must come from poor families that could not otherwise afford their college education. You would never know that from talking with the girls. They are all positive, upbeat, and extremely appreciative of the opportunity they have been given! They not only work hard at their studies, but each has chores to perform at Lavang house. Many of them also return home to help their families with rice planting and harvesting!
One of the things that really impressed me, was that the girls did not have to be Catholic to be accepted for the VDS program. They come from all (or no) religious backgrounds and are treated equally. Sister Cecilia incorporates religious opportunities into their activities, and a Christian type love is exhibited by each of the girls.
The next phase of our trip was up to the former Demiliterized Zone (DMZ) in what was known as Leatherneck Square. We had all served there as Marines in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It proved to be an emotional time, as expected. We flew to Danang, with Ms Trinh as our interpreter and trip coordinator. Her assistance was invaluable! Ms. Bich also came as her traveling companion and roommate. This was Ms. Bich’s first time to fly, so it was quite an experience for her.
Our first ‘return’ site to visit was south of Danang to a bridge where Garrette had received a Silver Star for valor in combat and a Purple Heart . That’s a story in itself! He had been back there briefly on a previous trip associated with VDS, but it was my first trip back since 1966-1967. It was almost surreal … things had changed, but yet were familiar. Garrette and I had received our ‘baptism of fire’ in this area. You never forget that! As we were leaving the bridge, an old man was standing there watching us. We talked with him through Ms Trinh, and it turned out he had lived there all his life, including the time we were there in combat. It was almost as if he were an old friend, despite the circumstances.
From there we made most of our battle field visits as planned… the trip up Highway 1 and along Highway 9, over the Hai Van pass, through the ‘Street Without Joy’ area, Dong Ha, past Cam Lo, The Rock Pile and Razorback, with stops near Con Thien and finally Khe Sanh. The stop at Con Thien was particularly touching as Jim had a ceremony in memory of MIA Corporal Worth, and it moved each of us, releasing long pent up emotions.
Upon return to Saigon, Garrette continued his work with VDS and Jim and I visited many of the museums. The museums, of course, are very propaganda oriented, but worth visiting any way. I think the greatest impact of that time in the city was observing the tremendous resilience of the Vietnamese people, in spite of their circumstances. The future there is in the hands of young people like the girls from Lavang House … and it is in very good hands!
Our last meal was back at the house. Ms.Tin had outdone herself. It was like a real family gathering, and we certainly felt like part of the family. It was also a very poignant time … excitement at getting home to see our families, but sadness at leaving our Lavang House family. We had truly grown to understand the mission and impact of VDS, but it was now personal in that we had come to love the girls and staff as people, not just an organization.
As our flight lifted off from Saigon, it was a lot like our previous military departures, except for one thing … this time there was hope for the future there, thanks in great part to Sister Cecilia, Garrette, and Vietnam Dream for Success.
As a footnote, Jim, myself and my daughter Catherine, a Marine brat, now help sponsor the girls of Lavang House. If you want to make a difference in life, now is your chance.