Veteran finds some peace, but at a price, in Vietnam

July 15, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WOODY CURRY has come home again from Vietnam, and this time he's brought more than memories and misgivings. The last time he went, a ruinous war erupted all around him. This time, there was peace. But everything comes at a cost, including the price of old dog tags and weapons of killing turned into amusements for tourists.

He sits in his office now holding a dozen dog tags in his hand. He keeps them in a little velvet pouch. The dog tags were once designed to hang from soldiers' necks. But the soldiers have all left Vietnam now, one way or another, and the dog tags are only rusted artifacts of a murderous era.

Four decades ago, Curry left Baltimore to serve with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. For three months he served as a door gunner on helicopters, offering air support to ground troops. Later he spent six months on the ground, or under it, making his way through the claustrophobic blackness of the Vietnamese network of hidden tunnels. When he came home, he says, he spent years feeling disconnected from everyone around him. When he finally visited "The Wall," in Washington, and saw the name of his old corps commander, he cried for three days.

Now, in the summer of 2005, he went back to Vietnam for three weeks. His memories were jarred, and so were his preconceptions. He went with half a dozen other Americans, a nonprofit group called Center for Emerging Media. They were working on a documentary about Vietnam, discovering how it had changed since the war. Curry was discovering dog tags, and AK-47s turned into Disneyland-style amusements, and Vietnamese who stirred him with their forgiveness.

"They had no hard feelings," Curry, 62, was saying the other morning. He sat in his little office in a converted firehouse, where he's headed the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter for the last decade. "All these feelings we have in America, with our shame and our guilt - they've moved on. They were sweet and gentle and had wonderful values. We measure our lives with material things. They have nothing. But they gather by the river in the evening, and they cook their dinners on hibachis and sing out loud, and nobody worries about guns or drugs or not having enough stuff. They enjoy being alive."

Four decades ago, the Army sent Curry to language school, where he learned Vietnamese. He held onto it. When he went back, he found he could use it comfortably. In his office, he scrolls through a series of photographs on his computer, one after another of Curry surrounded by smiling Vietnamese who were delighted to find this big American man who spoke their language. In one, a kneeling Curry is surrounded by smiling children. A little girl puts one hand on his shoulder; with the other, she makes the peace sign.

One afternoon, Curry happened upon a group of Vietnamese military veterans enjoying a reunion. They were talking about a tank they had destroyed long ago. He told them he was a returning American soldier.

"I was shot here," he told them.

"Probably me that shot you," one of them replied, chuckling gently.

"I waited 40 years to find this SOB, and here he is," Curry said, leading a chorus of laughter.

At Cuchi, not far from the U.S. Marine base where he'd been stationed, he found some of the tunnels the Vietnamese had dug as hiding places. He'd been in them before, with a rope tied around his waist so he wouldn't get lost in the dark.

"I had to go back in," he said. "I went back to being a soldier again."

But the tunnels have now been turned into tourist spots for those willing to risk claustrophobia. In the blackness, he heard a voice cry, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God." It was a tourist, somewhere up ahead, frozen with fear. The tunnel was too narrow and too dark to turn around and reverse course.

"I'm thinking, `Not now,'" Curry says. "You don't want to survive the tunnels in war, and then have something happen in the middle of peace." He emerged, after a while, deeply shaken.

Outside, he met another Vietnamese military veteran. Curry told him he'd been stationed nearby. The man showed Curry wounds on his arm; Curry showed the man wounds on his leg.

"A long time ago," Curry said.

"We'll forget," the Vietnamese said, shrugging his shoulders. "We're friends now."

For Curry, his war was finally over in that instant.

Across three weeks, he says, he never sensed a moment's lingering bitterness from the Vietnamese. But other things bothered him. There were tourist places "where you could buy Ho Chi Minh sandals. Or you could shoot an AK-47, like a Disneyland exhibit. Man, if you saw what an AK-47 does to a body, it's not so much fun. Especially if somebody's shooting back."

At Khe Sanh, he saw a Vietnamese man selling U.S. dog tags to tourists. He said he'd picked them up across old battlefields. He wanted about $3 for each one. Curry struggled to keep his emotions together. He remembered when Khe Sanh was a fire base for Marines surrounded by four divisions of enemy Vietnamese.

The commercializing of their dog tags seemed a sacrilege. Curry purchased them all, with a singular spirit: We don't leave our men behind.

Now he sat in his little South Baltimore office and said he didn't know what to do with them all. Forty years later, it's enough to keep them close to his heart.

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