The 2 Sides Project Profile: Kim Benner

Kim Carlson Benner’s father, Air Force Captain John W. Carlson, was shot down in Vietnam in December of 1966. His remains have never been found. Decades on, his legacy lives in Kim’s life and in the lives of the two boys she has raised with her husband, Rich. Their sons, John and James, are named in Kim’s father’s memory and in that of his cousin, James Donahue, who was also killed in Vietnam in 1970.

In this series of profiles introducing the “seven sisters” who are going on the next 2 Sides Project trip in November 2018, Kim talks about growing up without her dad, what changed her mind about meeting the other side and going to Vietnam, and how she’s preparing for this important trip.


 
 Kim fishing off the coast of Massachusetts

Kim fishing off the coast of Massachusetts

What was it like growing up without your father?
It made me feel very vulnerable. I seem to remember being scared and afraid, always thinking that someone was going to physically hurt me. I am not sure how common it is for young girls to feel this way, but that's the way I felt all the time. I know I felt sad, like something was always missing.

Looking back, I think I really felt unmoored and adrift, floating alone in the world with no direction. Even though I was very young, I think in some way I knew I had to keep my sanity if I wanted to survive.

 “Sam” Carlson as a teenager sailing in Lake Michigan

“Sam” Carlson as a teenager sailing in Lake Michigan

Did people talk to you about the war, given your family’s experience with it?
Not really. At times, I felt invisible, but when people did pay attention to me, it was because they felt pity for me ("that poor girl, her father died in the war") which made me embarrassed. I don't remember feeling particularly proud of my father and his service, or why anyone would even care. I don't even remember telling people about my father's death in Vietnam until much later. Friends of mine from high school recently found out about how my father died and said they had absolutely no idea of my circumstances.

What about in your family? Was it discussed?
I knew our grandparents loved us very much, but I also knew that Grandma would cry about our dad, and I didn't ask about him at all because I didn't want to make her sad. I wanted to make a connection to him so it would seem obvious that I was his daughter. That’s probably a big reason why I wanted to learn to sail. I knew it was such a passion of his, and was something we could share.

 The two sides in Washington D.C., 2017

The two sides in Washington D.C., 2017

You had an opportunity to go on the 2015 trip, but didn’t. What changed
your mind?
I didn’t have any interest then in meeting the other side, and since we’ve never been sure where exactly my father’s site is, I didn’t want to go until I was certain I could stand in the right place. My feelings about the other side changed only recently. In 2017, I attended the film premiere in Washington, D.C., and several of the Vietnamese who participated in the first meetings in Vietnam came to see it. I remember Dang Thi Le Phi, a daughter from Danang, ran up to my son James. She’s tiny, and he is 6’4”. She stood next to him, marveling at his height. I thought she is a mother like me, in awe of my child. Why am I angry at her? It was a pivotal moment. We still don’t know our father’s precise location, but I feel like it’s time for me to go anyway, and I want to go as part of the 2 Sides Project. I don't want to take a tourist trip there, and I don't want to go with any other group.

 Kim and her father at a family wedding in 1964

Kim and her father at a family wedding in 1964

How are you feeling about it, now that it’s close?
I am honestly feeling so many emotions, ranging from curiosity to fear to anticipation. I am taking very small steps every day to prepare myself, which seem to be helping with the fear part. I am not sure what to expect and how to prepare, which feels kind of weird since I do like to be in control. I think if I overthink it though, that might not be good either. So I’m trying to keep my mind open and receptive and not judge my emotions. But I don’t know how I will respond when we get near the crash site. I know that my father died there, but I really do feel him with me a lot, and know that he loves and is really proud of the family that Rich and I have created, nurtured, and loved with our whole hearts.

 
 The Hanoi marker on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont

The Hanoi marker on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont

What are you most looking forward to?
I am really looking forward to seeing the Vietnamese friends I met in D.C. I think I am just really starting to appreciate how brave they were to come and visit the Wall. I only hope I can be as gracious, open, friendly and forgiving when I am a visitor to their country.

Knowing that we will all be together again soon is very comforting, and I am looking forward to meeting other Vietnamese sons, daughters and veterans.

I am praying that we can all continue to find peace and forgiveness, both individually and collectively.