Sunday, December 8, 2013
David Dishneau and Jay Reeves / The Associated Press
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In this March 29, 1973, photo, Camp Alpha, Uncle Sam's out processing center, was chaos in Saigon. Lines of bored soldiers snaked through customs and briefing rooms. As the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam 40 years ago, angry protesters still awaited them at home. North Vietnamese soldiers took heart from their foes' departure, and South Vietnamese who had helped the Americans feared for the future.
Former North Vietnamese prisoner of war James H. Warner, 72, of Rohrersville, Md., says his 5-1/2 years of forced labor and interrogation reinforced his conviction that the United States was right to confront the spread of communism.
"We had no chance of surviving under the Communist invasion there. We were very much worried about the safety of our family, the safety of other people," he said this week from his adopted home in Westminster, Calif.
But Lam wouldn't leave for nearly two more years after the last U.S. combat troops, driven to stay by his love of his country and his belief that Vietnam and its economy would recover.
When Lam did leave, on April 21, 1975, it was aboard a packed C-130 that departed just as Saigon was about to fall. He had already worked for 24 hours at the airport to get others out after seeing his wife and two young children off to safety in the Philippines.
"My associate told me, 'You'd better go. It's critical. You don't want to end up as a Communist prisoner.' He pushed me on the flight out. I got tears in my eyes once the flight took off and I looked down from the plane for the last time," Lam recalled. "No one talked to each other about how critical it was, but we all knew it."
Now, Lam lives in Southern California's Little Saigon, the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam.
In 1992, Lam made history by becoming the first Vietnamese-American to elected to public office in the U.S. and he went on to serve on the Westminster City Council for 10 years.
Looking back over four decades, Lam says he doesn't regret being forced out of his country and forging a new, American, life.
"I went from being an industrialist to pumping gas at a service station," said Lam, who now works as a consultant and owns a Lee's Sandwich franchise, a well-known Vietnamese chain.
"But thank God I am safe and sound and settled here with my six children and 15 grandchildren," he said. "I'm a happy man."
Wayne Reynolds' nightmares got worse this week with the approach of the anniversary of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Reynolds, 66, spent a year working as an Army medic on an evacuation helicopter in 1968 and 1969. On days when the fighting was worst, his chopper would make four or five landings in combat zones to rush wounded troops to emergency hospitals.
The terror of those missions comes back to him at night, along with images of the blood that was everywhere. The dreams are worst when he spends the most time thinking about Vietnam, like around anniversaries.
"I saw a lot of people die," Reynolds said.
Today, Reynolds lives in Athens, Ala., after a career that included stints as a public school superintendent and, most recently, a registered nurse. He is serving his 13th year as the Alabama president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and he also has served on the group's national board as treasurer.
Like many who came home from the war, Reynolds is haunted by the fact he survived Vietnam when thousands more didn't. Encountering war protesters after returning home made the readjustment to civilian life more difficult.
"I was literally spat on in Chicago in the airport," he said. "No one spoke out in my favor."
Reynolds said the lingering survivor's guilt and the rude reception back home are the main reasons he spends much of his time now working with veteran's groups to help others obtain medical benefits. He also acts as an advocate on veterans' issues, a role that landed him a spot on the program at a 40th anniversary ceremony planned for Friday in Huntsville, Ala.
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Vietnam war veteran Ho Van Minh talks about his experience as a North Vietnamese soldier during the war at the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi on Thursday. The 77-year-old lost his right leg to a land mine while advancing on Saigon, just a month before that city fell.
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In this April 10, 1973, photo, Gen. Alexander M. Haig, center, is greeted by acting ambassador Charles Whitehouse, left, and another embassy official following Haig's arrival, in Saigon. The trip was made at the behest of President Nixon.