Michael Heaney, former platoon leader, returned to the spot where 46 years ago 10 of his men under his command were killed in an ambush by North Vietnamese soldiers. He returned to the land he calls "my valley of death" to reclaim a piece of his soul. He was the only member of his unit to survive an ambush by North Vietnamese soldiers in May 1966.
Heaney spent a great deal of time coming to realization that he had survived Operation Crazy Horse, the combat operation so fierce it is discussed in history books.
Heaney's return to the village of Vinh Thanh helped him learn more about the battle that ended his Vietnam term, about war and about the enemy soldiers who killed his men in May 1966.
The trip also displayed that there are very few wars worth fighting. Heaney asked questions regarding war and its effects. “The long-term effect on soldiers and their families is never a factor that’s sufficiently weighed when we’re deciding whether to go to war. It’s ‘Are we going to win? How long will it take? How many causalities?’”
MICHAEL HEANEY: In 2008, I fulfilled what had been a long post-war dream I had, of going back to Vietnam. So I went back and visited a lot of areas that my unit had operated in. I spent a little time in Saigon, but most of the time I spent up in the central highlands, in places where there were no other Americans. It was so good for me to go back. I was treated well. The Vietnamese I found to be gracious, good-natured people. They didn’t need me to explain a lot about why I was back there. They seemed to know. A number of them tried to help me get to places that I wanted to go see. Eventually, I made contact with a Vietnamese veterans’ organization. They invited me to come to a meeting. They traded stories, they treated me like just another comrade-in-arms. It sounds bizarre. Here were people I was trying to kill at one point and they were trying to kill me. All of that was gone. Now they were grandpas, like I was. Now they were older men and women who had mellowed a lot, like I had. I finally told them, you know, I’d really like to go visit this ambush site. I want to say goodbye to my men. I never had a chance to do that. The next day in my little bed and breakfast I was staying at, I got a call – be ready tomorrow at 8:00, we’ll be there. We’re going to take you to Vinh Thanh and the ambush site. And they did.
And they let me have my little closing ceremony, which I just buried a little 1stCavalry pin in the ground and said a few words of goodbye to my men, and said some words over the Vietnamese young soldiers who died there too that day. I got a little weepy, but it was good. It was a really good experience for me. When I was done, I felt a real lightness, you know, the cliché about putting your burden down, putting your baggage down. I’ll always carry some baggage from those days, but I felt so much lighter. Lighter wasn’t the word. I felt empty. I felt empty. A good emptiness is the way I described it. Like I could now be filled with more positive things and that this burden I had been carrying of not being able to say goodbye or pray over my men, that was gone forever. My men were now free. I told them they could go wherever they’re going, to go on with your journey. You’re no longer abandoned.
The interpreter was interpreting for my Vietnamese vet friends what I was saying. And one guy came up afterwards, “He says you’ve made this place ‘sacred.’ Is that the right word?” And I said, “Yes, that’s the right word.”
War is a hard thing to put down. But nobody wants to go through life with it, carrying it.