The Two Sides Backstory: Margaret Von Lienen

Over the next few weeks, I’ll introduce you to the people from the U.S. who are headed to Vietnam on the inaugural 2 Sides Project trip: who they are, why they’re going, and what they expect. We’ll start to profile the other side once we meet them.

First up: Margaret Von Lienen. Her father, Robert Saavedra, was a Navy pilot. He was shot down over the province of Ha Tinh on April 28, 1968. I met Margaret this summer, and what she told me about the day her father was shot down still haunts me.

“The Navy came to tell my mother what happened. They said he was going to be officially listed as MIA because they hadn’t recovered him, but Mom believed that he had died. So she decided to have a mass at the house. We pulled out a server that was part of the dining room set and used it as the altar.”

There’s just something about that need to stop everything and have a service that really gets me.

Do you have many memories of your father?
I was five when he was killed. I have snapshots in my head, not memories, because Daddy was gone a lot. That’s what they did in the Navy. They went “on cruise.” I remember being with him when my younger brother was born. We stood outside the hospital because they didn’t allow kids inside then, and Mom waved at us from her hospital room window. I have another snapshot of him coming into my room and me running to hug him. He must have just come back from being away for a while.

What was it like growing up?
Mom would share stories whenever we asked. And we always had pictures of him up. But we didn’t talk much about my Dad, even outside the family. You didn’t know what people would say. This was the early 70s and my friends all had both parents. I was just different.

Do you have any keepsakes today?
When my Grandma passed we got some of her things -- newspaper clippings I had never seen before, his letter from high school, a bunch of things from when he joined the Navy and went to naval cadet training. I’ve just been going through those things. My cousin also gave me letters that Dad had written from Vietnam. I read a couple of them but had to stop. It was too much.

Have you ever been to Vietnam?

Why is now the time to go?
That’s a good question. My situation is a bit different. My Dad wasn’t stationed in Vietnam, he wasn’t on the ground there, so I debated if that would give me closure, or be helpful for me or not. Last year the Navy excavated a site that could be my dad’s crash site. Unfortunately I don’t yet have any positive confirmation back from them that it’s his. So I guess it just came down to this: I can go. I have the time and I can afford to do it and if I don’t do it now, I may never. Also, I have the opportunity to go with a group of people who I don’t have to explain what I feel or apologize for my emotions, they just understand. That’s a special gift.

What do you hope to get out of this trip?
Maybe I’ll feel a little closer to my dad. And maybe I’ll get just a little bit of peace.

What are you most afraid of?
I’m nervous about meeting the sons and daughters, not knowing what their reaction will be. I mean our fathers were -- I don’t want to say invaders -- but they were over there doing what they were asked to do. I don’t know what that looks like to the Vietnamese sons and daughters. It’s also possible I won’t feel any better after being there, or maybe I’ll feel worse. I just don’t know.