It's been more than four decades since the Vietnam War claimed over 1.3 million lives. Has enough time passed to allow for friendship between two sworn enemies?
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu
A small Vietnamese man struggled with his uniform as he pulled it over his dress suit. Nearby, a college administrator stared wide-eyed at the former soldier in the threadbare army greens. He looked confused, his eyebrows twisting to form deep wrinkles on his forehead.
The two stood face-to-face—one the vice president of enrollment at Rosemont College, the other my father. It was the first time they’d met in person. With me facilitating, they’d spoken on Skype a year earlier, so they knew something about each other. But this was different: two former combatants from one of modern history’s ugliest conflicts sharing a meal—and much more—on a lush college campus in the heart of the affluent Main Line. Neither had any way of anticipating the emotions that an encounter like this might stir, and both were somewhat numb when one of them broke the silence. “I want to give you my uniform to remember our meeting today, July 27, 2015,” my father said.
Veterans Day is celebrated here on Nov. 11. In Vietnam, the holiday comes on July 27. On that date 21 years ago, my father stood for hours in front of a mirror in our living room, the dim light casting shadows on his face as he squinted, trying to button that same uniform. His fingertips slowly traced the seam of the old shirt. He checked its pocket, pulling out and studying a Vietnamese badge: Nguyen Van, Tieu đoi (name, battalion).
He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn’t noticed his 7-year-old daughter standing behind him. I’d been staring for a long while, trying to understand what was going on. Finally, I asked, “Dad, are you OK? Why are you crying?”
Realizing my presence, he discreetly wiped away tears, turning to me and pulling me into his arms. “Do you know whose badge this is?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. “This is the badge of Uncle Nguyen Van Dao, my comrade in the Third Yellow Star division in Binh Dinh, the fifth military district of the Vietnam People’s Army, Central Vietnam.”
My dad fingered eroding lines on the metal. “He died in a fierce air raid the night of Jan. 5, 1974, at the most important stronghold of the North Vietnamese Army in An Lao Valley, Binh Dinh. I was the one who buried the disintegrated parts of his dead body in between the first and the second bombings. This badge was the only thing left of him that I kept from that night,” he said.
Every July, for as long as I can remember, I witnessed the surge of emotions that consumed my father. A parade of horrific memories; ghastly spirits that wouldn’t let up; a tragic tale here and there—all prompted by the uniform.
Now, he was giving it away.
Enemies No More: Dennis Murphy, Rosemont College’s vice president of enrollment, meets his former Vietnam War adversary, Thu Nguyen//Photo by Phuong Nguyen.
Dennis Murphy’s questioning eyes told the story. He was clearly caught off-guard. Why in the world would this old soldier want to part with his uniform?
An innate diplomat, Murphy also understood the discrepancies that can exist between two vastly different cultures. His response was a reflection of that understanding: “Thank you so much for your gift. I really appreciate it.”
It took my father six months to prepare for a meeting that lasted a matter of hours. He fretted over what he should and shouldn’t say. He thought hard about his special gift. He feared seeing the sorrow and that haunted look in his former enemy’s eyes.
The actual meeting between the two men was far less fraught with angst. They talked about their service time and the revelation that they were stationed just 30 miles apart. My father was drafted by the NVA on Aug. 26, 1970, and fought on the winning side of Operation Lam Son 719, an unsuccessful seven-week offensive by the South Vietnamese Army, where the United States provided logistical, aerial and artillery support. Then, from 1971 to ’75, he was a reconnaissance soldier.
My dad’s command post was known as “the human mill.” After the air raids, torn corpses were everywhere, body parts filling the craters left from the shelling. During the rainy season, the air was thick with the smell of rotting flesh.
About 30 miles south of my father’s unit, a 20-year-old Murphy was carrying a grenade launcher for the 196th Light Infantry Brigade of the American Division. Raised in Delaware County, he’d enlisted in 1969 and left for Vietnam a year later. Murphy was stationed in the I Corps
zone in northernmost South Vietnam when he was shot five times while trying to save another soldier in a firefight with a North Vietnamese unit that was just six feet away.
“I felt a round go through my ankle,” he recalled. “I fell on the ground. I literally could see a round come out of their machine gun. I followed it. It crossed my knuckles, hit me in the head, and almost took my head off. I got two rounds in my back.”
Another bullet hit his thigh. His friend didn’t make it. After several weeks of treatment in Japan, Murphy spent six months at Valley Forge General Hospital. His near-fatal injuries meant that his tour in Vietnam was over six months after he’d arrived. He received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
In addition to their brushes with death, the two former soldiers talked about living conditions, weapons and so on. My dad had to get by with an old-school Russian AK-47 and limited ammunition. Murphy was armed with what was then a state-of-the-art M203 grenade launcher. And while my father was at a disadvantage where weaponry was concerned, they both shared the same unforgiving environment. They endured soaking rains, leeches, cold mountain air, and shortages of food and water. The jungle was so thick that they often went days without seeing the sun.
My dad served with the NVA for five years. Back in the U.S., Murphy recovered from his wounds—though his back has never been the same—and was struggling to put the war behind him. He had ample support from family and friends, but he admits to drinking to escape. He returned to college, graduating from West Chester University and earning a master’s degree in educational counseling from Villanova in 1976.
A year earlier, when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, Murphy sobbed his heart out. My father returned to his family, slowly reclaiming his life through the haze of malaria and depression. He became a telecommunications executive and has since retired.
Murphy has spent the past 30 years working for area colleges, coming to Rosemont in 2014. For a long time, he kept quiet about his experiences in Vietnam. Only recently has he become active in the veterans community. Once a year, he heads to Georgia to catch up with surviving members of his unit at Fort Benning.
“I think some guys got hung up on the past,” said Murphy, gazing over my father’s shoulder and fixing his eyes on the floor. “So many Vietnam veterans came home to an ungrateful nation and had trouble getting out of first gear. The hostility demonstrated toward soldiers—who risked everything for their country fighting a determined enemy, then had to wage another battle with their fellow Americans for self-respect—was unprecedented in the history of our nation.”
My father has a similar opinion. “Walking out of the war, both sides were losers,” he told Murphy, giving him a copy of The Sorrow of War, an international bestseller by former North Vietnamese soldier Bao Ninh. “If you’re interested in having an honest look at how the Vietnam War forever changed a soldier’s life, his country and the Vietnamese people in a non-heroic, nonideological tone, this is the book for you.”
For Murphy, meeting my father was a “magical” personality test. At some point, he thought he could deal with the memories of Vietnam and forgive himself. But he wasn’t always certain that he was who he thought he was. Then he met my dad, and he passed his own test.
In a later correspondence with Murphy, my father explained his decision to part with the uniform:
In the end, my dad’s former adversary returned the favor: Now, he has Murphy’s Army greens. “As a Christian, it was what my God would want me to do,” he said to me. “But your father was the role model. He brought me to a better place by his actions.”
Phuong Nguyen is a Fulbright exchange student from Vietnam. She had four years of journalism experience in her country before pursuing
a master’s degree in the subject at Rosemont College.
Nguyen was awarded the Presidential Medal, the highest honor bestowed on a Rosemont student, and was recognized in Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.