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Newspaper In Education
Healing path from Vietnam a twisted trail
For Indians in white man's army, the enemy was a lot like themselves
BRANSON, Mo. – Before Duane Simpson left his home on the Colville Indian Reservation to join the Army, the elders of his tribe took him into the mountains to purify him and prepare him spiritually for war.
He wanted to be a warrior, respected by his people. Simpson's uncle had to break ice in a stream for the ceremony in which the 17-year-old boy was cleansed with smoke, sweated and then doused with water four times in the winter of 1964.
When it was done, his elders told him, "Your spirit and ours will protect you."
Thirty years later, Simpson does not know whether these spirit protectors saved his life in Vietnam, but it is as good a reason as any for how he survived two tours of duty with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
He and 25 other former soldiers from the Colville Confederated Tribes gathered in this southwestern Missouri resort town this week for a tribute to Vietnam veterans billed as "the homecoming you never received." As many as 40,000 Vietnam veterans were expected here by week's end, organizers said.
On Wednesday, the veterans strolled the grounds of the Grand Palace Theater in Branson. They looked into aging faces for traces of someone they once knew long ago in the war that defined their generation. A mobile replica of the Vietnam War Memorial has been erected in the parking lot, which is now transformed into a place of memories.
Thomas Pechette, 65, of Keller, Wash., has not yet found a comrade from the 1st Infantry Division in 1965, but he spotted a fellow "tunnel rat." Pechette said he could see it in the eyes of a Marine. Both men had entered the enemy's underground bunkers with a sidearm and a flashlight. Neither would ever forget the smell of death in those holes.
Before leaving for Branson, Pechette said he wished his mother were still alive to come with him. She was so supportive after he came back from the war a changed man.
"My son is home," he overheard her saying to a friend, "but I got a stranger in my house."
Simpson did not want to come home at all. After serving in Vietnam from May 1965 to March 1967, he was afraid of what he had become and how he would be received by his tribe. Once back on the reservation, he tried to tell his story, but nobody wanted to hear it.
"I was too graphic, I guess, and they couldn't handle it. I couldn't handle the apathy and after a while, I felt ashamed of telling them."
Simpson also began to think that the Vietnamese he killed in the war were perhaps more like him than the white man's Army he fought for.
"I felt bad about Vietnam and killing people who were trying to defend their homeland just as we did," he said. "They were the enemy, because the government said they were the enemy."
Others among the Indian veterans in Branson this week have had similar thoughts.
Arnie Holt, of Coulee Dam, who served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, said he joined the Army to "defend the homeland, our culture and our beliefs."
"But when I came back, I realized how I treated those people over there," he said. "It made me reflect back on history and how Native Americans were treated."
Ted Bessette of Omak, Wash., who fought with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, has come to believe the U.S. strategy in the war was flawed from the beginning.
"The Vietnamese were like the old Indian fighters," he said. "They grew up in war so they developed a better understanding of war and how to survive."
Bessette compared Vietnam with Iraq, where "people have been fighting for centuries, and they will be fighting long after we are gone."
In Vietnam, his unit was made up mostly of minorities or poor whites, Bessette said. "The war wasn't lost until we started losing too many upper crust pilots." When the U. S. left, he said, it turned its back on thousands of Vietnamese after losing nearly 60,000 American soldiers in the war. Bessette called this "unconscionable."
Simpson, Pechette, Holt, Bessette and Thomas Watt, who served with the 1st Infantry Division in 1967 and 1968, were among an estimated 125 enrolled members of the Colville Confederated Tribes to go to Vietnam. Despite the fact that most of them were combat infantrymen, all returned alive. They were among 42,000 Native Americans who served in Vietnam, 90 percent of whom volunteered.
"They used Indian soldiers as point men," Bessette said. "We were more in tune with what was going on. We had a sixth sense, you might say, on being out in the wild. If something is out of place, you are able to see or hear it, recognize it better than someone from the concrete jungle."
Bessette and Simpson also said the enemy mistook Indian point men for Vietnamese, a factor they believe saved them on more than one occasion when a moment's hesitance meant the difference between life and death.
"We would see these Vietnamese in villages and I would think, 'Gee, they look like our people back home on the rez,' and that was disturbing for me, as well," Bessette said.
Watt recalled the first time he saw Montagnards, the indigenous people of the central highlands. "They had spears and bows and arrows, just like us," he said.
When the Indian warriors returned to their homeland in north central Washington, each of them struggled with the trauma of battle and doubts about what they had done there. Some, like Watt and Simpson, turned to alcohol before finding their path. Some did not survive.
"It took years for us to realize there was something wrong with Vietnam veterans," Bessette said. "The old people had ways to deal with what we called combat fatigue or battle stress. They had prayers and ceremonies and Indian traditions."
He worries about the next generation of veterans, particularly those returning from Iraq. How long will it take them to find their path? How will they be treated by a nation impatient for peace?
"Warfare is sacred to Native American people," Bessette said. "We are taught only to fight to defend ourselves. Corporate greed isn't on the Indian list of things to fight for. We will be held accountable in the next life."