25th anniversary brings back painful Vietnam War lessons

Marie Claire Tran

April 30, 1975 — “If we go, you will have a chance to find him. If we stay, we will all die.”

My mom had no idea where my dad was the day Saigon fell. He had been serving as a doctor for the South Vietnamese forces in Danang — the most important base for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War — when it was captured by the Viet Cong in March 1975. Everyone was certain that he too was captured; some assumed that he became one of the KIA.

In reality, my dad had been placed in a POW camp run by the North Vietnamese where he spent his days performing forced labor or attending brainwashing sessions. It would be two long years before he would ever come in contact with my mother again.

Regardless, she didn’t want to leave Vietnam knowing that her husband of only four months still could be alive. As the seven members of her family packed themselves into a small canoe on a small river in Vietnam, they convinced her that the only option left was to leave. Her father had served as a retired officer of high rank in the South Vietnamese Army, and the Viet Cong were quick to punish those they believed to be traitors to the nation.

“If we stay, we will die.”

On Sunday, the 25th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, millions of Americans and Vietnamese reflected on all the lives lost and forever changed by the Vietnam War, a 30-year civil war that ultimately transformed the political and social make-up of the United States as well as Vietnam itself.

Most of us born after 1975 have come to know Vietnam through analytical exercises in high school history classes and movies like “Platoon” and “Forrest Gump.” In some ways, however, we can never truly understand the way the Vietnam War polarized our country, demoralized our military and tormented our government.

In spite of this shortcoming, however, it is important that we don’t let a day like this go by without looking into our nation’s history and extracting the lessons that were so painfully learned. It wasn’t until this year that I went past the history books and sought a more complete understanding of my family’s history. I used to read about World War II and think how cool it would be to have a relative who flew planes over Berlin, not realizing that inside my own home was a man who saw the bloody realities of war every day in his hospital.

Vietnam is often portrayed as an ugly time in U.S. history, when support for the war efforts never really consolidated, when soldiers risked their lives only to come back to chants of “babykiller,” when the government itself sometimes didn’t know what it was doing there. We shouldn’t allow, however, the memories of all the soldiers, student protesters and refugees to turn into mere caricatures in our minds.

I invite you — not just the Vietnamese Americans, not just the Asian Americans, but the whole student body — to explore, criticize and reformulate what we know of our past and not detach ourselves from our histories. To do so would be a huge injustice to those who had the courage to fight for something, whether it be for their country, their beliefs or their lives.

Otherwise, we forsake our responsibility to keep the lessons of those before us, and our memories of them will surely die.