Qui Nhon, in September of 1969, was a hot and dusty small Vietnamese city located on the blue-green waters of the South China Sea and rimmed by the coastal mountains of the Central Highlands. The older women wore the traditional ao dai that resembled shiny black pajamas. Their teeth were stained and rotted from years of chewing betel nuts. Many of the young women were beautiful and delicate. The few civilian males were mostly very old. Children were everywhere.
Houses of corrugated tin, concrete and bamboo lined the narrow streets clogged with bicycles and motorized carts that looked like gas-powered golf carts, which taxied people and moved freight. Downtown Qui Nhon had a few more substantial buildings: the Catholic cathedral, a railroad station, seedy hotels and restaurants, and banks and government buildings. Though Qui Nhon had the reputation of being sympathetic to the Vietcong, it was relatively safe for American soldiers. The town was neither important nor imposing, but the setting was spectacular, even idyllic.
I arrived in Vietnam that September as a 22-year-old second lieutenant, about to make first lieutenant, one year out of John Carroll University, with 12 months of very inconspicuous military service under my belt. I had never before been outside the United States. I lived in Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio created a magnificent river valley. Steel production thrived then; belching blast furnaces lit up the night sky creating the unforgettable smell of sulfur (like rotten eggs). This was home to me. Now I was an American soldier in a war zone surrounded by complete strangers and nothing that was familiar. I was naïve, immature and scared, as were most of us. Vietnam was very different from western Pennsylvania.
I first saw Tank Farm II shortly after being assigned to the 240th Quartermaster Petroleum Battalion. The mission of the 240th was the storage, supply and distribution of any petroleum product required to keep the aircraft and vehicles of the U.S. military moving. The battalion’s responsibilities included off-loading oceangoing fuel tankers, running pipelines and ensuring the quality of the various fuels. Tank Farm II served as the main fuel storage and distribution depot for the central highlands of Vietnam. The tank farm contained a dozen 50,000- and 100,000-barrel tanks of fuel to keep the jets, helicopters, armor and trucks of the American military running during the war. It occupied about 25 acres on one of the steep hillsides that surrounded Qui Nhon. The fuel tanks dotted the hillside that rose from the rice paddies to halfway up the low mountain. We sat on over 20,000,000 gallons of fuel, which we had to keep not only flowing but safe. Later in the year, I became the operations officer of the battalion, a lieutenant holding down a major’s slot.
I returned to Vietnam in January of this year, after 34 years in the Society of Jesus and 26 years as a priest. Much of my ministry as a Jesuit has centered on the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This has afforded me a front-row seat to watch people grow in their relationship with God. “Helping souls,” St. Ignatius Loyola said, is the essence of what Jesuits do. This return to Vietnam forced me to find God in the experience of war, 35 years later, in ways I did not expect.
On the morning of Jan. 17, I flew north on Vietnam Airlines from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to the central highlands. The old Qui Nhon airport had been turned into a shopping area. The new airport was the American-built Phu Cat Air Force base. As soon as Ilanded, the process of remembering began. I knew the air base from my former work. The revetments that once protected U.S. jets and helicopters stood empty, with wild grass growing around them. The taxi driver who drove me to my hotel took the bypass road skirting the city. The hillside that ran close to the road and then quickly fell away was familiar. I knew the rice paddies to the left. There were more huts along the roadside, but they looked familiar. Ten seconds before seeing it, I said out loud, “Tank Farm II is coming up on the right.”
Suddenly there it was, situated halfway up that long hill. The jagged perimeter fence that encircled the entire base was still in place, as were the fuel storage tanks. An operations office stood by the front gate exactly where the American operations office had been in 1970. Opposite the office was a security checkpoint on the spot where a sand-bagged guard tower had stood. Remnants of the old six-inch cast iron pipeline were visible. Tank Farm II remained operational despite the North Vietnamese government policy of removing all vestiges of American presence after the war. It had been deemed useful.
I was dumbfounded at the sight. I had last seen Tank Farm II in September 1970, a few days before I left Qui Nhon at the end of my tour of duty. I had no expectation that it would still be there.
I returned to Tank Farm II the next day, but I did not try to get in. Instead I stood across the road and looked carefully at the structure that I knew so well. As the most important supply area in the Central Highlands 35 years ago, it was a prized enemy target. It had to be protected and kept operational. It was my job to keep things running. Tank Farm II was also the site of a major unresolved personal issue.
As I stood on the road that sunny morning, a memory returned. On that June night nearly 100 V.C. “sappers,” soldiers carrying explosive devices, crawled across the rice paddies and assaulted the tank farm. Before the attack began, the soldiers inside the tank farm reported activity all around them. The tank farm was guarded by 40 or so American soldiers scattered along an extensive perimeter. The area in front of the gate was a no-fire zone because of the small houses opposite the gate that stood in the direct line of fire. (In a no-fire zone you did not fire weapons unless attacked.)
On the night of the attack, I was in the battalion command headquarters three miles away. The men inside the tank farm were in constant contact with us by radio. We in turn were in contact with central command operations downtown. The activity reported by the men at the tank farm was highly unusual. We needed clearance to fire, especially in the no-fire zone; there might be “friendlies” out there. Near 11 p.m. the battalion commander decided to go to the tank farm with some additional troops. I remained behind.
Around midnight all hell broke loose. Sappers attacked, shooting their way through the front gate. With the use of satchel charges, they blew up the guard tower, the operations office and several of the fuel tanks. From the command post we could hear the explosions and see the fires. The radio reports from the troops inside were chaotic.
Six Americans died that night. One of the dead was First Lt. Grady McBride, who had come in country with me. He was sent to one of the companies and I was assigned to battalion staff. We were supposed to trade places after six months; but the switch never happened, because I was needed on the battalion staff. I knew four of the other six men who were killed, all good men. The colonel was wounded and never returned to the unit. Many others were severely wounded, including a staff sergeant who lost his legs. Twenty-four V.C. died that night.
My job the next morning was to get us back “on line.” All the American dead and wounded were in the medical treatment area. The dead V.C. remained scattered inside and outside the tank farm. That morning I turned off my feelings and got the job done. For 24 hours all of us in the 240th labored to put out fires, save the fuel in damaged tanks and transfer it to undamaged tanks. We even pumped fuel from a tank that had ruptured up high and was still leaking gas. We were back on line and operating again in a day and a half, a remarkable feat considering the damage. Tank Farm II was back in order. But part of me was not.
What follows is a part of this story that has haunted me for years. Why wasn’t I there that night instead of Grady? Why didn’t I, rather than the colonel, lead the additional troops to the tank farm? I suppose most soldiers who have been exposed to combat and death ask questions like these.
The answer came to me two years after leaving Vietnam, during an eight-day retreat Iwas making as a Jesuit novice. I was praying over one of the most important themes of the Spiritual Exercises: God’s unconditional love. My prayer shifted from the Isaiah text that describes a God who “has written your name on the palm of his hand” to that old question about why I hadn’t died that night. In a moment of grace, as real to me today as it was then, came an answer: “You weren’t supposed to die.”
I have always felt close to Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus. His experience was not so different from mine. He was a soldier who survived, though badly wounded, while others around him died as French troops attacked the Spanish city of Pamplona. He had led reinforcements into the besieged city and rallied the Spanish soldiers to resist the vastly superior French attackers.
For Ignatius, convalescence from the wounds received at Pamplona became the setting for his conversion. During this time he began to reflect upon his life and his survival in war. God, who always treated Ignatius with gentleness and compassion, began to inform him about matters deep and personal. In this time of illumination, Ignatius encountered God’s love for him. Self-knowledge well beyond all previous self-understanding changed his life. I wonder how many others who have been involved in war know this experience.
My return to Vietnam and to Tank Farm II pushed me to hold the brutalities of war and the power of God’s love in my heart simultaneously. I did not expect to find that Tank Farm II still existed. Nor did I expect the memory of death and destruction to have so much power even today. I no longer feel guilty that friends of mine died that night, while I lived. But I don’t understand why things happened as they did. I do know that faith helps me interpret that experience.
It took me five years to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., after its construction, even though I lived less than 100 miles away. When I finally got there, I sat beneath a tree at some distance and wept. As happens to many who visit there, the enormity of the sacrifice swept me into a great sadness about the terrible loss of life. For me, the loss has real faces and haunting memories.
Standing in front of Tank Farm II that sunny morning and remembering the attack of 35 years ago caused me great anguish. It raised the question of the worth of such sacrifice. Some believe that such experiences can help a person grow up quickly. Ithink, rather, that they cause alienation within your heart as you struggle to do what has to be done and move through the process of sorrow and mourning. For most of us, trying to find God in such a moment is difficult, if not impossible.
These days I find myself searching for as much information as possible about the men and women killed in Iraq. When I can find their photos, I study them carefully, noting their ages, backgrounds and ethnicity. My heart breaks; they are so young, and so many of them are African American or Hispanic. I grieve for their parents, wives and children, and siblings. Their loss is terrible. But so too is the loss to all of us.
It is troubling how America welcomes its honored dead with merely private homecomings. These fallen men and women have done our bidding in a far away, horror-filled place. Somehow the secretiveness seems like a denial of their sacrifice and makes an unpopular contentious war a dirty war.
I want to say something to the men and women who are serving or who have served in Iraq and their families. My experience showed me that it is hard to overestimate the long-term effect of being involved in war. The emotional and affective violence that touches you when men and women next to you are killed or badly wounded is devastating. The violent rupture of relationship is an unnatural and disorienting experience It is no less troubling to realize that you have killed another human being. There is no time for good-byes or grieving; you have to continue. There is no how-to manual for dealing with combat experiences and losses. There is no answer to the question of how long it will take to readjust.
The cumulative effect on the soldiers who day after day encounter danger in the presence of every Iraqi they encounter, every car that passes, every road traveled is something they will carry with them for a long time. Sudden unexpected loud noises will cause an exaggerated startle response. Remaining within them are unexamined experiences that seem grossly out of context and that resist fitting neatly into life as it goes on. Part of that life will also be inexplicable to others.
For the soldiers who return from Iraq, the exercise of reflective conversation is a necessary means for understanding their wartime experience.
My 15 years of silence after the Vietnam war hurt me. Many Vietnam veterans remain lost, angry and confused because of their role in a war they did not understand and that their fellow Americans did not appreciate. Today, we must enable Iraqi veterans to tell their story. Even messy and undigested conversation is preferable to letting the experience brood.
Here is one last point of concern. I am one of my generation’s skeptics about American foreign policy and decision-making. Over the last few years former Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara published his memoirs, which shed light on his misgivings, doubts and mistakes concerning the Vietnam War. I admire his truthfulness now, but lament his lack of transparency then. He did not serve us well by holding back the whole story. My suspicion is that veterans of the Iraq war will harbor the same skepticism toward American government decision-making today.
My Jesuit training compels me to look at my Vietnam experience of many years ago. Frankly, revisiting Qui Nhon and Tank Farm II did more good than I could have imagined, bringing me some healing and a greater willingness to speak out about the trouble of war. The trip also allowed me to see the youth and vitality of the people of Vietnam: a different impression from my memories of people dressed in black, looking at me with fear, while I looked back with hostility. Revisiting Vietnam made me look more carefully at the war in Iraq. I hope that this war ends quickly and that we can find ways of dealing with issues that may be confounding to us other than armed conflict.