The futility of war through the eyes of those who know best
If Michael Phillips had his way, there would be no wars, much less military veterans.
The Medford resident, who witnessed death and destruction in the Vietnam War, shakes his head as he talks about the horrors of war and its aftermath.
"There is no one who abhors war more than a warrior because he understands the futility of war," he stresses.
Phillips, 61, knows of what he speaks: he is a former Army specialist 4th class who drove in countless combat convoys out of Long Binh, South Vietnam, throughout 1970 and early 1971. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the VA's Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City, where he spent two years. He is now an outpatient at the facility.
Just before Veterans Day, he returned from his second trip to Vietnam since the war.
"During my first visit back to 'Nam (last fall), I discovered that virtually all of the Vietnamese do not suffer from PTSD," he observes. "That made me curious. Are we the only veterans who have these problems? What about other veterans from other countries? How did they react to their war experience? How were they treated?"
It was his relentless search for the answers that led him on his second mission to that nation. En route, he dropped in on South Korea to see how Vietnam veterans there are faring. And he later swung by Cleveland — as in Ohio — to attend the International Peace and War Summit, then visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., to pay respects to buddies who came home in body bags.
All told, he took 14 flights in 38 days, an experience that itself would give most folks PTSD.
During his far-flung travels, Phillips was representing Soldier's Heart, an organization dedicated to helping combat veterans through the healing process. For Phillips, it all began when he attended a Soldier's Heart presentation by noted psychotherapist Ed Tick in Medford early in 2009. Tick, who founded the group and leads veterans groups to Vietnam each year, was a keynote speaker at the Ohio summit.
Before meeting up with Tick and his group in Vietnam, Phillips traveled alone to South Korea to link up with Republic of Korea Army veterans who fought in Vietnam. ROK Vietnam veteran Jae-Sung Chung treated him like a brother, taking him to a veterans hospital in Seoul.
"One ROK veteran literally cried on my shoulder and said, 'Please tell your country to tell our country that this is not our fault that we have these disabilities that are due to Agent Orange,' " Phillips says, referring to a chemical defoliant used by American troops during the war.
He met with retired Korean General Chae Myung Shin, who was the commander of all ROK forces in Vietnam. And he stood across from North Korean guards at the demilitarized zone.
But mostly importantly he talked to ROK Vietnam veterans about their shared experiences in Vietnam.
"There are Korean veterans who suffer from PTSD," he says. "There are Korean veterans who suffer from many of the ailments that American veterans deal with.
"It's so moving to hear Korean veterans say, 'Yes! It sounds like you are describing me when you are talking about your healing process. I have those very same problems,' " he says.
In Vietnam, there appear to be fewer problems, he notes.
"Most of the Vietnamese I talked to about this say their healing process was so much easier than ours was because everybody in the country went through the trauma together," he explains. "They all healed together."
That doesn't mean there are no problems, he stresses. While visiting tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war, he talked to a curator who once fought the Americans.
"He is the first Vietnamese I heard admit that he had nightmares and problems from the war," he says. "He told me he lived in those tunnels 40 years ago. You could see all around where our B-52s had continually bombed the area."
In Hanoi, where city residents were celebrating the 1,000-year anniversary of its founding, his group met former enemies.
"Some of our veterans wrote poetry, and some of their veterans wrote poetry," he says. "Then their veterans read our poems, and our veterans read theirs. It was an incredibly moving experience, a real reconciliation."
Returning from his overseas jaunt, he headed to the summit in Cleveland, then to the Vietnam Memorial in D.C.
"I finally have some hopes that we are turning the corner," he says. "We are starting to understand that if we must send our warriors to fight in other lands, it is absolutely essential that after we train them to be warriors that we train them how to be civilians when they return home."
He plans to return to South Korea and go to Australia in search of more Vietnam veterans next year.
"Not only is this fact-finding, but it is also about reconciliation," he says. "I don't know. Maybe one day we will all wake up."
And find a way to live together in peace, he will tell you.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.