Sons and Daughters In Touch Vietnam

SDIT Vietnam Trip: Ten-Year Retrospective

By Tara Lynn Johnson

When we think of the servicemen who died during the Vietnam War, many of us imagine most of those soldiers as young men, even teenagers, who never had a chance to get started with their lives. But many of those who died in Vietnam were fathers or fathers-to-be when they met their untimely deaths. As a result, there were many children (of varying ages) who had only vague memories of their fathers who had died in Vietnam, or had no memories of them at all. Many years after the war, a group of mostly young adults came together to form an organization specifically for the purpose of sharing their unique feelings related to being “Sons and Daughters.”

In 2003, members of this organization, Sons and Daughters in Touch (SDIT), accompanied by some Vietnam veterans, members of VietNow, and members of Vietnam Veterans of America, embarked on a journey to Vietnam, for the purpose of paying tribute to their lost fathers in the places where they had died. VietNow Magazine Special Assignment Correspondent, Tara Lynn Johnson, recently talked with three of those who made that trip to Vietnam, ten years ago, in the year 2003.

It’s been ten years since the children of fathers killed in Vietnam returned to the place where those men took their last steps and last breaths – spent their final hours. In March of 2003, a group of about fifty members of Sons and Daughters in Touch (SDIT), accompanied by VietNow National President Rich Sanders, members of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), veterans and others, boarded a plane that would take them on what they knew would be an emotional journey to honor their lost fathers.

VietNow looks back on that trip through the eyes of some who were there. “It’s a story that shouldn’t be lost. It’s so powerful,” Rich said. “In the whole grand look at the Vietnam War, the healing that some of the most affected families went through should be remembered by more than just those who were there.”

Those families include children of soldiers lost, the “kids” of SDIT. “Those kids – I call them ‘kids,’ but they’re 45, 50 years old – they’re like our nieces and nephews,” he said.

Even though the “kids” were like family, it took some convincing to get Rich to go along on the trip. “I didn’t know if I really wanted to go back,” he said. “But to go back with them made it all the more intense and worthwhile.”

And healing.

Cindy Smith

Not that those wounds will ever completely heal.

SDIT trip. Corporal Richard Lee Sanders

Father of Cindy Smith, Corporal Richard Lee Sanders, who was a medic with HHC and A Co. 2/39th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, who was killed the day after Thanksgiving, on November 24, 1967, in the northern part of Bien Hoa province.

Cindy Smith’s pain was lessened as a result of the SDIT trip, but her father is never far from her mind. “Going there, I was a bundle of nerves,” she said. “Leaving there, it was a big weight off my shoulders, a good place to be.”

Her personal journey to Vietnam began in 1992, while she was living in California. The Moving Wall (a smaller replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC) came to Bakersfield, and she heard a member of VVA, on television, asking sons and daughters who had lost their dads to come out to meet them.

“I first thought, ‘He’s not talking about kids like me.’ I didn’t think people cared about kids like me who lost my dad,” Cindy said.

But she went, and met about seventeen other “kids.” It was the first time she’d met someone else whose father had died in Vietnam.

That same year, on Father’s Day, she went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall), in Washington, with SDIT – and returned in 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000, and 2005. It was at the event in 2000, that Tony Cordero, SDIT’s chairman of the board and co-founder, announced the Vietnam trip.

“My first thought was, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to that god-forsaken country,’ ” Cindy said.

As planning began, she started to feel that she would regret not going more than she would regret making the trip. So she went. “I am so glad I did. And I don’t feel like I need to go again. That piece has been put into place,” she said. “Grieving for someone you don’t remember is like putting together a puzzle. You get to know them through other people’s eyes and your own personal experiences. Each bit of information or experience is another piece of the puzzle, another step closer to peace.”

The Vietnam trip “piece” was decades in the making. Cindy’s peace was long awaited.

SDIT Tony Cordero

Tony Cordero, far left, gathers with a group of other “Sons and Daughters.”

 

Tony Cordero

After co-founding SDIT in the early 1990s, Tony Cordero, whose father, William, had been lost in Laos during the war, thought about going to Vietnam then, but the time wasn’t right – the U.S. and Vietnam had only recently normalized relations.

By 2000 that had changed. “The time was right for us to go and see the places where our dads fought and died,” he said. It would be quite the undertaking, requiring financial commitments, investigation, and research.

“We wanted to make sure each participant could get as close as possible to where their dad died,” he said.

On March 2, 2003, after years of planning, the group took off for what would turn out to be the trip of a lifetime.

They would visit Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the Mekong Delta, Cu Chi, Da Nang, Quang Tri, Khe Sanh, China Beach, Hue City, and Hanoi. Cordero would also visit Laos, where his father had been lost.

When the group landed in Saigon, they stood out from the locals, Tony said. “You can’t take fifty kids and chaperones, and place them into the hustle and bustle of Saigon, and have them go unnoticed,” he said. “We got a lot of looks and stares.”

It took a couple of days to get used to Vietnam, while trying to crawl through tunnels in Cu Chi, floating on sampans in the Mekong Delta, visiting a temple on the outskirts of Saigon, and going to an amusement park on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia.

“We got a chance to get acclimated as tourists before we jumped into the gut-wrenching part of the trip,” he said.

Then, the real journey began.

SDIT Rich Sanders

VietNow National President, Rich Sanders (left), checking out the local lifestyles.

 

Rich Sanders

Groups were organized by area of where their fathers had fallen, and were given color-coded team names. Rich Sanders was on the Gold team, Tony on the Orange team, and Cindy, the Red.

When he got out of the Army in 1972, after joining in 1969, and serving in Vietnam in 1970-71, Rich thought that was the last he’d see of Southeast Asia. But he went on the trip with SDIT, even though he knew it would be difficult.

“To participate in the trip, I could kind of sidetrack the reason I was there,” he said, “which was whatever they need, if I could help, I would. That kept me from focusing on anything else.”

But it was a total-immersion experience. “The groups went into the villages, following the water buffaloes into the rice paddies.”

After one tribute, we let that son have his space, standing around in rice paddies. We got back in minibuses, everybody full of leeches,” he said. “At the next tribute, the stream was too deep, and we had to wade across. The kids were experiencing what their fathers did.”

Rich was humbled by his group experience, but also by the Vietnamese people in the streets.

“They’d see the Americans, and do some begging, bugging you, wanting to sell you cigarettes or souvenirs,” he said. “As soon as you went to the tribute area, though, they knew something was sacred about that.”

Even though Rich didn’t harbor negative feelings about the people of Vietnam, this trip was eye-opening.

“They’re good people, hard working, honest, friendly – and that’s something that I don’t think I fully realized while I was serving,” he said.

SDIT Cindy Smith

Cindy Smith at the site of her father’s death.

 

The site of Cindy’s father

While Rich was roaming with the Gold team, Cindy and fifteen members of the Red team, a veteran, a medic, and a tour guide, headed toward the site, near Bien Hoa, where her father, Army Cpl. Richard Lee Sanders, age twenty-two, had been killed. Cindy was three when her father was killed.

Cindy’s dad, Richard, also known as Doc, Sandy, or Dick, was a medic with HHC and A Co, 2/39th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division. He was killed the day after Thanksgiving, on November 24, 1967, in the northern part of Bien Hoa province.

On the second day of a three-day search-and-destroy mission, his unit came under intense automatic and semi-automatic weapons fire from a well-concealed company of Viet Cong. Richard rushed to the aid of his fallen comrades and friends to render aid, and to help carry some of the men to safety.

He was killed while helping a seriously wounded soldier, who also died during the action. And, for his heroism, Richard L. Sanders received the Silver Star medal and Bronze Star medal.

Cindy is proud of her dad (who isn’t related to VietNow National President Rich Sanders), and wanted to go to the site where her father had died, but she feared where she was headed. She imagined a frightening place, and the hour-long bus trip to get there didn’t help.

“I pictured this high canopy [of trees], kind of a dark place, but it was very beautiful, along a river. The earth was really red. There was a little hill,” she said. “It was nice to replace that scary jungle with this peaceful, serene place.”

After years of not knowing or seeing her father, she connected with him there, where he had died. “I definitely felt his presence. It was kind of a calmness,” she said.

Wearing a t-shirt with her father’s unit patch on it, Cindy left flowers and a note she had written, and burned incense. She took as a keepsake a bit of the soil her father’s feet may have touched.

She read scripture chosen by her then-teenage daughters, Briana and Kirstie. Cindy made sure Richard’s grandchildren knew their grandfather as more than a picture or a name on The Wall. And the girls understood how important this journey was for Cindy, even though it was hard. When they sent the scriptures to Cindy, they also wrote a note: “Please tell Grandpa we say hi.”

To represent the “kids” like Cindy and the other Sons and Daughters, Briana and Kirstie selected Matthew 18:10:

See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

For their grandfather, Cindy’s dad, they selected Isaiah 63:9: In all their distress he too was distressed and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

And for the experience of losing someone, they chose Revelation 21:3-4: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Butterfly trails

As she had throughout her journey, Cindy saw butterflies at the site of her dad’s tribute. The Red team saw the fluttery creatures everywhere they went, and their pattern of travel around Saigon mimicked a butterfly shape. They started calling themselves the Butterfly team. Cindy learned, too, that Vietnamese culture believes that the black butterfly (in particular) appears when ancestors are worshipped. The butterfly represents the circle of life, the soul/spirit, and shows that your ancestors know you are honoring them.

Honoring his memory, and having those special moments with her father, allowed Cindy to leave a burden of grief behind. “I knew I had done what I’d come so far to do, and my heart felt a hundred pounds lighter,” she said.

She added the tribute memory to the only other memory she has of her dad – from her childhood – since Richard left when Cindy was a toddler. In her little-girl mind’s eye, she sees him sitting in a chair, flicking a lighter that looked like a cannon (she has the lighter – her grandmother gave it to her).

As a child, she heard stories from the few family members who would talk about it. Cindy didn’t ask a lot of questions, though. “It would make my grandma cry. Who wants to make grandma cry?” she said.

When she was in high school, her mother’s mother gave her a shoebox of pictures and other things. Cindy now had a birthday card from her dad and a letter in which he told her three-year-old self that he loved her. That was the first time Cindy ever had a personal connection with Richard.

And now she had another one.

It was bittersweet, but all hers. “It was comforting to have that firsthand connection to him,” she said. “Until that experience, I saw everything through other people’s eyes. This was something between the two of us.”

On the SDIT trip, Cindy connected with her father, but she also connected with the other “kids.” The experience solidified the comfort of knowing she wasn’t alone. There were many children, now grown, who went through what she had gone through. She was not the only one who didn’t remember a lot about her dad from when she was little, who didn’t really know her dad firsthand, who didn’t have her father at graduation or at weddings.

“Those missed memories are a common thread among sons and daughters,” she said. “There’s a whole group of people who are feeling the same things that we were feeling. This group gets it.”

SDIT Michelle Baugh

SDIT members remembering their fathers.

 

 

Laos – a dangerous place

Tony definitely gets it. That’s why he co-founded SDIT, why he serves as chairman of the board, and why he suggested and helped plan the trip.

On the trip, Tony was on the Orange team, but he ended up going his own way. Unlike the others, Tony’s father had been lost in the neighboring country of Laos, so he flew to Vinh (a city in what used to be North Vietnam), met guides he had hired, and crossed the border into communist Laos.

“It was foolish. I was a father of four kids, and married, and I ventured into [Laos] with no communication with the outside world. I could have easily disappeared,” he said. “As much as the experience was unique and impactful, had I not made it home it would have been a dumb thing for me to do. What benefit would my children have gotten if I died where my dad died?”

Tony’s dad, U.S. Air Force Major William E. Cordero, was lost when his B-57 (call sign Jade 22) went down during a bombing mission over North Vietnam. It was Father’s Day weekend, 1965, a month shy of his thirtieth birthday. Tony was four years old.

His dad, who earned the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross), an Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, an Air Force Commendation medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, and a Purple Heart, was listed as missing in action (MIA).

In early 1969, remains were found and anonymously returned to American authorities. But because DNA testing was not available at that time, they could not establish the identity of Cordero, the navigator, or his pilot, Maj. Charles Lovelace, so they are buried together in Arlington National Cemetery.

“The remains that were returned could fit in a small shoebox,” Tony said.

There may be more, however. In 1994, members of JTFFA, now known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) were led to the wreckage of Jade 22 by villagers from nearby Ban Namoung. After hiking to the crash site, the U.S. representatives photographed major sections of the wreckage, and investigators determined that remains of the flight crew were likely at the crash site.

Their subsequent reports recommended that an excavation be conducted to recover any possible remains that may still be there. (It’s unlikely that Tony will return to Laos, but if remains are recovered, he will go to Hawaii for the repatriation ceremony. JPAC anticipates that the excavation will happen in 2013).

During the historic SDIT trip, Tony tried to hike to the exact crash site, but couldn’t get there. It was in the jungle, and the hike couldn’t be done in a day. He tried, though, encountering leeches, and becoming physically exhausted along the way. It didn’t take him long to realize he had to give up.

Looking back, he’s content that he didn’t get the exact spot, because he would have been alone at such an emotional time and place.

It wasn’t the experience he had planned, but he was satisfied. “I spent a couple days with villagers. There was no electricity. That was an incredible experience,” he said. “How many can say they’ve been to Laos, sleeping under a mosquito net?”

Unlike Cindy and others who collected soil from the spots where their fathers were killed, Tony didn’t bring back those souvenirs.

“If the remains come home, that would be enough,” he said.

But he does have one reminder that everyone in the group received – a marble urn with his dad’s name on it, with sand from China Beach inside.

And, of course, his memories.

SDIT trip.

Vietnamese children were always around.

 

Friends for a lifetime

Tony returned from Laos, and rejoined the SDIT group. Everyone shared their stories. Those who already knew each other well before the trip got closer. New friends bonded quickly.

And now, all are bound together, for a lifetime. “Being there for all those memorial services, for each other, hugging each other, and being moral support,” Cindy said, “was a cathartic experience for everybody.”

SDIT trip

China Beach.

 

At the end of the trip, everyone enjoyed a reception at a five-star China Beach resort. Tiki torches lit the darkened sky. The group sat at tables with white linen tablecloths, enjoying hors d’oeuvres, and a DJ played music, in stark contrast to traipsing through rivers, being covered with leeches, and standing in the spots where comrades, soldiers – fathers – had died.

“I stood near the ocean and looked back [at the group],” Rich said. “Never in my mind did I think I would see sons and daughters dancing to old rock and roll in the same country where their fathers fought and died.”

Homecoming

During the trip, and over the past ten years, Cindy has been appreciative of how supported she’s felt by groups like VietNow, SDIT, and VVA. Tony said that without VietNow, the trip would not have happened. Rich Sanders and VietNow were extremely helpful, and Tony is eternally grateful.

When Tony and Cindy stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, both were surprised, emotional, and thankful. VietNow National Vice President Jim Stepanek and Director John Augustynowicz, along with Jeanette Chervony from SDIT, had organized a surprise “welcome home” for the group. One of the highlights: In and Out burgers, which Cindy said tasted really good after weeks away from home. “That was the coolest thing ever. We were craving real food at that point,” she said.

And there were banners and hugs for everyone. “Our dads didn’t get the welcome home they should have, so these people made sure that we got ours,” she said.

Cindy was and still is inspired by the camaraderie the trip brought out in everyone.

“That’s one of the lasting legacies of the trip,” she said, “Everybody working together on the same team, for healing and peace.”

Sons and Daughters In Touch web site.

 

Tara Lynn JohnsonTara Lynn Johnson is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. She’s also a writer who likes to get to know people, and allow others to do the same, by telling their stories. She’s working on several fiction and non-fiction projects, including a memoir about her dad. Her articles, essays, and profiles have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and other mid-Atlantic magazines and newspapers. Reach her at www.taralynnjohnson.com.