DENVER -- FOX 31 Denver’s Jeremy Hubbard recently traveled to Vietnam with a group of U.S. veterans who have never been back since the war. Each and every one of them was looking for something from the past.
Army veteran Manny Trevino brought along pictures of the village of Vi Thanh, hoping to locate old familiar buildings, or people he may have come in to contact more than 45 years ago. Joyce Bowles, a U.S. Army nurse, came looking for something else.
"I wanted to come this time just to know that I had some closure. So this is good for me," Bowles told FOX 31 Denver.
But every single veteran also came back hoping to finally make some good memories in Vietnam. And they found the perfect place for that. An orphanage in the southern part of the country. So many of the veterans have fond memories of the children of Vietnam. And some are making fresh memories, too.
"I was listening to Luis and Manny and they have good stories, they had some good days. You know they'd go into the village and the kids would come up and greet them. When you're flying medical evacuations, there are no good days. You know, you're not taking anybody to a birthday party, or a wedding. It's either somebody got blown away or somebody's sick and that's day after day after day," said U.S. Army veteran Mike Herndon, who served on a helicopter medical evacuation crew during the war.
But on this day – four decades later – they’re experiencing something different. At the orphanage, they find a room full of kids of all ages … who can relate to what it means to be searching for something. So these veterans just wanted to help in some small way – with a smile, or a hug – just as they did all those years ago.
“These young kids, they grow up, some have families some don't but they need to know that there are people in the world who care for them, and I do,” Bowles said.
"I saw so many (children) like that, being that we traveled to so many Vietnamese villages," Trevino added.
As an Army adviser to the South Vietnamese, not far from this orphanage, Trevino got to know children like these. He played with them, and held them in his hands. And he always wondered what happened to them.
For Marine Bob Burke, the reasons for wanting to visit kids in places like this are much more personal. He once lived in an orphanage too.
“I spent five years in one, when I was 10 to when I was 15. So I know what it's like, I know what it feels like. It's tough, you know? So I have a lot of empathy for these kids because I know what they're going through and how it feels to be just a number,” Burke told FOX 31 Denver.
Toiletries and school supplies and candy delivered by the veterans, are enough to make these children happy.
But surprisingly, it’s something else they cherished even more.
“I have so many pictures and I just developed extra ones for the kids ... Just to let them have them,” Army veteran Luis Reyna said.
The photos were a hit. Old, grainy prints from the 1960s, showing kids playing during tough times. The children in the orphanage study each face. Each photo, a lesson in their local history. Maybe even their family history. A gift, from the people who witnessed that history. And who will never forget the kids they met along the way.
For more on Vietnam Battlefield Tours, the non-profit that returned these veterans to the war zone, click here.