The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but the scars of that conflict are still painful for many of those who fought there. The following is a story about two of those veterans who served on opposing sides in that war and met at Rosemont College, where the Vietnamese soldier’s daughter, Phuong Nguyen, is a student.
It was July 27, 2015 when Dennis Murphy, Vice President of Enrollment at Rosemont College in the suburbs of Philadelphia, met Thu Nguyen for the first time. Although they had never seen each other, Nguyen and Murphy had “spoken” via Skype nearly a year before, but this was first time they met in person. Murphy described it as “a magical moment.”
The date was significant because July 27 is Vietnam’s Veterans Day – and it’s the day that Thu Nguyen gave Dennis Murphy the precious gift of his old green soldier’s uniform. Murphy subsequently gave Nguyen his uniform from the Vietnam War. Forty years after the war ended, these two old foes could begin to reconcile their differences and forget the horrors of the war in which they both served.
When she was growing up, Phuong Nguyen remembers witnessing the emotional moments that struck her father every July when he was checking on his soldier uniform. “Every July brought a parade of horrific memories in my dad's mind and heart,” she recalls. “Those ghosts never stopped haunting him after so many years — all inspired by this worn-out piece of green cloth.” Now he was giving it away.
Dennis Murphy had his own grief and regrets about the Vietnam War that he had tried to bury over the years. Now this old Vietnamese soldier was offering him his uniform, which obviously meant a lot to him, just as Dennis’ uniform was precious to him. Why was he giving it away?
Putting aside all the questions lingering in his mind, Murphy responded politely, "Thank you so much for your gift. I really appreciate it."
According to Phuong Nguyen, it took her father months to prepare for this meeting, the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet with someone from the other side – 40 years after the Vietnam War. He thought about what he should and shouldn't say. He thought hard about the special gift. Above all, he prepared himself carefully for this moment, the “moment of eyes-to-eyes.” He was fearful of seeing the sorrow and haunting memories reflected in the other man's eyes. “Fortunately,” she remembers, “after the first strange moment, everything was so natural and full of the great unexpected.”
The two veterans talked about their service time. It became a big revelation that they were stationed just 30 miles apart almost at the same time. Thu Nguyen was subject to NVA draft on August 26, 1970, and fought in the Operation Lam Son 719, Quang Tri Province in 1970. From 1971 to March 1975, he was a reconnaissance soldier and Deputy Platoon Commander in the 3rd Yellow Stars Division.
Dennis Murphy was an infantryman in a rifle squad. Officially, he was a Grenadier, carrying the grenade launcher of the 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, 196 Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division. He left the US in late August 1970, returning March 17, 1971, after being wounded five times in a fire fight with an NVA Unit, 10 miles south of Fire Base Mary Anne in Quang Tri Province.
Clearly, they were enemies, but they shared the same battlefield and the same living conditions. They lived in the jungle with a lack of proper food and water. They dealt with rain every day, leeches, cold mountain air, being wet and soaked all the time and, of course, the enemy. The jungle was so thick that there were times they went days without the sun.
Phuong’s father served five years in the war, while Dennis Murphy served about seven months in Vietnam before he was wounded and evacuated. Setting aside the causes and the countries that they served, they were both soldiers. And though their experiences in that conflict were incomparable, they had both lived through the war, in which a single day could be fierce, terrifying and haunting.
For many years after returning from Vietnam, Murphy kept quiet about his experiences in the war and avoided all veterans' activities. He has become active recently in the veterans' community, telling his story and turning those hurtful memories into positive actions. He has helped a lot of Vietnamese refugees and the things he has done have helped him feel better.
"I think some guys got hung up on the past," he says. "I know them. I see some of my friends from the reunion who never really got out of first gear. The nature of the American attitude toward the veterans coming home (from Vietnam) affected many vets' chances of success."
Thu Nguyen summed up the Vietnam War in this fashion: "Walking out of the war, both sides were losers,"
Murphy later took Nguyen to the Delaware County Veterans Memorial, where he is a member of the board. The visit to the Memorial was an emotional experience for the old Vietnamese soldier. He had the chance to shake hands with other Vietnam War veterans and listened to their stories.
“They thanked him for coming, but those meetings did more for my dad than for them.” according to Phuong. “It helped him to understand first hand how life was for US veterans after the war and gave him confidence in his belief that he could befriend his former enemies.”
In corresponding later with Dennis Murphy, Nguyen wrote: "I was thinking hard about what to give you to remember our meeting. And I thought of my uniform. That is the only thing I kept from the Vietnam War to tell my children and my grandchildren about what I had been through. But I don't need it anymore. The meeting with you will be the story that I will tell from now on. I hoped the uniform would serve as a tool for you to tell your story and our story, too."
Recalling Murphy’s gift of his uniform to her father, Phuong said it was “unexpected and very kindhearted of him. Mr. Murphy said he was so moved by my father's generous gift of his precious green uniform – something that he obviously valued and that molded him into the man he is today – that he could give such a priceless gift to a former enemy.”
“As a Christian,” Murphy told her, “it was what my God would want me to do. But your father was the role model. He brought me to a better place by his actions. He is such a generous man.’"
Giving and receiving each other's uniform might have hurt a lot at that moment, but it actually healed the scars of forty years. The uniform exchange represented the exchange of courage, hospitality and, above all, friendship to the two former enemy soldiers.
UPDATE: Phuong Nguyen has received the Presidential Award from Rosemont College, where she is graduating this semester at the top of her class.