Robert joined the Army at 18 years young, right after high school. He served in Vietnam and became successful, providing the destruction of war. He served nineteen-months in Vietnam, and did parts of his tour in various assignments: he was a rifleman, a 90MM Recoilless Rifle gunner, and a leader of men, packing LAWS [light anti-tank weapons] with MM90 rounds on their backs. Early in his tour, Robert was involved in multiple large firefights; the Army promoted him from hard corporal to Sergeant, then to E-6 by the end of his first year. During second year, the Army promoted him to SSgt. He had no dispersions about Vietnam; he had two rules: do whatever you have to do to get back to the world alive and kill the bastards before they killed you.
In 1969, Robert came home and had a terrible time adjusting to civilian life. In spite of his difficulties, he went to college and obtained his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Law on the GI Bill, while working part time. During that adjustment, he had some bad times; he was arrested four times for fighting in bars just because he could. He also slept with numerous college girls to distract himself from the pain of his own memories. PTSD, a term unheard of in early 1970, was particularly vicious to him. He had many restless nights full of nightmares; he usually spent his time wandering the streets in the middle of the night because he could not sleep.
He had been to the Veterans Administration, he was diagnosed with a disability for wounds received, twice wounded in action. In 1970, they said he suffered from an inability to readjust and a secondary problem of generalized anxiety disorder. As time went on, he finished college and got a job with the Department of Defense because of his war record. Robert was married and divorced three times. Hell, no one could put up with the challenges he faced, his psychological issues and home life, as well as getting used to the “world” and the perception the nation had about Vietnam Veterans.
He was single again after three failed marriages, so Robert moved for the fourth time in twenty-five years. He moved to a larger city; it had a Vietnamese restaurant and market within walking distance of his home. He was now on three types of medication for his PTSD, but, at work, he was the engine that wouldn’t quit. Promoted repeatedly, nobody knew he was a workaholic, for him it was his way of dealing with the daily pain, it was better than being an alcoholic. He had had his share of alcohol, so he stopped drinking cold turkey. Working like a man possessed kept the demons away; the demons and spirits of those killed, by him or others in Vietnam possessed him.
One day, he decided, along with his VA counselor, that it might be a good idea to go to the nearby Moi Saigon restaurant. He went in and almost walked out immediately because the atmosphere caused him to break out into a cold sweat. He faced his discomfort, ordered a meal, and ate it quietly. It was delicious; he always liked Vietnamese food. On top of everything, he hated to cook and there was no one home other than himself. He went back to the restaurant the next day, and the day after that; after one month he had been there twenty-two times. All the regulars and staff had come to know him, and he would have conversations with them at each meal.
During the second month in his new town, he decided to try the Saigon Market. As he walked in, the smells and sights made him feel as though he was in a Vietnam Village market all over again. He could feel the slight hairs on the back of his neck stand up, in a sense of heightened awareness of his surroundings. The feeling in the pit of his stomach that he thought was long gone was there, in full force. His muscles in his body tightened and became on guard, all his senses were on high alert. “Things learned in a war zone are never forgotten,” he read in one of his books about people coming home from Korea. He picked out a bag of bean sprouts, a bunch of peapods, some tofu, dumpling wrappers, and an assortment of other goods. He did not know what he was doing, but he planned to look up some Vietnamese recipes on his computer once he returned home. He found he was good at cooking. He got into the habit of eating home one day, and at the restaurant the next; he became a familiar figure at both the market and the restaurant.
After several months, he walked into the market and there was a man, who looked to be about the same age as him, sitting on a stool behind the counter counting out invoices. Robert did not recognize him and at first, he felt a bit uncomfortable. The woman who owned the market, Siu, noticed Robert’s unease and approached him.
“This is my father, Hoa [pronounced W’ha],” she explained.
The man looked at him and smiled slightly. He held out his hand to shake Robert’s in a friendly gesture; Robert accepted the handshake and smiled politely back at him. He finished his shopping and brought his items over to Hoa at the register. As Hoa began to ring up the order, he stopped; he picked up a bag of beans and dumpling wrappers and set them to the side. He went into the cooler in the back room and returned with a new box of beans and a new container of dumpling wrappers.
“These are fresh, others not so good,” he told Robert in English with a very heavy Vietnamese accent.
“Thank you,” Robert replied, bowing slightly to show respect to Hoa for his genuine favor.
Over the next few months, Robert went to the market at least two times a week for fresh food and to the Saigon Restaurant at least twice a week to visit with staff and regulars. He slowly became friends with Hoa. Hoa would stop to talk with him in the aisles of the market. One week, Hoa and Robert were talking when Hoa asked Robert if he would like to have lunch with him at the Moi Saigon Restaurant. Robert thought it would be great to have a friend to dine with, and agreed.
They talked about items in the store, as well as the restaurant, and had an enjoyable lunch together. Their lunches continued, twice a week, and, over time, they both started to discuss the War and the difficulties it had brought upon their lives. Soon, they were having two lunches and a dinner together each week, and Hoa’s daughter, Siu, eventually came to join them.
Robert continually spoke of the readjustments he had to make in his life now. He also talked about how difficult the war was for him. Hoa talked about his wife, Quy, still in Vietnam and the problems he had with his family in the United States. Hoa told him candidly that was trying to get Quy a visa to come to the USA. They also learned that Robert and Hoa and his daughter only lived about a mile apart. Robert met Hoa’s two sons, Daniel, thirty-three and Michael,thirty-four, who were both married. Siu, who owned the market, was forty, the oldest and not married. She stayed home to take care of her father; she was a stunningly beautiful woman.
As the conversations became more candid, they both began to talk of the struggles of war, the battles they fought, and the mental and physical agony and suffering it caused them both. After about six months of lunches, they both agreed to share pictures of themselves during their war years when they were younger and in better health. Robert was excited; he was interested in seeing pictures of Hoa when he was younger.
Robert arrived at the restaurant first with his albums. When Hoa and Siu arrived, a few minutes later, they greeted each other warmly. Siu leaned over and gave Robert a kiss on the cheek; her hand caressed his neck slightly for a brief moment.
They traded albums and began to order lunch. After they ordered, Robert opened one of Hoa’s albums and the first picture he saw was young man in a Captain`s uniform, an NVA uniform. He turned the pages quickly and saw more of Hoa in the tunnels, in the jungles, and in the NVA encampments. Robert was shocked. He had never imagined Hoa as an NVA soldier and a Captain, a leader of men who tried to kill him many years ago.
Before he could stop, he suffered an anxiety attack. His face became sweaty and flushed, and suddenly he felt as though he had to gasp for air as his heart rate increased. He looked over at Hoa, and he too looked quite irritated. Robert had trained as a Ranger, and fought in a lead unit at the battles of Chu Chi and Hobo Woods; Hoa was there as well and had lost many of his men. Hoa knew the Ranger patch well, he knew the wrath of death and destruction that had befallen his men in those battles. Hoa felt that he had become free of those nightmarish days by leaving Vietnam and coming to the United States.
Robert grabbed his two albums and bolted out of the restaurant. Siu, bewildered by both her father’s and Robert’s actions, was in tears. Robert went directly home, upset that he was alone and that his nightmares had invaded his real life. Hoa, an enemy soldier, lived in his city. He felt betrayed by Hoa, along with anger came a sense of rage that he had shared so much time with someone who could have been the one who killed men in his squad. All of the awful feelings returned that night, and Robert went to bed with all his prescriptions from the VA at his bedside and a large bottle of water.
Robert stayed away from the market and the restaurant for months. Spring turned into summer; it had been three months since that fateful lunch date. Robert was grocery shopping in a local supermarket, close to his home, when he saw Siu walking down the other side of the aisle. Robert turned and went down the next aisle, avoiding her. However, she saw him and turned into the same aisle.
Siu and Robert were on opposite sides of the same aisle again. Robert turned and went two aisles over, in an attempt to lose her. He watched carefully for her, but she did not appear. He continued with his shopping and picked out some breakfast cereal when he heard a quiet voice behind him.
“Robert, what in the world is wrong? Why did you leave us in the restaurant that night?” Siu asked in a demure voice. “My father refuses to talk about it and gets mad when I question him about the way you both behaved.”
Robert did not know what to say. His first instinct was to leave the store and go home, but he noticed the sadness and total lack of understanding on her face.
“Your dad and I were on opposite sides in the war. He was an NVA captain, I was a platoon sergeant, and we fought against each other in two battles. Many men died in those battles and there are many bitter memories that still remain,” Robert explained slowly and politely.
“Robert, that was over thirty-eight years ago, my father is fifty-eight and you are fifty-six; the war is over,” Siu said in bewilderment.
Ever since he had returned home, Robert had been fighting the war in his mind. His body, racked from war injuries, malaria, and dysentery, mental torment, was catching up to him; he was hurting from the war more and more each day, which he explained to Siu.
With sadness, Siu answered, “That is why I am not married. I have to stay home and take care of my father; he suffers greatly from his wounds of the war. My mother has been trying to come to the United States for the past thirty-nine years. The United States government listed her as a VC sympathizer during the war and denied her visa these many years. My father and mother have been separated for thirty-nine years. I was born in Vietnam, but I came here thirty-nine years ago with my father. He has traveled back to Vietnam several times to visit her. My brothers were born there also, but were allowed back with my father because he is a naturalized citizen.” What is wrong with you both, is one war not enough for the both of you? You and my father became friends because of your memories and your love of the United States. Why are you doing this to yourselves?” Robert did not have an answer. He simply stood there quietly for a long time, too long; people were beginning to look at them. Siu finally broke the silence.
“You come down to the Saigon Market tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. do you understand me, Robert? Come down and visit us again. I am sad, I know my father is sad and hurt, and I know you are sad and hurt. We must end this for good,” Siu said.
Robert agreed, not because he was going to do what she asked, but because he felt it was the only way to get away. It was 10:30 the next morning and Robert kept looking at the clock. The Saigon Market was only five minutes from his house. Part of his mind pleaded with him to go, but the other recalled the memories and begged him not to. By 11:15, his new memories of lunch with Hoa and Siu, and his great conversations with Hoa at the market won him over. Robert got in his car and headed for the market.
He arrived, got out of his car, and paced up and down the sidewalk, wondering, is all this worth anything? Is there something to be gained from this? Robert continued to argue with himself for a few more minutes. Finally, he ratcheted up his tenacity and walked into the store. Hoa saw him and his smile disappeared like a snowflake in spring. He looked clearly irritated and Robert was not a glass full of bubbly either. He was at a loss for words. Siu appeared and jumped into the numbing silence.
“Robert, it’s nice to see you again, I am glad you came to the market. We have fresh tofu, great bean sprouts, and snap peas. Do you want me to get you some?”
“No, I can get them for myself,” Robert replied. He picked out two pounds of tofu from the cooler, bean sprouts, scallions, and baby corn, before approaching the register.
“Good afternoon,” Robert greeted Hoa, and placed his items on the counter. Hoa picked up the loose baby corn and bean sprouts quite vigorously, took them in back, went into the cooler and came out with some noticeably fresh ones, as well as with a big bunch of cilantro.
“These are nice and fresh, and the cilantro just came in today,” Hoa muttered in a neutral voice.
Robert took the lead, which was totally out of character for him.
“They have some fresh spring rolls and shrimp salad at the Moi Saigon Restaurant. I am going over there now for lunch; would you and your father like to come with me? It’s a nice day for a walk,” he asked Siu.
Siu looked at her father. He nodded, yes, and she quickly grabbed her scarf, before either of them changed their minds.
“You need more peat on your garden at home,” Hoa mentioned to Robert as they walked to the restaurant.
“How do you know?” asked Robert.
“My daughter and I went to visit our cousins down the street, and I could see your plants are small. You need more peat to keep the moisture in the ground,” Hoa explained.
“Thank you for the advice. Hoa, Vietnam was a long time ago, there are wounds cut deep into my soul, but I do understand that it must be the same for you,” Robert said.
“Robert, we fought for our governments, not for principles, nor for honor. We fought because our governments were irrational. We, you and I, are not irrational, just damaged by the war.”
With that conversation, their friendship started anew. They both learned to forgive and forget about the role each of them played. Robert once read, “If a man spends sixty days in combat killing other people, he will be insane, and it will take a lifetime to get over that insanity.” For Robert and Hoa, it took a long time, and would still take longer, but for the time being, they both had something in common: the love of life. Eventually, Robert, through his church and his job, was able to help get Hoa’s wife into the United States. They spent many days together, that year and the next, all tending Robert’s garden.
Robert began to date Sui and decided that he always would. After three divorces, he was hesitant about getting married again. Robert never fully recovered from the terrors of his time in the war that year, but he learned to cope. He no longer thought about suicide and he had love in his life again. It all started with a handshake, a simple gesture of friendship. Governments make war, while young men and women, warriors, pay the price. Robert learned that all sides have wounded veterans, and they are tied together, not by their governments, but chained by the horrors of war.
Robert thought about his past year: Am I totally at peace? No, but I am making peace with the memories of my soul, at last.