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The Visit to My Lai

There is no way I could prepare for the visit to the My Lai Memorial Park I made with the TOP tour group on the afternoon of March 5, 2002. I fully expected it to be one of the lowlights of my return trip to Vietnam after 34 years. I accepted that it was a requisite ordeal for healing; nevertheless, it was an experience I anticipated with considerable dread, especially since I was still in the warm afterglow of having had such a positive experience the day before at the Ah Nhon orphanage, the scene of the most traumatic experience I had during my tour of duty in Vietnam .

The tour bus pulled into the parking lot, and the first impression I had, seeing the refreshment and souvenir stand, was that it was going to be like a theme park. I made a smart-ass remark to that effect to fellow tour member, Wally, who wasn’t amused. Silly, cynical me, trying to use denial to shield me from fully facing the belly of the beast of what my war was, what any war just awfully is.

Being the loner that essentially I am, I detached myself from others in the group and went off on my own. I walked through the front entrance and was immediately aware of how un-theme-park-like a place it is. Beautifully  landscaped gardens surround stone walkways lined with somber monuments, attesting to the brutal reality that “Here Mr. Nguyen and his family were killed.” “Here died Mme. Ahn and her three children.” The profusely blooming flowers offered some solace.

In the center of the park I gazed up at the large, rough-hewn stone memorial statute, fashioned in a Soviet heroic-style for what seemed like an eternity. It portrayed women and children in grotesque poses of unutterable suffering, pleading with outstretched arms for some merciful god or goddess to intervene on their behalf. There were, unfortunately, no gods or goddesses on duty for petition, I suppose, on that awful day.

I walked into the Museum on the south side of the park. It was filled with black and white, blown-up photographs of the massacre, with voluminous commentary in English, French and Vietnamese. Slowly I read through the account of the terrible events with their vile pictorial testimony of what happened on March 16, 1968. I felt a chill go through me, realizing what I had been unaware of previously, that I had still been in country on that fateful day. I remembered that Task Force English, to which I read Calley’s unit was attached, was one of my primary customers for re-supply from my area of the Qui Nhon depot about a hundred kilometers to the south. I had accompanied a couple of convoys in my gun-jeep to their forward supply point near Bong Song during those frenetic days after the devastating Tet Offensive of ’68, when psychologically the U.S. lost the war.

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