Return to Vietnam: Veterans travel back to war zone for first time

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Vietnam veteran Richard Bentley

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HANOI, Vietnam -- With Veteran’s Day approaching, FOX31 Denver’s Jeremy Hubbard traveled 8,000 miles to Vietnam with a group of U.S. veterans who haven’t been back since the war ended. And those veterans were surprised by what they found.

With its pristine beaches in Da Nang, bustling cities like Nha Trang and commerce that flows as freely as the waters of the muddy Mekong River, the Vietnam of today isn’t exactly the image of a war-torn country.

Which is why it all looks so unrecognizable to the Marines and Army veterans who traveled back as a group back in September. The scenery might have been unfamiliar, but the memories came flooding back.

"(The B-52 bombs) knocked us out of the beds, they were so close," U.S. Army veteran Richard Bentley said while staring at a crater left by a U.S. bomb near the Cu Chi tunnels, a labyrinth of underground tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, used by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Bentley knew it would be tough returning to Vietnam alone, so he brought his wife for support.

He wanted her to see the place he saw as a 20-year-old draftee. The place that changed his life forever. He was a cook in the Army, a support guy. He didn't think he'd see much death and destruction. But that all changed the minute he set foot in Vietnam.

“I think that the first day of his tour here made him who he was because he said he got off the truck, and there were rows and rows of bodies,” said his wife Carolyn.

Bentley was stationed at the Cu Chi Army Airfield in southern Vietnam. So when he knew he was coming back to Vietnam, he found the old airfield on a map, even pinpointed its location on GPS.

The one thing he wasn’t prepared for was the feeling that overcame him when he arrived at the old air base’s front gates. Sunglasses hid the tears as he showed his wife the place he'd been talking about for decades.

“It's alright, I'm right here. I'm right here,” Carolyn told him, as they hugged on a sidewalk across the street.

There was a time Richard Bentley never wanted to return. But more than 40 years after the war, being back fills a void.

"I don't know, I feel it's my 20th birthday back here,” Bentley said.

But even now, he can't enjoy the moment for long. Within just a couple minutes, a guard from the People’s Army of Vietnam came over and told us to stop photographing Richard's old air base, which now belongs to the Communists.

All Richard could get was one good snapshot of the front gate. But it doesn't matter because at least he made it here.

“It's great. I feel like the circle is complete. You know. The circle came around, and I'm right here,” Bentley said.

Completing that circle is the idea behind return visits like these. Vietnam Battlefield Tours is a nonprofit run by Vietnam veterans that brings back veterans every year, to find the places that forged who they became.

"These guys never met each other before. Most of them. … And when they leave here, it's like they've known each other forever. They have something in common. You can see them kind of relax. And you can see them reminisce. It's really nice to see that," said Bob Burke, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam and now volunteers with the charity.

“This is great. This is great. You only got so much life left, and the memory I'll carry with me,” Bentley said as he left the sidewalk outside his old air base.

A weight lifted, after a long journey of 8,000 miles -- and 40 years in the making.

FOX31 Denver and its parent company, Tribune Broadcasting, are paying tribute to Vietnam veterans nationwide this weekend with a documentary airing coast-to-coast on Tribune sister stations. It's called "Untold Stories: Saluting our Vietnam Veterans." It airs Sunday, Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. on FOX31 Denver.

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