Road to Reconciliation

Road to Reconciliation

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Road to Reconciliation

A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.

~Tim Cahill

I was in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971. I was a nineteen-year-old grunt — a foot soldier. I spent most of my time in the field scrounging through the jungle and rice paddies, looking for the “enemy.” In February 1971, barely six months after my arrival, my platoon was out on a reconnaissance in the central highlands. I saw a clump of grass on the road and in the millionth of a second it took me to say to myself, Hmm, I better not step on that, I stepped on it. The next thing I remember I was on the ground screaming and writhing in pain.

I had placed my foot on what we called a “toe popper,” an antipersonnel land mine. I lost my right foot and part of my right calf. Although it was a very traumatic experience, I also felt tremendous relief and happiness — I knew it was my plane ticket home.

Back in the States, I was fitted with an artificial leg and I threw away all my souvenirs of Vietnam — my photographs, my uniform and my Purple Heart. They had no value to me. They reminded me of something of which I wasn’t really proud and I had one constant reminder: one artificial leg.

Twenty-six years passed, and I never once thought about returning to Vietnam — until I received a newsletter from an organization called World T.E.A.M. Sports. In it, they announced their upcoming Vietnam Challenge. I had never heard of it before.

A team of Americans, Australians and North Vietnamese veterans and civilians would ride bicycles down Vietnam’s main freeway, freeway One, from the north to the south, a distance of twelve-hundred miles. Being a cyclist and a fan of a good challenge, I knew that I wanted to go, and I applied.

I was accepted and a flood of emotions filled my heart and soul. Wonder and excitement. Hesitation and fear.

The possibility of meeting a former North Vietnamese soldier fascinated me. Maybe, just maybe, we shared similar feelings. Thrown into war, how did he feel when he was being attacked? What was it like fighting us?

I was also curious about my fellow veterans. I had had nothing to do with Vietnam veterans for twenty-six years. What would it be like to travel with a whole group of them?

Four months later, I found myself on a plane with more than thirty team members heading back to a place I knew only as a war, not a real country with real people. As I looked at the faces of the other veterans, I wondered if that’s how I must have looked. How would the North Vietnamese people react? How would we react?

Upon our arrival, we were warmly greeted by open arms, flowers and gracious smiles at Hanoi’s airport. After a few days in the capital, we were ready to hit the road.

On the first day of January 1998, I was riding out of Hanoi with my eighty American and Vietnamese war veteran teammates. The energy in the air was ecstatic. Before I knew it, I was waving to hundreds of cheering Vietnamese citizens, holding hands with a former North Vietnamese soldier.

His name was Tran Van Son. He was my age, and like me, Tran had also lost his right leg to a mine. But unlike me, he also lost six immediate family members in the bombing raids on Hanoi. He said he used to be filled with hate for Americans, and he nearly lost his spirit hundreds of times.

As Tran opened up to me, I felt my own heart unfolding. One day, I heard that he had slipped in the shower, and his leg was hurting him. I offered him some gel liners and stump cushions to ease his pain. He put them on and gave me a “thumbs up.” He smiled his magnificent smile. And that was enough.

We had a connection, a special connection. As language was a barrier, we often relied on a smile or a hug to convey our camaraderie. Over the miles, we found that we could just let go, relax and enjoy each other’s company, even without words.

In Vietnam’s national cemetery in Hue, Tran and I were talking about his prosthesis. I knew that he could benefit from some of the new technology that was available and I was doubting the capability of his artificial leg. He mentioned that he had run the New York City Marathon twice. I was amazed. He obviously loved running as much as I did, and if a new leg could bring him a fraction of the joy I felt, then maybe I could arrange for a new prosthesis for him.

As I pondered the possibilities, he asked me, “Are you a fast runner?”

“Yes,” I replied. Then he said, “I do one hundred meters in fifteen seconds.” “You gotta be kidding.” I was shocked. He shot back, “You, me, race right now.” And so we did.

We staged a little one-hundred-meter race in Vietnam’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery. We sprinted neck-and-neck down the improvised course, to the cheers of veterans from both sides. It was a tie, and at the finish line we hugged each other in a spirited moment that cut across history and brought much-needed healing.

In that instant, I mentioned to Tran that maybe someday he would be able to come to the United States, and we could run the New York City Marathon together. We smiled at the possibility and knew that somehow we would make that dream come true.

From that day on, Tran and I “talked” daily. I couldn’t help but feel awed that twenty-eight years ago Tran and I might have tried to kill each other. And we were fast becoming the best of friends. I felt like I was the luckiest person alive.

When I returned home I talked with my friend Jim, who owned the company where my prosthesis was made. I told him about Tran Son and how he should have a new prosthesis and running foot. Jim agreed, and we started making calls that night.

In April of 1998, it was Tran’s turn to travel to my country. My family and I waited for him at the airport in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and my heart fluttered when I saw the face of my smiling friend come through the gate. I realized that I actually knew this man. He was my friend. This Vietnamese man was my friend, and now our friendship would continue over here.

We got Tran a new prosthetic leg and lightweight flex foot. Seeing him on his state-of-the-art leg brought tears to my eyes. Tran had given me so much, and now I was happy to give something back to him… and, in many ways, to his country, Vietnam. In three short days, Tran and I were once again running together, more comfortably, and this time in my hometown.

It was an honor for us to have Tran Son staying at our house. My wife Robin and I noticed how Tran brought out the best in our two teenage daughters. They seemed to blossom when Tran was with us. He had three daughters of his own, and across the miles, he treated mine as his own. We were his American family.

He spoke eloquently at our daughters’ school about forgiveness. Despite all that had happened between our two countries, despite all of his loss, he found the place in his heart to forgive. We were so proud to know this man who had traveled so far to be with us and share his gentle sense of dignity and grace.

In November, Tran flew back to the United States, this time to New York City. But this time he was there to meet me when I arrived at the airport. When he saw me walking through the gate, he ran to greet me, his head bopping up and down, that ever-present smile on his face.

Together, we ran the New York City Marathon. Through five boroughs and a little over twenty-six miles, we cherished each other’s company and recalled our journey through his country. After all the horrific and heartrending moments we had endured, a marathon was somehow the easy part.

As we headed toward the finish line in Central Park, Tran’s innocence prevailed. Even though it’s not permitted, he stopped to ask an official if she would take our picture below the banner. She couldn’t refuse his beaming face. And so my new friend and I finished our race, triumphant hand in triumphant hand, just as we had started our journey in Hanoi so many months before.

~Daniel Jensen

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