FOR SGT. PAUL REED, LIKE SO MANY OTHER Vietnam war veterans, the hardest part was coming home. After he returned to civilian life in Texas in 1969, Reed, now 48, went from one failed relationship and dead-end job to the next, his anger always simmering and sometimes erupting in violence. If a stranger unexpectedly knocked on the door of the truck Reed drove for a living, “I’d open it, and they’d be looking at a sawed-off shotgun,” he says. Seven years ago, hoping to end the war still raging in her son’s heart, Reed’s mother, Polly Baker, handed him a box of long-forgotten war souvenirs, among them a diary filled with flowing Vietnamese script. That was the beginning of Reed’s redemption. The diary, he says, “basically set me free.”
It also gave him a mission. For the first time since the late ’60s, Reed felt he had a purpose in life: to return the diary—actually a collection of poems kept by a homesick North Vietnamese officer—to the author or his survivors. With help from veterans and the Vietnamese government, Reed found that not only was the diary’s owner, retired 2nd Lt. Nguyen van Nghia, still alive, he was also eager to recover his poems, titled Memories, and to meet the man who had found them at the jungle campsite where Nghia had hidden them so many years before.
Reed flew to Vietnam in November 1993, landing in Hanoi, then driving 70 miles south to the village where Nghia, now 68, lives with his wife, Vu Thi Gai. “Paul set aside an incredible amount of anger and frustration to embrace Nghia,” says Reed’s girlfriend Lindi Boyer, 38, who works for a real estate firm. “I think he’s trying to forgive himself in the process.”
Since that emotional meeting three years ago, the unlikely friendship between two former enemies has flourished. Learning that Nghia suffered from impaired vision in his left eye, among other war-related health problems, Reed raised enough of his own and other veterans’ money to bring him to Dallas last month for treatment. Unfortunately, ophthalmologists determined the damage was irreversible. More bad news would follow. Dr. Tuong B. Van, a Vietnamese-born cardiologist, volunteered to give Nghia a physical and discovered serious leakage in Nghia’s aortic valve, a condition that could lead to heart failure and which probably was caused by his high blood pressure. Dr. Van believes this resulted from inadequate care for a stomach wound Nghia suffered in the war. After undergoing a diagnostic angiography on Nov. 18, Nghia was told drug therapy could moderate the leakage and delay the inevitable heart surgery for several years.
Nghia’s old diary, it seems, may have saved not only Reed’s life but Nghia’s as well. “Thanks to the diary,” says Nghia, “we have a noble friendship.”
Until America became openly involved in the fighting in Vietnam in the mid-’60s, Paul Reed, who had grown up in Dallas as the rambunctious only son of Leo Baker, a petroleum engineer, and Polly, a homemaker, had never heard the country’s name spoken. “I’d say I was pretty wild,” says Reed (who dropped the surname Baker in 1986 in an attempt to distance himself from his troubled past). He had once ridden his Honda motorcycle down the halls of Hillcrest High School for kicks, yet managed to graduate in 1966. With no real plans for the future, he enlisted in the Army.
Halfway across the world, Nghia, the son of rice farmers in the North Vietnamese town of Tien Hai (pop. 5,000), had already fought one war for Vietnam’s independence from France. But in 1965, at 37, he left behind his wife and four children to voluntarily reenlist in the People’s Army and serve in the protracted struggle his countrymen call the American War.
Americans marveled at the apparent ease with which Vietnamese soldiers adapted to harsh jungle warfare. But to Nghia, who served as an infantryman, conditions were hellish. “During the rainy season we took leaves from the jungle to cover ourselves,” he says through a government translator, Luong Thanh Nghi. Food shortages forced the North Vietnamese to dig for roots, and vipers, leeches and tigers posed a constant threat. Desperately homesick, Nghia began writing wistful verses in a notebook covered with fake alligator skin: “Lying here, I miss you/Aching throughout this winter night/I cannot contain my desire to come home….”
Nghia’s unit was in South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh Trail when it became the target of a U.S. air strike. The concussion he suffered from the very force of the bombs may have cost him the use of his left eye. While they were in the highlands of Kontum Province in March 1968, Nghia’s unit engaged American troops in a vicious, two-week firefight over a steep ridge known to U.S. troops as Hill 1064. It was there that Nghia left behind his notebook, in a backpack found by Sgt. Paul Reed. Having arrived in Vietnam only three weeks earlier, Reed already considered himself a “kill-crazed” soldier, a member of the Army’s highly decorated 173rd Airborne Brigade (the same unit that killed Nghia’s brother, Nguyen Van Ba, in 1968). “I was taught the Vietnamese were animals, that they were subhuman,” says Reed. On the same day that Reed found Nghia’s backpack—shipping some of the items home in a C-ration box—he addressed a letter to his parents, writing, “This man has a cute child and a pretty wife, but I’m sorry to say they will never see him again. Once the 173rd finds them, they get tracked down until they are no more.”
Reed’s tour of duty ended after a year of intense combat. “When it was my time to go, I got on a [helicopter] and had to keep my head down to keep from getting shot,” he recalls. “Thirty-six hours later, I was sitting in front of a fireplace in Dallas.”
The sense of relief didn’t last long, but the feeling of dislocation did. “They expected me to go from trained counterinsurgency fighter to Mr. Nice Guy overnight,” he says. “It didn’t work.” Nothing seemed to work for Reed—not his four-year marriage to college student Linda Arnold, which ended in 1974, and not his 2½-year attempt to obtain a business degree. Angry after Saigon fell in 1975, he briefly considered fighting as an anti-communist mercenary in Angola. “I ran for 16 years, driving trucks [for a living], trying to get away from everything, everybody,” he says. Meanwhile, a second marriage, to Carol Norton (their son Silas, now 16, lives with Reed and his parents), ended in 1986. “Those are days we sort of like to forget,” says Reed’s mother.
Reed was reaching his breaking point, and it occurred, of all places, at the Texas State Fairgrounds in Dallas in 1989 during a Fourth of July celebration. There to watch the fireworks, Reed and a girlfriend happened upon an exhibit of granite slabs destined to become part of the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For the first time, says Reed, he understood the source of his anger: the loss of his comrades and guilt over the killing he had done in Vietnam. “My heart just exploded,” says Reed, who sobbed for three hours. For months he brooded over his wartime experiences. Then Polly, hoping to heal her son, removed the diary from a cabinet where it had lain for 20 years. “I brought it out, and he looked at it and smelled it,” she says. Flooded with images of the war (“As soon as I unwrapped the plastic, the aromas of the jungle came back,” he says), Reed sat at his computer and began recording his memories—a compilation that would become a TV documentary for PBS in 1994 and a book, Kontum Diary, two years later.
It took two years of counseling before Reed could bring himself to return to Vietnam—where he made an emotional visit to Hill 1064, now almost wholly reclaimed by the jungle—in order to deliver the diary. “He had to travel very far from America to return that book to me,” says Nghia, who has lived quietly on his military pension in Tien Hai since he returned there in 1970. (The day he arrived home, Nghia’s youngest son, Nguyen van Dien, now 33, didn’t even recognize his father. “He gave me some candy, and I said, ‘Thank you, Uncle,’ ” says Dien, who addressed the stranger with a common term of respect.)
Dien, director of a government-run youth program, accompanied his father to Texas last month, remaining by his side during Nghia’s medical appointments and marveling with his father at Texas culture and America’s plenty. The two were greeted warmly by veterans’ groups and by Reed’s friends at the airport. Staying with Reed’s next-door neighbor, Nghia was interviewed for local newscasts and spoke to a gathering of veterans at the Dallas VA Medical Center. “We went to the war with just the will that we should reunite our country,” he explained. Rory Stevens, a disabled vet, eagerly shook Nghia’s hand afterward. “I wanted to make peace,” he says, “to have a kind heart toward my fellow human beings, which we never did during the war.”
The former Vietnamese officer was given a symbolic key to Fort Worth by Councilman Jim Lane (himself a Vietnam vet), toured the local stockyards and flew to Washington for a two-day visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There was, unhappily, one unexpected development. Two days before they were scheduled to return to Vietnam, Dien slipped out of his bedroom, leaving behind a note to the translator, explaining that he wanted “to stay in the U.S. for some time to make some money.” Reed called the Dallas police and the Vietnamese embassy in Washington (if found, Dien would be deported as an illegal alien), while government officials relayed the news to Dien’s wife and mother of his 1-year-old son back home.
Determined not to let Dien’s disappearance ruin the moment, Reed accompanied Nghia back to Vietnam on November 25—but not before guiding his guest through a Texas-size mall and filling his belly with plenty of American fast food. For in the end, sharing life’s simple pleasures—as well as memories of a war that left them scarred—helped the two forge a bond that neither could have foreseen when the goal of each was the death of the other.
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Dallas