1 Picture, 2 Sides: The Story of Ron's Site Visit

Ron’s father, PFC Ronald Reyes (USMC 1st battalion/9th Marines), was killed 48 years ago today on a hill overlooking Khe Sanh. Back then—March 30, 1968—the Tet Offensive was raging. Ron was just a few weeks oldHis father died knowing Ron had been born, but he had only seen his son in pictures. 

As we prepared to go to the site a few months ago, Ron reflected on the fact that the fighting had left the land bare. He said he wanted “to see the foliage as it should be.” He got his wish when we arrived at this impossibly lush place. The trees were wide and so full they crowded into each other. The coffee plants were bursting with huge, shiny berries. The earth was a deeper, richer red than anywhere on earth. Everything was alive in this place that had seen so much death.

On this day we honor Ron and his father with never-before-seen pictures from the site visit, and with reflections from Ron and photographer Anthony Istrico on what they saw and how they felt that day. You’ll get the full story about this site visit and the 2 Sides Project trip in a documentary from Istrico Productions, coming in 2016. 

  Ron arrives at the site where his father died. Photo courtesy Istrico Productions.

Ron arrives at the site where his father died. Photo courtesy Istrico Productions.

Anthony: Ron was always concerned that people were getting to their sites, getting the experience they needed. This was Ron's day. He got there and let go. The space just overwhelmed him, and pulled him down. This was the closest Ron would be to his dad.

Ron: I don’t know how I ended up on the ground. I was just completely overwhelmed. I had so much energy going into getting to this place, and finally, I was there. I was just completely flooded with emotion: happiness, sadness, completion, everything all at once. It was years and years of feeling that hit at the same time. I just dropped there and stayed.  

 

  Ron walking away from his father's site. Read below about the palm trees on the left. Photo courtesy Istrico Productions.

Ron walking away from his father's site. Read below about the palm trees on the left. Photo courtesy Istrico Productions.

Ron: I see that picture in complete color. I can visualize how bright the greens are and how red that dirt is. We went through a coffee plantation and then came to the top of a hill where we could look down on this valley. Originally I wanted to climb up the hill ahead, but as we walked down and got into the valley, I felt the spot where I needed to be, in front of that shack, and we stopped there. I re-ran the coordinates this weekend and discovered something new. See that set of palm trees on the left? That’s actually where my father died. The map zoomed right down to them. And my dad’s friends who survived that day’s fighting drew diagrams showing what happened where. Those drawings match up to that place, too. So, I was in the right spot. That happened to many of us on this trip. We knew where we wanted to go because we had the coordinates. But we didn’t know exactly where to stand until we got there. We just felt it.

Anthony: I’ve talked before about how Vietnam has 50 shades of green. It’s such a vibrant, alive place, and I felt what we saw in color was an unfair representation of what this place was, a place of immeasurable death where one of the bloodiest battles of the war took place. Making it black and white reminds us it wasn’t always this beautiful. And a broad view like this made Ron the center of the shot. It shows the scale of the place.

 

  Photo courtesy Istrico Productions.

Photo courtesy Istrico Productions.

Anthony: Ron and I were making our way back to the bus after the site visit, and I asked if he would let me take a portrait. He was about to compose himself, and I took this at the moment before he did, when it was clear he was drained and he was letting go of all his emotions. I’m so glad I caught him in this moment. Ron had to be “on” the whole trip: he was helping people get to their sites, working all the maps, directing the driver to the exact spot. In this picture he’s not “on” but simply himself, taking in where he's just been.  

Ron: I didn’t want to leave. Before we got there it was so frenetic, trying to find this exact spot. And when we did, I found it was quiet and beautiful. I was at complete peace. I just wanted to breath it all in.