I’ve been afraid throughout this trip that we would come across someone who was angry. I was surprised when this didn’t happen in the North or the central part of the country where so much fighting took place. So when we approached our last sons and daughters meeting in Saigon, I thought it would be easier than the rest. Turns out it was the hardest and most honest exchange we had with the other side. It was all because of Vu Ngoc Xiem.
I noticed Mr. Xiem as we took our seats. He laid an open notebook on the table and read the notes within as the others introduced themselves. At times he would rock a little back and forth in the chair, his fingertips digging into his forehead. His eyes were closed when he did this. I wasn’t sure if he was on the verge of crying or yelling. Either way, he seemed to be steeling himself as it came his turn to talk. When it did, he stood.
Mr. Xiem said he was 66 years old and a retired military man. His father died in a bombing when Mr. Xiem was 14 years old. It was the first time he recognized the pain of war and loss, and the first time he thought about revenge. Then on October 10, 1967, Mr. Xiem’s school was hit by a bomb. Of 52 children in class that day, Mr. Xiem was one of only 19 to survive. His mother was so afraid he’d get killed that she forbade him from going to school. He said he continued to think about revenge as he grew up. You must understand, he said, Vietnam is a country that loves its people and loves peace. He stopped and started as he spoke, struggling perhaps to let go of his anger as he acknowledged that he saw and appreciated our tears. He ended by saying we must have a better future and work together to help children and victims of Agent Orange.
When the meeting was over I wanted to place the 2 Sides Project pin on Mr. Xiem’s collar, so I approached him and asked him if I could. He said yes and stood perfectly still while it took me forever to pierce his shirt's thick collar. I wanted to tell him that I understood his desire for revenge, that that same idea had been with me most of my life, and that it was a tough thing to let go. But there were no translators around. He took out a red flower pin symbolizing victims of Agent Orange and pinned it to my dress. Then he shook my hand. What I had feared would happen did, but we had survived, and hopefully softened for having connected with each other.
The meetings are now over and our trip is done. But my deep hope is that as a budding organization, the 2 Sides Project can schedule more trips in the future. Perhaps the Vietnamese can come to the U.S. to see our world and visit our memorials. And other U.S. sons and daughters can make the journey to Vietnam to meet the other side and visit their fathers’ sites. Whatever the future, it’s clear that coming together and sharing our mutual pain has the power to change us all. For that, all of us who participated in these meetings are very, very grateful.