Over the past two-to-three years I’ve met several adults who carry scars from their childhood. They are scars associated to ambiguous grief related to the loss of a family member in Vietnam. Without exception, I have found them to be likeable, relationally connected to others and committed to their families. Some are hesitant to expose their vulnerability. Consequently they don’t say much, but they come year after year to the annual POW/MIA League of Families meeting in hopes of one-day bringing closure to the hurt that doesn’t heal.
Others are more verbal. They want information and they want the fullest possible accounting for those who went to war and didn’t return. There were too many unresolved questions regarding the fate of serviceman who were known to be alive in captivity for which the Vietnamese didn’t provide answers. In addition, how could loved ones just disappear without someone knowing their whereabouts or their fate? If our side didn’t know, then likely the other side did. But they weren’t talking or fulfilling obligations associated to the Paris Peace Accords. I guess people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks, neither did we.
Some don’t verbalize the itch they can’t scratch while others do. The common denominator they all share is the burden they carry. Without exception, everyone feels a level of responsibility to advocate for his or her loved one’s accounting and an opportunity to bring back any remains to this country for a proper burial.
I have listened to their stories. I know the difficulty many experienced from being in a household where they lived without answers or familial support to be thoroughly attentive to all the unmet needs associated to living with an empty chair.
For over four decades, I, too, have known the disappointment of living without answers. Until yesterday, I haven’t given a lot of thought to the family members on the other side that also carry the emptiness and pain of not knowing.
In my blog yesterday morning, I mentioned the book “WHEN GOD WiNKS AT YOU”. One of the stories left my eyes filled with tears and promoted the awareness that there is still a lot of unfinished business associated to that time in our nation’s history.
The story was entitled: “THE QUEST OF THE HAUNTING PHOTO”. Rich Luttrell, an American Serviceman, remembered 1967 in Chu Lai, Vietnam all too well. He hadn’t seen the enemy and he hoped he wouldn’t, but Rich was trained for combat. Anyone could be waiting behind the leaves, trees, or vines to ambush him. The heat was stifling and everything looked in order until it didn’t.
It was only a flash of movement, but it forever changed his life. He was a trained soldier. He swung to face the movement with his rifle raised. Through his crosshairs, a youthful NVA soldier had his AK-47 rifle pointed at Rich’s head. It was only a second, but they looked squarely in each other’s eyes. Rich responded according to his training. He intuitively pulled the trigger on his rifle. The gun fired back. In short order, Rich found himself in a firefight with two other NVAs who emerged from the brush.
It was only for a matter of seconds, and silence returned. Three dead NVA soldiers lay at his feet. One of the other American soldiers approached the first dead man and removed his wallet. Something fell from it and Rich picked it up. It was a photo. Rich looked at the photo and he looked at the dead man. Rich put the photo in his pocket.
Rich managed to mostly move on with his life except for the memories that robbed him of his innocence. Even though at the age of 42 he was now a husband, a father of two daughters and a dedicated employee, he carried with him a sense of grief that he could not shake.
He and his wife went to The Wall in hopes that the monument and the memories of those with whom he served would be the catalyst to bring closure to his grief.
Standing before the wall, he took two things from his pocket and left them at The Wall knowing they would be in safe keeping. On a daily basis, everything left at The Wall is collected, inventoried and placed in safekeeping.
Rich left two things: (1) The picture of the soldier and his daughter who appeared to be about 7 years of age and (2) A letter written to the father of the daughter whose picture he had carried with him for twenty-two years.
The letter captured his heartfelt thoughts and emotions. The letter read:
For twenty-two years, I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only eighteen years old that day we faced one another on that trial in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you didn’t take my life I’ll never know. You stared at me for so long, armed with your AK-47, and yet you did not fire. Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained, to kill V.C. or gooks. Hell, you weren’t even considered human.
So many times over the years, I have stared at your picture of you with your daughter I suspect. Each time my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt. I have two daughters myself now.
Today, I visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. I have wanted to come here for several years now to say good-bye to many of my former comrades.
I truly loved many of them, as I am sure you loved many of your former comrades.
As of today, we are no longer enemies. I perceived you as a brave solider defending his homeland. Above all else, I can now respect the importance that life held for you. I suppose that is why I am able to be here today. It is time for me to continue the life process and relieve my pain and guilt.
As I leave here today, I leave your picture and this letter. Forgive me, Sire, I shall try to live my life to the fullest, and opportunity that you and many others were denied.
So until we chance to meet again in another time and place, rest in peace.
Richard A. Luttrell
101st Airborne Division”
Squire Rushnell writes in his book: “Rich stepped forward, stooped and set the photograph and letter against the wall.
He remembered how he felt: ‘It was a way to honor and respect him. It was like saying goodbye to a friend. At that moment, it was like I had just finished a firefight and dropped my rucksack and got to rest. The load I was carrying was gone.
Rather than the end, it was only the beginning of the photo to live on. The photo and the letter moved the curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, a Vietnam veteran himself.
Rushnell writes concerning the curator: “Staring up at him from the top of a box of artifacts was the most unsettling of images: the small photo of an NVA soldier and a girl. In several years on the job, that was the first time anyone had ever left a photo of an enemy soldier. He felt a choking nausea as he looked at it. But as he read Rich’s letter, his tension eased…he felt a release. Someone had put down on paper the swirl of anguished emotions about Vietnam’s legacy that were the same as his.
The picture subsequently made its way into a book related to artifacts left at the Vietnam memorial. It was entitled Offerings At The Wall. Also pictured was a copy of the letter Rich Luttrell had written.
In 1966, a Congressman and a decorated veteran of Vietnam made his way to Rich Luttrell’s office. The Congressman opened it to page 53 . “Rich stared at the page and wept. ‘Little girl, what do you want from me’, he choked…He had succeeded in releasing his guilt, but now he felt an unfulfilled obligation: To find the little girl – to give her the picture of her father. And to tell her that her father died nobly, with concern for an enemy solider”.
There are many twists and turns in the story and a number of unbelievable coincidences, but a Hanoi newspaper published the picture and that paper was used as packing for an object sent to woman in a rural village by her son. As she began to discard the newspaper, she took notice. “Her eyes gazed upon something too precious for words: the image of her dead brother and his child!”
The newspaper article stated the question: “Does anyone know these people?” One woman did and she walked down the road to her niece’s home.
Although the letter needed to be interpreted before Rich could be read, it too was heartfelt:
“Dear Mr. Richard,
The child you have taken care of, though the picture, for over thirty years, she becomes adult now, and she had spent so much sufferance in her childhood by the missing of her father.
I hope you will bring the joy and happiness to my family…Eight thousand miles later, in a distant Vietnamese village, Rich began walking toward a house behind a brick wall. Lan and her family were gathered in the courtyard on the other side”.
It was a tender exchange. The family was hungry for information about Lan’s father. Rich shared: “Your father died a brave and courageous warrior”.
I sat silently, lost in thought for a long time after reading that story. My eyes were moistened with tears. What my niece would give for an opportunity to be the recipient of that kind of news. For that matter, the host of folks I’ve met who camouflage a life time of hurt and pain from simply not knowing for sure, would welcome that kind of experience. It would be bittersweet, but it would be the catalyst to bring closure to the unanswered question that never goes away.
All My Best!