Rupert was a giant yet broken man. Some friends and I spoke with him for a few hours one night almost two years ago. None of us will ever forget him.
On my first visit to Hanoi I was blessed to be with my brother and a random group of people I’d met in the preceding few weeks whom by that time had become, and still are, firm friends.
Denice was a flight attendant from Atlanta, a softly spoken teetotaller who had an enthusiasm for life and an interest in everybody. It was probably those traits along with a naive charm that lead her away from our small group one evening at a Bia Hoi and had her end up deep in conversation over at another table with its lone inhabitant. That was our first sight of Rupert.
Over six feet tall and about fifteen stone he had straggly grey hair and a longish beard that made him look like a cross between a veteran, long haul truck driver and Santa Clause. We invited him over to our table and over the course of a few hours, dinner, some beer and three different venues, Rupert told his story. A painful yet uplifting story that needed to be heard but I think, more importantly, needed to be told.
It was clear almost immediately from his slightly haunted eyes that he had been through a lot. It turns out, not unexpectedly, that he was a U.S. Vietnam Veteran. The following is his story.
“I remember when the war began, I was a teenager and at the time it seemed remote and at first it had an air of adventure about it as we had grown up with the glorification of war through the many stories of heroism, courage and victories from WW2. As I got older and the effects of what was happening over there were apparent closer to home, friends families losing sons, injured soldiers returning, TV footage etc., I started to question the whole idea of war and eventually turned against it completely. I registered as a conscientious objector because I could not entertain the thought of killing but it was not enough to get me out of the services and I was eventually drafted in as a Navy medic. At the time of my deployment a new strategy was being implemented where small teams were being sent to live in villages in hostile territory to try to help the inhabitants resist the Viet Cong and to help them to live easier lives. Basically to show them they had an alternative to supporting the communist forces, this strategy was commonly called “winning the hearts and minds” and did have some success. Each team had various specialists including a medic and I was attached to one of these teams and sent to the village of Dong Ha just south of the DMZ. I became very close to the people in my village over the space of many months. We managed to help with building projects, some small-scale farming and improved the general health of the population, but I also saw some terrible things. The wife of the village head was blown up by a grenade that was thrown into their house within the first week we were there.”
At this point Rupert could hardly speak, tears were welling up in eyes, and not just his. The things he saw were described in some detail but most are really too horrific to repeat here. The story of the narrowly avoided murder of a young, female VC prisoner by a young officer was just one of many. She had been stripped and handcuffed and was put on a boat to take her back to a U.S. base. As the prisoner lay naked and crying the officer, who’s temper was boiling due to a recent attack on his unit had to be physically restrained from pulling the trigger. After witnessing these events first hand it’s little wonder the scars have run deep and stayed so long.
Rupert continues “I eventually got into some disciplinary problems, I truly loved the people but I had a very hard time accepting some of the attitudes and actions of the officers and of course I was not fond of war at all. I was eventually discharged and went back to the States but I was completely changed inside.
I’ve lost wives and other relationships, been through a succession of jobs, drunk heavily and eventually found a little peace through therapy. I have not really slept properly in over 30 years and I always longed to go back to see my village and its people. I really believe I left a part of my soul there 35 years ago. This is my first trip back here since the war and in the last two weeks I have felt the only real inner peace of my adult life.”
As he recounted this story in small segments over many hours with far more details, it was hard not to think of all the thousands of veterans on both sides who have lived, and are still living, disrupted or almost destroyed lives such as this. When we asked him for his thoughts on the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan he was articulate yet scathing in his response. The sentence that stuck in my head was “we are losing another generation of young men who, if they live, will be condemned to a life lived in a void like I was and we will do nothing to help them out of that void.”
Rupert had found his way back to his village and found many of the inhabitants still alive but obviously very old. A “young” girl of about 50 ran up to him shouting “do remember me?” Despite having changed a lot from the young , fit man he once was she had recognised him because of his smile and his eyes. It turns out she was a small, underfed teenager then, and even now as a middle-aged woman all these years later she had never forgotten his kindness to her and the others in the village. Old photos were produced and people came from everywhere to see the not-so young medic they remembered.
Rupert has set up a small trust fund to help rebuild parts of the village that were destroyed and were never rebuilt. He uses part of his small military pension to do this along with some money from friends and family. When he made the offer of financial help to the people of the village they decided that the person in the village who had lost the most in the war should be the one who decides what the money should be initially spent on, the decision would be solely his and he could do whatever he wanted to with the money. An old and very poor man who had lost all his relatives, his house and his farm was chosen and although he had very little of his own he decided that the money should be spent on rebuilding the pagoda so all could share in the benefits.
One gets the feeling that this will not only help the people but will also help to fill what’s been missing inside Rupert for so many years and hopefully give his spirit some peace.
As we parted that night we thanked him for sharing a story that was so personal and painful to tell. He in turn thanked us and said he was deeply grateful for having the chance to tell it to some people who were actually interested and cared. I got the feeling that that hadn’t been the case for most of his life.