In terms of feeling welcomed, today’s Vietnam bears no resemblance to the place where Larry Woods served in the 1960s.
“The people really like Americans,” he reported. “There’s no animosity. There are no hard feelings or bad feelings.”
The Castle Shannon resident was among the Vietnam War veterans who returned in March to the now-united nation 50 years after the Tet Offensive, the North’s coordinated attack against the South, caused a seismic shift in American attitude toward the conflict.
“We only met a few, but even the veterans who were either serving for the South Vietnamese army or the North Vietnamese army looked at American veterans as brothers in arms,” Woods said. “They just looked at it as: You were doing what you were supposed to do for your country. We were doing what we were supposed to do for our country.”
He was part of a 17-member group led by Mt. Lebanon resident Todd DePastino, founding director of the regional Veterans Breakfast Club, that spent two weeks traveling the long, narrow tropical-climate country in Southeast Asia.
“It struck us last year that 2018 would be the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, which is one of the most important events to occur in 20th-century American history,” DePastino explained. “And to commemorate the 50th anniversary in a meaningful way, just like World War II was commemorated in 1995 in a big way, we thought we would do a trip to Vietnam.”
Woods, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1966 to 1970, was one of seven veterans who traveled with the group, accompanied by wives and a few other interested people, including DePastino’s 17-year-old daughter, Libbie.
Most of the veterans were there when North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh ordered assaults on major targets in the South, launching a series of events that eventually led to his American counterpart, Lyndon Johnson, announcing he would not seek another term.
“It was just an honor and a privilege to tour these battlefields with people who had served there and to have them share their memories of service 50 years ago,” DePastino said. “I think it was a more powerful experience for them than they even anticipated. It was powerful in many ways: obviously, to kind of go back to the scene of their youth, but also to see what the country is now.”
He and Woods both spoke about the dichotomy of Vietnam, of a culture that dates back thousands of years combined with 21st-century modernization.
“Hanoi has the old part of the city, which pretty much looks like what all the towns looked like 50 years ago, not that much different,” Woods said about the nation’s capital. “But then they have the new part, which has high rises, and they’re building up industry and commerce.”
The trip took the group from Hanoi, in the heart of the former North Vietnam, to a variety of locales that will sound familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of the war: Ha Long Bay, Hue, Da Nang, Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, the Mekong Delta and, of course, Saigon, once the South’s capital and now formally known as Ho Chi Minh City.
“When we were in Da Nang, that’s a resort town now that could rival Miami Beach,” Woods said. “You’ll see these huge buildings, brand-new hotels, but right across the street they still have the tradition of setting up on the street a small brazier and making their lunch, and people stopping and having lunch sitting on a stool.”
Prior to the trip, neither he nor any of the other veterans had returned to Vietnam since serving there.
“I think it was just kind of closing the loop,” he said explained his reason for going. “I hadn’t really talked about my service for probably 45 years. It’s only been in the past few years.”
Much of the impetus came through his involvement with the Veterans Breakfast Club and attending its events, during which DePastino encourages those who served from World War II through the present day to tell their stories.
“There’s something about being among other veterans,” Woods said. “It’s hard to explain, but really, veterans understand veterans.”
Also commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, the Veterans Breakfast Club is partnering with Peters Township Public Library for a panel discussion in which four veterans will meet to share their thoughts about the documentary series “The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick.”
The free event, for which DePastino will serve as moderator, starts at 7 p.m. April 9 at the library. To register, visit ptlibrary.org/events or call 724-941-9430, extension 1.