The 2 Sides Backstory: Susan Mitchell-Mattera

Preparing for this trip has led many of us to new discoveries. We’ve talked to family and friends who have shared new stories. We’ve uncovered new information about our fathers’ last moments. We’ve found pictures we never knew existed. Some of the more magical moments have been our encounters with people who have heard about where we’re going and why. I’ve started to call these “Susan Moments,” because they seem to be happening to Susan a lot.

 Susan recently found this photo from her parents' wedding. Her father had just joined the Navy. She'll bring this photo with her to share with the Vietnamese sons and daughters. 

Susan recently found this photo from her parents' wedding. Her father had just joined the Navy. She'll bring this photo with her to share with the Vietnamese sons and daughters. 

You’ve come across total strangers who are interested in your journey. How does that happen?!
I did a fundraiser event and a woman asked me what it was for. When I told her, she began to tear up. She said her dad was killed in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge, and she got to visit the site last year. It was amazing to connect with another Gold Star daughter like that. Then at the same event, a Vietnam Veteran came in off the streets and said he’d heard about the journey. He shook my hand, and I thanked him for his service. When he released my hand, I saw he had slipped me money towards my trip. That was amazing too, but that wasn’t it. I was in the pharmacy the other day picking up my medications for the trip. Two men heard me talking on the phone about the trip, and when I hung up they approached me. They had been in Vietnam, too. They told me about their experience and were so supportive. It’s all been kind of amazing.

How long was your dad in Vietnam?
He joined the Navy and was there from late 1963 until 1970, so about six years total. He was due to get out for good in 1970 and last saw my mom on R&R in November 1969, in Hawaii. When she was waiting in the airport to leave, a woman approached her. She’d seen my mom and dad together at a show on the island. She asked if that was her husband and my mother said yes. “That’s probably the last time you’ll see him,” the woman said. Mom never forgot that. He was killed two months later.

What do you know about your father’s last moments?
Before I decided to go on this journey, I didn’t know anything about where or how he died. I just knew his helicopter went down in a river. And I knew I wanted to stand in the exact spot, not a place that was miles away. So I asked my mom for more information. She said she’d support me going however she could, but the hardest thing for her to do was to open a cedar chest that had all his stuff in it, and look at the paperwork about him again. I didn’t get a lot of details from her, so one night I reached out on Facebook to veterans groups and others to try to find out more. I posted something at 2 AM, and by 6 AM I had 20 responses from people who had more information, or who knew where to look. I’ve got the coordinates now, so I know I’ll be standing in the right place.

Growing up, what was your feeling about the war and the Vietnamese?
My mom asked the doctor what she should tell the children about how their father died. The doctor said if they don’t ask, don’t say anything. My grandparents told us that we shouldn’t ask about our dad because it would make mom cry. So we didn’t talk about him or about Vietnam in our house.

What do you hope to get out of the trip?
My dad was in the area where the helicopter went down for a month before he died. I just want to be able to breathe the air he breathed. I want to walk in the same area where he was. Other than that, I’m hoping for healing, for closure, some kind of closeness to my dad.

Are you afraid at all?
I’m a nurse and I work in hospice where there’s death and dying every day. I’m always processing and helping others process intense emotions. I think my biggest fear is that with all the emotion, I won’t be able to process my feelings fast enough, I won’t be able to absorb everything.  

What are you most looking forward to? What would make the trip a success for you?
Getting to know the people of Vietnam. Some of the sons and daughters faced the same things we did here in the U.S. Getting to know the people and seeing their side about what happened and being able to understand them will be important. They are just us, in so many ways. I’m also hoping that I can help others. Today it’s Vietnam. Tomorrow it may be another war, and the two sides will need to meet to understand and heal.