The foliage was thick – the air suffocating. Paul Reed was in the Vietnam jungle with the 173rd Airborne brigade, attempting to capture hill 1064 in the Kontum Province.
The U.S. Army Paratroopers wasn’t quite what the 19-year-old Texas boy had envisioned. Reed had dreamed of adventure, but instead of jumping out of airplanes, he was an infantryman on search-and-destroy missions.
“We were trained to become destroyers,” Reed says. “Also, there’s a lot of dehumanization of the enemy that goes on. I had never laid eyes on them but perceived them to be less than me.”
The Alpha Company’s first battalion, the 503rd Infantry, had spent four days advancing and retreating, and the enemy was king of the hill. The resistance was stiff, but the battalion soldiers were determined to take the hill.
“Many times, we’d have to crawl because the foliage was so thick,” Reed says. “There were mountain streams to cross, and ridges in the mountain went straight up and down. Moving 500 meters could take hours.”
While Reed and 12 other men were searching for an easier way to the top of the hill, they stumbled onto a secret enemy base camp. There were hammocks tied between trees, a hospital area, a cooking area, a storage area, and a mountain stream with fresh water that ran through the camp. There were sturdy mud stairs running up the mountain and 52 rucksacks.
“I can remember seeing everything,” Reed says. “They were living better than we were. We were stunned with disbelief. How could animals have such organization, and what did they need with stair steps?”
The soldiers took the rucksacks back to their camp to search them. Inside the rucksack Reed found was an identification card belonging to Nguyen van Nghia [pronounced: When van Kneeah] a Viet Cong flag, a newspaper, and pictures and stamps from the soldier’s homeland. The item that caught his eye the most was a small alligator-skinned book.
“It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in Vietnam,” Reed says. “All I’d seen was the jungle, tanks and military. Here was a little book that I’d captured from the enemy. It was perfect with beautiful handwriting. I wanted these things because I was curious at that point. It was somewhat of a surprise and an indication that this enemy I was up against was more than a subhuman creature.”
Commanding officers collected items from the rucksacks for intelligence, but they didn’t collect Reed’s items. He made a box out of a small C-rations carton and put the items inside. He secured it with bamboo strips and wrote his parents’ address on top. The following morning, when the helicopter arrived with the troop’s daily supply of water, Reed threw the box inside and asked the gunner to mail it for him.
Reed and his company continued fighting and captured the hill. At the top lay dead Vietnamese soldiers and massive graves containing the dead enemy. Reed thought the owner of the diary was among the dead, but he had no idea which man he was.
Memories of an enemy
Texas was much different after a year of living in the jungle, fighting and facing a gruesome enemy. Coming home meant Reed would lose his power.
“I didn’t want to come home because I was scared,” Reed says. “I was 19, with automatic weapons, grenades, claymore mines that are highly explosive, machine guns, and Navy and Air Force fighter jets at my beck and call. We had power, and we destroyed. I knew when I came home I would be stripped of that power.”
After returning home, Reed bounced from job to job, searching for a place to belong. Although he’d been a rebel in high school, Reed was close to his family before Vietnam. Afterward, his relationship with his family was strained.
“I was like a piece of puzzle that wouldn’t fit in,” he says. “I was restless. I tried college but didn’t fit in there either.”
Eventually, he owned a feed store and got to know the truckers who delivered there. Reed felt the open road luring him and wanted to leave all he knew behind. Reed trucked long-haul throughout the United States and into Canada. He rarely came home, and he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“The sense of adventurism lured me into trucking,” Reed says. “While trucking, I was traveling and going places all the time. I’d just come out of the military where there was movement constantly. ‘Nam was a wild ride, and I needed something to keep it going. Trucking enabled me to establish my independence. It gave me some adventure, but more importantly, it served my most important need of all – isolation.”
After 17 years on the road, Reed couldn’t hold a job anymore. He was restless and haunted, but he didn’t know why. He became transfixed to the television while watching news segments about the Gulf War. Reed was on his second divorce, and he had gained custody of his son, Silas. He lost his job and home, and he moved back to Dallas to live with his parents.
“The war on TV began to bring back emotions I had stuffed inside and avoided,” he says. “These emotions came out, and all I could talk about was my war. I’d never dealt with Vietnam, the tragedies, the heartbreak, the loss and feelings of fear and guilt. The feelings of denial.”
His mother, Polly Baker, had kept the old cardboard box he’d shipped home 20 years before. She’d never looked inside, but she hoped it might help her son, so one night, she gave it to him. He’d wrapped the war souvenirs in plastic while he was in Vietnam. When he opened the box, the scent of Vietnam overpowered him.
“He opened it and said, ‘I smell the smells of Vietnam,'” Baker says.
Slowly, he ventured inside the box and took out the war souvenirs. When he picked up the small book with the Vietnamese handwriting, Reed was stunned.
“I began looking at the things and holding them in my hands,” Reed says. “I thought the guy was dead. I felt somewhat of a connection with the small book. I opened it up again, and there was the beautiful handwriting in Vietnamese. The ink hadn’t faded at all. It was just like it was written yesterday. It still said the same things it said decades ago.”
Reed decided to have the book translated, and he went to three different people before he found a translation that he thought was accurate. Translating the diary was difficult because of the different Vietnamese dialects. Reed had suspected it was a diary, but when he picked up the translation from the third translator, he was surprised. The translator told him the Vietnamese soldier was a family man, much like Reed.
“I didn’t want him to be human,” Reed says. “I’m from a church family, and it was wrong to kill. It was OK to kill animals because they’re hunted. The poetry gave me a hint that my enemy was actually human and that we’d killed humans.”
The diary contained poetry written by the Vietnamese soldier to read to his troops at night. It spoke of a love for his family and love for his country. Reed realized that the enemies weren’t animals.
“It wasn’t a standard military diary about war. It was poetry, and, even worse, love poetry,” Reed says. “The poems were of his wife, children and country, and how much this creature loved his country and was willing to die for it. It caught me totally off guard. It was a direct confrontation with my belief system. I began a mental struggle for truth. I went on a quest for answers.”
Finding the Enemy
The words in the diary touched Reed. He decided to co-author a book, The Kontum Diary, with Ted Schwarz. He included pictures from Vietnam and the translated diary.
Reed’s name was given to Steve Smith of Seattle, whose company was making a PBS documentary about the war. Smith contacted the Vietnamese government to arrange a trip there, and he inquired about Nguyen’s family. Reed wanted to return Nguyen’s personal effects as part of his healing process. The day they left for Vietnam, Smith told Reed on tape that Nguyen was alive.
“It was very emotional for Paul,” Baker says. “He broke down and cried.”
Ghosts surrounded Reed as he traveled to the country that he once thought held his enemy. What would Nguyen and his family think of him? The men met in Nguyen’s courtyard, and they later shared a meal.
“He grabbed my hands and cupped his around mine in a warm welcome,” Reed says. “I saw his knees shaking and realized we were both afraid of each other.”
The man was much older than Reed, and, with the aid of a translator, they slowly became friends over lunch. Reed returned Nguyen’s personal belongings to him. Nguyen explained each item to Reed, and he became emotional when he saw his diary.
Nguyen told Reed, “Everything you brought back means so much. But of all these things, the diary means the most. We receive a diary when we are young and keep it all our lives. I remember the day when I realized you had captured our camp. I was very sad. I thought my diary was gone forever. Now, I am deeply moved that you would do this for me. Deeply moved.”
Later, they visited the site where their armies fought. Nguyen survived the confrontation because he’d sustained a leg injury and was taken to an underground hospital. While in the hospital, Nguyen became sick with malaria, and he couldn’t return to his unit.
He had to find his way home without food, and he was half blind. Nguyen traveled through the Ho Chi Minh Trail, fighting snakes, bugs and bombers. At each village he encountered, Nguyen was nursed back to health so that he could travel farther. After two years, and 500 miles, he made it back home to a wife and family who thought he was dead.
During the visit, Reed noticed that Nguyen had trouble with his sight. Nguyen told him it was because of the Agent Orange chemical that the U.S. military sprayed. On the flight home, Reed told Smith he had a new mission: to have Nguyen’s eyes repaired.
A healing friendship
The first step in Reed’s mission was to raise money for Nguyen’s trip and surgery. He donated the advance from his book, and he received contributions from other vets and PBS. Three years later, Reed returned to Vietnam and brought Nguyen to the States for treatment.
A doctor told Reed that an operation wouldn’t help Nguyen’s eyesight. The damage came from being too close to a bomb blast. There was still sight in one of Nguyen’s eyes, so the doctor fit him with glasses.
“It was worth every penny even though all they could do was give him glasses,” Reed says. “If I’d never gone to the effort and never done that, I would have always wondered and have had questions in my mind.”
Baker says her son is a changed man.”He loved trucking because he could get away from people,” Baker says. “Now, he’s on his own and making his own nest. He calls to check on us every day. He’s a wonderful son, and I’m very proud of him.”
These days, Reed is a motivational speaker who talks about his experience. His book can be purchased on Amazon.com, and he is working on a feature film. The former trucker, who spent years running from ghosts, faced his enemy and found a friend.
“The neat thing about the experience is that instead of seeing Mr. Nguyen as the enemy, I now see him as a gift,” Reed says. “He’s a gift because I learned how to forgive. That’s what Mr. Nguyen and I did for one another. We forgave each other for things we tried to do. The guy I see in the mirror learned to forgive himself. It’s the biggest gift anyone can give.”
Website offers a place for peole to share experiences of Vietnam
Veterans have the opportunity to share their experiences of the Vietnam War by visiting and contributing to the website, The Journey. The website pays tribute to the 58,000 American GIs who were killed or unaccounted for after the Vietnam war.
The first unit on the site is the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade that served in Vietnam in 1968. Paul Reed, a former infantryman in the 173rd Airborne, formed the website with help from the Vietnam Veterans Foundation of Texas, Inc. and WEBH.COM.
“Each fallen soldier will have his own Web page and will feature material loaned from families and friends,” Reed says.
To learn more about the website visit www.longjourneyhome.com or email Paul Reed at [email protected] or call (214) 265-1433.