American Vietnam War

Veterans Visit Plum Village

By Carole Melkonian On November 21, four American veterans of the Vietnam War—Jim Janko, Ted Sexhauer, Jerry Crawford, and Dan Thompson—and Earll and Maxine Hong Kingston arrived at Plum Village. This symbolic return to a Vietnamese Buddhist village in the Dordogne region of France, was the conclusion of a three-year Mindfulness and Writing Workshop for veterans led by Maxine.

After the long train ride from Paris, on a sunny, windy autumn afternoon, the group arrived and were warmly greeted by the whole community. A small tea meditation was offered by Brother Sariputra and Sister Chan Khong. After dinner, the veterans introduced themselves to the community. Early the next morning the veterans participated in the recitation of the Five Wonderful Precepts. This ceremony gave them the opportunity to begin anew, using the precepts as guidelines for living peacefully.

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Later that day, Sr. Chan Khong, Maxine, and the veterans met to explore ways of healing the wounds from their war experience. Sr. Chan Khong recounted a story of the pain experienced during the war when she held in her arms a young child covered with blood. "Many years later, in 1993,1Iwas able to release this pain. While walking in the streets of Florence, church bells would ring from time to time helping me live fully and deeply the present moment. Slowly, my mind became concentrated. I saw the street vendors selling postcards, the pigeons, the children playing in the streets, and myself as one. There was no distinction between Italians, French, or Vietnamese, between Christians and Buddhists. When I entered a Catholic cathedral, I really felt I was home. All the discriminating concepts and notions about self and nonself, Buddhism and Christianity disappeared. Suddenly, looking at the stained-glass windows with images of angels on them, I saw that the smile on the angel's face was the smile of the dead child I held in my arms so many years ago. It was the smile of liberation. There is no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We are all here in this wonderful reality."

Moved by this story, Jerry Crawford spoke of his experience with a Vietnamese woman guerilla seriously wounded and slowly dying in front of him. He took the hammock that belonged to her back to the United States and kept it for 25 years as a constant reminder of this woman's death. In 1991, Jerry attended a retreat for veterans which Thay led at Omega Institute in upstate New York. From the many group discussions and exercises for veterans, he was able to release this pain by burning the hammock in a bonfire on the last night of the retreat as part of a "letting go ceremony," where veterans wrote down and burned what they wanted to release in order to heal the wounds they suffered from the war.

On Thanksgiving Day, Thay gave a Dharma talk on not running away from our home which only exists in the present moment. That afternoon, Thay and Sr. Chan Khong met with the veterans. Sr. Chan Khong told the story of Angulimala, a murderer who became a monk. Tea, prepared by Thay' s gentle attendant, was passed to participants, including the film crew. The interview continued with a question from Jim: "Regarding your talk this morning about not running away and returning home, before I went to Vietnam, I felt a lot of pride in the democratic process in the United States. As a medic in Vietnam, I saw indescribable suffering of both people and land. Returning to the United States, I felt stripped from my culture. I feel that no connection can nourish a relationship between me and my culture. The only good thing that came from my Vietnam War experience was that it led me to a deep spiritual home. However, that took many years. Is there anything in the American culture that can truly nourish people?—anything that is not just an advertisement, another plug for materialism?"

Sr. Chan Khong: There are hidden treasures in America. Many groups of people there have learned to respect people and the earth. There are more groups forming in America to support people who practice mindfulness, and learn of other spiritual traditions than in any other country.

Maxine: We are the product of America! One thing our country has given us is the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment of freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, I take as a precept. Practicing freedom of speech—practicing assembling— is the same as bringing the Sangha together.

Sr. Chan Khong: In countries like Vietnam or China, you do not have the liberty to assemble in large groups. You would be imprisoned.

Jim: I agree. Still, the U.S. is a powerful cause of suffering in many other parts of the world.

Thay: The American culture is an open society. It is open to other influences. It is not old yet so it can renew itself easier than other societies. Suffering is important. If we look deeply into the suffering, it will lead us to wisdom and compassion. If Americans know how to look deeply at suffering, they will understand the roots to stop suffering in America and in other countries.

There is a growing consciousness among Americans about what they are consuming. They know that certain foods cause suffering to their bodies and consciousness. Tofu is a protein that is far safer than protein from meat. It is easier to digest, and the making of tofu is less damaging to the environment. Tofu is much easier to find in America than in France. The consumption of alcohol has caused many families to be broken. Young people suffer because of this. Sexual misbehavior has destroyed many families and society, too. To protect ourselves and our families, we have to practice the third precept. We know this. We have to practice as a society, as a nation. By doing so, other nations will benefit from ourpractice. Consume less meat and alcohol, and take care of your families. All the jewels are buried in your tradition. Go back and rediscover them. You'll bring happiness to yourself and to other people.

Jerry: I have trouble being calm when chaos is going on in my head. Although I try to be mindful, I have trouble doing so. Today, during walking meditation I heard gunshots from hunters in the area and it immediately brought back memories from the war. I felt angry and afraid.

Thay: Don't try so hard to be mindful. Just be in touch with what is around you and you will be healed. Look at the people around you who are able to smile and walk calmly. If you do this you will have peace and joy. Just be yourself. Don' t try too hard. Just allow yourself to be.

Sr. Chan Khong: When fear arises, smile to it and say, "Hello, fear. The gunshots are from hunters. We are not in Vietnam anymore, we are in France. We are in Plum Village."

Ted: I have a similar problem with noises. As a medic, when I heard a loud noise I had to stay in control. Now when I hear a loud noise, I still maintain control but afterward I feel angry.

Sr. Chan Khong: Still we must say hello to the anger. We have to develop the habit of saying hello to fear or anger when it arises in order to be free from it. It may be also useful to talk to the brothers and sisters who are here with you. Sometimes being deeply heard by others can help you let go of your suffering.

Thay: Sometimes we don't need to suffer but we are attached to it. There is a garden with many beautiful trees and flowers. One of the trees is dying. You cry over that one and ignore all the others. You are unable to enjoy the beauty of the other trees. It's the same situation. You are walking with us here in Plum Village. We are supposed to be one body making peaceful steps on Mother Earth. The hunters' guns can touch seeds of suffering in you and many friends around you. But it is important to say, "I am walking with many friends in Plum Village." However, you may want to imprison yourself in the memory of the past, but sticking to your suffering is not good for yourself and is not good for humanity. Suffering is not enough. We can learn a lot from suffering, but life has many wonderful things too. Don't make the dying tree the only reality.

You are a veteran, but you are more than a veteran. All of us are veterans, both Vietnamese and Americans. We have suffered. I have to be able to not only help myself, but also my sisters, brothers, children, society. You cannot imprison yourself in your own suffering. You have to transform it.

Ted: It's true what you're saying about hanging on to suffering. Yet I believe that if I pretend that my experiences of suffering do not exist, they will come around and surface in another way. We are taught by psychotherapists to look at our suffering.

Sr. Chan Khong: Observing your fear is good to do. We cannot pretend that the fear is not in us. But to only observe the fear is not enough. Practice seeing the joy that arises in each moment, too. Today you are with Thay and many friends in Plum Village. Be aware of this, and of the fact that you are still alive, in good health, with good friends, and that you are able to be here. Maxine has spent a lot of energy on this project. Years ago, she spoke to me about this dream of bringing veterans to Plum Village. She wondered how she could realize this dream. B ei ng aware that you are here as a miracle is enough to make us all very happy.

Thay: When I talk about the garden, I recognize that the tree is dying in my garden. I also see the many nonsuffering elements that are in the garden. If you can see the entire garden, the suffering and the nonsuffering elements, your suffering will be transformed.

During the course of the interview, Thay asked Maxine to sing a song. She refused at first, laughing and denying her ability to sing. Then she reconsidered and said, "With mindful breathing, anything is possible." She then sang "Amazing Grace," with the veterans singing along in support.

Maxine: Today is Thanksgiving, and I feel thankful for you, Thay, and for Plum Village, and your welcoming us here. The first day our group arrived, one nun greeted us at the train station, saying, "Let's go home." Another nun greeted us in the Lower Hamlet saying, "Welcome home."

In America, many veterans are homeless, even the ones living in a house. I am very happy to bring these veterans to a place where they can find home both in a place and a spirit.

Order member Carole Melkonian, True Grace, is spending the winter in Plum Village. Traveling with the veterans was a BBC crew thatfilmedthe veterans' "return " to Plum Village as part of a documentary on journeys to be aired on British television in April 1996. They filmed Thdy's talks and interviewed Sr. Chan Khong about the history of Plum Village, her humanitarian work during the Vietnam War, and her work today to help people heal from the wounds of war.

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Letter to a Vet

By Alan Cutter I am now at a place where I can begin to talk about what the war has meant to me. I am facing the hurt and regret, and learning to understand how they have affected my family and my relationships with other people. Through owning up to the bad choices I made, I can value having made the best choices I could when there were no "good" choices. Before, when I spoke about my experiences, I would become so emotional, even with my wife, that I could not speak. Either the sadness, or anger, or something else would take my voice away. A wall existed for me and I was resigned to living with it. Now, I have received permission to speak, to break that wall of silence imposed by society and by my own fears and anxieties.

It began on a trip to California, when some of us drove to Half Moon Bay to look at the Pacific Ocean. I thought if I could look out across the ocean towards Southeast Asia, I might somehow say goodbye to what I had left behind. But I could not do it, for there was too much left unsaid and unfmished. I was trying to do it all alone, just as I had to do in Vietnam.

A few days later, our group was visited by Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald from the Community of Mindful Living. They brought Claude Thomas with them, a vet from Boston who had experience with Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings. Arnie and Therese led us in breathing exercises designed to help people focus on living in the present moment. We did sitting meditations and a walking meditation. During these meditation periods, Therese held a small bronze bell which she would occasionally strike with a baton. It was, she explained, "a device to remind us to focus on our breathing, on what we are doing right now, on smiling, on being peace."

After these exercises, Claude told his story. Before he did so, he admitted he was scared to speak. He had been a door gunner on a chopper, celebrating both his 18th and 19th birthdays in Vietnam, and had a powerful story of failed relationships, loneliness, fear, and homelessness. He talked ofboobytraps and sudden death, turkey shoots, hatred, revenge, and great pain. As he spoke, every so often he would begin to get visibly caught up in his emotions and start to lose control. When this happened, Therese would strike the bell and Claude would stop, take two or three deep breaths to refocus, and then calmly continue with his story. As I watched, I found myself wishing I had something, anything, that would enable me to do the same thing.

After his story, Claude shared something he had learned from Thich Nhat Hanh-that it is necessary and important for vets to break the walls of silence around our experiences. We must find some method for telling the truth of war and conflict. For Claude, the sound of the bell gave him the permission he needed to speak.

I told Claude how moving it had been to watch his struggle and how I noticed that with the sound of the bell, he was able to refocus and continue. In a moment of unintended truth, I said I wished I had something like that, a bell, that would help me break my own wall of silence. Claude looked at me and said, ''The sound of the bell is yours. You want it, now you have it and you can speak!" As the impact of his words hit me, I sat in my chair and stared at him, one hand holding my glasses, the other empty. Then Therese was beside me, putting the bell and the baton in my empty hand, and saying, "I believe in making things concrete-the bell is yours."

The bell is not perfect-it has blemishes and little scratches, but its sound is true and clear. To me, it is a gift from the Vietnamese community. Now I carry the sound of the bell in my head and I can speak about my war experiences without getting caught in the strong emotions. It is not easy, but it is real. I was trying so hard to break the wall of silence by myself, but what I needed couldn't be accomplished alone. As much as I needed to speak, I also needed people on the other end, willing to listen.

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I don't know where you are in your journey, but I know how easy it is to slide into old habits-to get discouraged, to be satisfied with a little bit of progress and give up hoping that there is more. Cherish your progress, but do not ever give up. The next bit may come unexpectedly. Look for it, be open to it, brother. In hope and love, Alan

Alan Cutter is a Presbyterian minister living in Duluth, Minnesota.

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Taking Refuge

By Mike DeMaio At the age of 17, I enlisted in the marines. In 1967, at 18, I was in Vietnam. I went willingly, eager to prove myself. During my time incountry, I experienced and witnessed a lot of death and suffering. The war changed me as it did all of us who were touched by it. I lost something deep inside-that part of self necessary for relationship was gone. In its place was depression, anger. I felt estranged and disconnected.

Thirty years later the war is still with me, but ever so slowly I've been healing. In October 1997 I came to Omega seeking healing from the trauma of the Vietnam war. Six years earlier, I had attended the Omega retreat with Thay. I came back to be with other veterans. I've learned I can be safe with them. But, Thay also taught that we veterans need non-veterans to heal. I am still in awe at all that happened during our retreat. As we practiced breathing in and breathing out, listening to the bell, sharing deeply from our hearts, a bond grew between us. As we struggled with schedules and worked through conflict, our bond deepened. In the circle and in our writing and reading together, I witnessed how love overcame fear. I felt connected and for this, I thank you my brothers and sisters, veterans and nonveterans, because I learned anew that healing does not happen alone. Our refuge is in the Sangha!

Mike DeMaio, M.S. W., is counselor at the Salem, Oregon Veterans' Outreach Center and served with the U.S.M.C. in Vietnam from 1967-1968.

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From Warriors to Peaceful Warriors

Veterans Lighting the Way

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis in Conversation

Brother Phap Uyen (Brother Michael) served in the military during Desert Storm, Desert Shield. He was ordained as a monastic by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 26, 2002, with the Nimba Family. Paul Davis served in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968. In 1966, he was in Vietnam when Thich Nhat Hanh started the Order of Interbeing. He took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the mid-1990s and was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and facilitates the Being Peace Sangha.

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis are part of a group planning a Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery this November. To share with the Sangha their experiences and insights as veterans within the Sangha, they met by phone for a Dharma discussion on February 25, 2014.

Roots of Personal Suffering: Family, Military, and War

Brother Phap Uyen: You and I have had numerous conversations because we were both in the military—you during the Vietnam War and me during Desert Storm, Desert Shield.

Paul Davis: I went into the Marine Corps three weeks after I graduated from high school. I grew up in a rural part of northeastern Ohio. I went into the Marine Corps not out of patriotism, but because I didn’t have anything better to do at the time, and two of my friends were going into the Marine Corps. I turned eighteen when I was in boot camp at Paris Island in 1964. About a year later, I got orders to go to Vietnam. By then I was nineteen. I didn’t really know much about life, and I knew nothing about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people. I was a field radio operator, which meant I carried a radio and I kept communications with headquarters. When I went to Vietnam I had no opinions, I was just there. It was probably different for people who went later, when they knew more about the war and formed opinions about whether it was good or bad. But I grew up in the fifties and early sixties with John Wayne and America being right, so those were the filters that I took to Vietnam with me.

I had been in Vietnam for about ten months when I was wounded and evacuated. I spent three months in the hospital. And still I had not really thought about my experience in Vietnam. That came about a year later, in 1967. The brother of a friend of mine asked me to participate in a presentation at Ohio State University. It was about the cultural aspects of Vietnam, not about the war. A speech teacher was coordinating the event, and he asked the three of us if we felt that the people of Vietnam wanted us in Vietnam. I volunteered to answer the question, and I gave a long answer. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question.” I just sat there. I was numb, almost. I still get emotional thinking about that moment in my life, because it changed me in so many fundamental ways. I’m grateful for that question because it started my process of rebuilding who I was.

I came across Thay and his teachings much later, sometime around 1991 or ’92. I had just experienced a deep loss—it was a period of reflection and questioning. I left Vietnam in 1966 just two or three months after Thay left. I know you left Vietnam when you were two. Is that right?

Brother Phap Uyen: Yes. I was born in June 1973, in Saigon. In 1975, my family left Vietnam. We were in the last plane to leave Tan Son Nhut Airport before the communist government took it over. Our plane was up in the air already when the soldiers stormed the airport. My aunt had married a person that worked for Air America, the CIA’s covert flying group. He was able to help us get out of Vietnam. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about two weeks, and then we ended up in Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California. After that, we went to Arizona to live with my aunt and uncle who had sponsored us. I was in the US by ’75. For my parents it was a huge adjustment. In 1979-80, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles started coming over from Vietnam.

My dad had served in the South Vietnamese military. He had traumatic experiences from the war, as well as being a heavy drinker, so it was quite challenging for the family. He and my mom separated when I was nine and a half. They divorced and I lived with my mom for a while. Then there was the battle between my mom and my dad. I was pushed back and forth between my parents, and they were kind of using me against each other.

Paul: I do know that the journey that took me to the Marine Corps was because of issues growing up. When I was in the service, I wasn’t angry. I was more mentally unconscious. When I got out of the service, I enrolled in college at Kent State University and began classes in 1968. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, the National Guard came on campus and killed four students and shot more. I got involved in the anti-war movement, not a peace movement. I was a lot angrier as a war protestor than I was as a Marine. I had a lot of energy as an angry person. I know that part of your story is issues of anger as well.

Brother Phap Uyen: My mom remarried, and I didn’t feel a sense of security in that relationship either. I hung out with the wrong elements and joined a gang. We got into a lot of trouble. After high school, I didn’t have plans to go to college, so I joined the military. I wanted to try a challenge, so I tried out for the Navy SEALS. I went through the training program but I didn’t graduate from the program. Later on, I was an executive bodyguard for a four-star admiral.

Practicing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After coming out of the military, I ended up with what we now call PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even though I had known Thay since 1989 and I had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him, I didn’t really practice because I was still very young. I didn’t know how to handle the anger and frustration. I had nightmares at night. I didn’t want to be alone, so I was married when I was twenty-three. My ex-wife and I divorced about a year and a half into our marriage because I couldn’t handle my anger and my emotions. That also led to a disconnection between my daughter and me for a while. My daughter is now eighteen years old.

There were moments when I was in a really dark place, thinking about killing myself because I was hurting the people I loved and cared about. My mom was quite scared for me because of the lifestyle that I was living—in and out of relationships, not being able to focus and go to school or handle a job. I didn’t like conflict. I would just up and leave my job and move to a different job if I didn’t feel the workplace was harmonious enough. I couldn’t really be around a lot of people at that time. Both of my marriages ended within a year and a half because I couldn’t communicate. There was always a part of me that was trying to hide the things inside of me, not being able to share openly or intimately. A lot of times, my anger would do the talking. After leaving the military, there was a time where within three months I moved six times. That’s partly because I couldn’t accept myself and I didn’t know how to be my own best friend. I wasn’t happy with myself. You can run away from a lot of things, but the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself. Around 2001-2002, my mom suggested for me to go to Plum Village and possibly take a break, because I hadn’t had a break since I left the military.

Connecting with Thay and the Plum Village Tradition

Paul: I ultimately found Thay and his teachings in the early nineties, after my youngest son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident. The two things that led me to Thay’s teachings were the war in Vietnam and Nathan’s death. I always looked at spirituality or religion from more of an intellectual standpoint, but at that point I had to face some very serious issues of life and death. I first found an article that this Vietnamese monk had written, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name! And then I read Peace Is Every Step. I found out Thay actually did retreats here in the United States.

I went on my first retreat about 1995, at Omega Institute in New York. Being in Thay’s presence was supportive. I hesitate to use the word “healing,” but it was very supportive. When I got there, I found a veterans’ discussion group within the retreat. It was a combination of war protestors and veterans who had been to war, and their families. It was a good opportunity for families to come together and sit and heal. I kept going to Thay’s retreats every two years, and I kept sitting with the veterans’ group and getting to know other veterans and their stories.

The people who came to those groups weren’t always veterans. The woman who became known as the Central Park jogger, who was assaulted in Central Park and had been in a coma, came to one of Thay’s retreats and joined the veterans’ group because she felt it was one place where people could understand the trauma that she had gone through. So the veterans’ group was, in many ways, a safe place for others who had gone through serious trauma.

The initial group I attended at Thay’s retreat was co-facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, who was one of the early vets that got connected to Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s since left our tradition, and he was ordained in the Zen Peacemaker Order. The other was Roberta Wall, an OI member from New York. The two of them, the peace activist and the war veteran, co-facilitated that group, which I think made everybody feel welcome. A lot of people lost their youth to the war even though they weren’t there because they got so angry about it.

Brother Phap Uyen: In 2002, I was getting ready to come back to the US from Plum Village. I had already completed 1500 hours of massage therapy, and then I was going to go to school for Oriental medicine. I went in to see Thay and pay my respects. Thay said, “So, I hear you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor.”

“Yes, Thay.”

Thay asked, “So, why do you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor?”

“So I can help people heal, because the military has trained me to do things and use my skills to hurt other people, and I want to change that energy inside of me.”

But Thay said something to me that really made me stop and think: “If you want to help them heal, the only way you can do that is by helping them go to the root of their problem. And the root of their problem is in their mind. But in order for you to do that, you need training. So you need to become a monk.”

I thought, “I’m not sure if I want to commit to being a monk yet.” In the Asian culture, when you become a monk, it is for the rest of your life. I decided to do it anyway, because I saw the effect that being around the Sangha had on me.

Healing Power of Sangha

The more I practiced with the Sangha, the more I could slowly start opening up. I slowly started being more gentle, friendly, happy. I smiled a lot more! My mom shared that seeing me grow within the Sangha has been a really great thing for her, because she saw me during the worst of my time, when I didn’t really smile.

Now that I look back at it, I see that when I was in the military, with my friends on the base, all those things that we have as part of PTSD were normal to us because everyone else around us was doing the exact same thing. They were drinking; they were not being faithful to their partners. There was anger, violence, hostility. While we’re in that environment, everything seems normal until we transition out of the military; then you realize you can’t just solve that problem by shooting that person. You can’t just blow up at that person anymore. You have to find a more civilized way. Fortunately for me, I came in contact with the Sangha.

When I was in Plum Village in 2002, the US was going to war with Iraq; later on, I got news that seven of the friends I had served with had died. Thay was in Italy at the time, and when he came back I was working in the registration office. Thay came in and asked me how I was doing. Thay said, “I’m sorry to hear that one of your friends passed away.”

“Dear Thay, it wasn’t one. It was seven of them. Right now, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, because I just received the news.”

Thay asked, “How are you going to practice for them? What are you going to do for them?”

I was looking at Thay and said, “They’re already dead. There’s not much I can do for them.”

“No,” Thay said. “They’re dead, but how are you going to practice so that you can help your other brothers and sisters that are not dead yet, or that are going to come back from the war zones?”

That really got me thinking about what I needed to do to practice—doing walking meditation and bringing the images of the soldiers up with me while I’m walking, or the images of my friends that are now dead and don’t have an opportunity to walk anymore, and to take those mindful steps for them.

But at that time I was still very young and fragile in the practice. It’s taken twelve years for me to work on my practice, to hopefully offer something to our brothers and sisters in the military. Granted, all my symptoms from PTSD are not completely gone, because they’ll never go away. But I can handle them in a more appropriate way instead of letting those emotions control me like they used to.

Paul: What stands out for me in listening to you is the importance of the Sangha, not only the monastic Sangha but the lay Sangha as well. For me, I could not do this without the fourfold Sangha. I know that if I wander off the path, once a week I have a gentle reminder with my local Sangha to return to the path. It’s the same when I’m able to spend time with the monks and nuns. It’s like meditation—when our mind wanders away from our breath, we return—and returning to the practice and the Sangha helps me maintain my practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: The way I’ve been practicing is using mindfulness like a bullet-proof vest. During your time, you had flak jackets; now they use Kevlar. Without the mindfulness practice, it’s like walking into battle without a flak jacket or a Kevlar vest on. I’m not about to walk into battle without my Kevlar vest on!

Helping Other Veterans Heal

Paul: I’m glad to be one of the threads in that jacket. You remind me of the importance of what can happen after the Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in November. I know that the veterans who have benefitted most from Thay’s retreats are the ones who found the Sangha and stayed with it. Maybe that’s one of the areas where local Sanghas could really help out—to reach out to the veterans who come to the retreat, to make sure that they’re welcome without judgment into Sanghas that continue to support them in the practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: I think it’s really important, because the veterans often feel a disconnection between themselves and the rest of society. If we can get the local Sanghas to help with that, as well as having veterans’ Sanghas in different geographical locations, and possibly get together once a year, or have a big veterans’ retreat—something that they can pencil in every year on their calendar.

In Sister Chan Khong and Thay’s Love and Understanding program, when I sponsored a child for a school year, I would receive a thank-you letter and the child would share a little bit about what’s going on with their life and how school is going. We can connect veterans and local Sanghas by asking local Sanghas to sponsor a veteran for the Veterans Retreat. If we do that, the veterans will see that people do love them and care about them. It allows the veteran to send a thank-you letter, and the Sangha sees concretely that this is a person that they’re supporting.

When I was living in Plum Village recently, Thay was talking about wanting Sanghas to have service projects—not just practicing and gathering at one person’s house, that’s good, but also to reach out to different aspects of our community to help. This is a way that we can do both things. A lot of the veterans have trouble finding jobs because people won’t hire somebody from the military, especially if they have PTS or PTSD on their record. There are financial difficulties for a lot of the veterans. That’s why we’re trying to do anything we can to get them to the retreat.

Paul: I was very upset when we decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the people speaking at a public gathering against going to war. I was also doing volunteer work with the VA [Veterans’Administration], meeting with families whose children had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was torn between the idea of providing support for the families and honoring their loss, and at the same time speaking out against the war.

Veterans all react differently. There are veterans like me, who quickly realized that what they had been participating in was not right. There are other veterans who strongly feel they were doing the right thing, but they’re still experiencing strong emotion from those actions, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, or depression, or other things that can come from war.

Brother Phap Uyen: I understand where you’re coming from. Some people have come up to me and said, “Being a Buddhist monastic, how can you support the war?” I don’t support the war. I don’t want to ever support any act of killing or hurting people. But I support the healing of the individual. Everybody understands a human being needs to be able to heal. We see the strong power of the Sangha in being able to help us heal. The war has already happened. There’s nothing we can do about that right now. But what we can do is help them heal.

Paul: I’ve always liked Thay’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” I am the marine who went to war and I am the veteran who protested the war. Those are all part of who I am.

Brother Phap Uyen: Yeah, I see that in myself too. A big part of it is the environment. I think because we’ve been through the war, we want to stand up and not have our future generations go through what we went through.

Edited by Janelle Combelic, Brother Phap Uyen, and Paul Davis

Reversing the Legacy of War

A Veteran’s Story

By Jeff Nielsen

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I first went to Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old Marine in late 1965. It was a big adventure. I was greeted by many children, lush green countryside, and happy people harvesting rice and fishing. It seemed the people always had smiles upon their faces and a playful curious attitude toward us Marines. It was fun to engage with the children and villagers as we conducted morning patrols outside the barbed wire of our artillery post in Da Nang. I had no real fears on these patrols. On one occasion, I used a blasting cap from a disassembled hand grenade to assist children with their fishing. The blasting cap stunned the fish, and the children eagerly collected them up. They were amazed. I was amazed.

Many positive seeds were nourished during my first trip to Vietnam, as I interacted with a new culture. The hard-core stories of the war were on the edges. But, what began as an adventure in a strange, foreign land would later transform my life.

I volunteered to go back to Vietnam in the summer of 1967. That was the Summer of Love in the United States, but in Vietnam there was no Summer of Love. The war had escalated. I was assigned as a field radio operator with a Marine Infantry unit on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), much further north than where I had previously been stationed. The war was real here. There was a tremendous amount of suffering, pain, and fear.

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Our unit was under siege from the communist North at Con Tien, or “hill of angels.” I was witness to a brutal and vicious war. In the two weeks prior to and after my arrival, our unit suffered one thousand casualties and seventy dead at Con Tien. The DMZ was a battle of artillery duels, and the Marines were sitting targets inside their wire perimeter. Communist 122-millimeter rockets arrived regularly with howling screeches, creating mass scrambles for cover in red clay trenches. I was scared. There were no more smiling children. This was no longer an adventure. It was war with victims. Suffering and death were everywhere.

Marines lived in primitive, often muddy, unsanitary conditions. We bathed in rivers contaminated with the dioxin Agent Orange. Agent Orange was used to defoliate the jungle and deny the communists cover. The jungle countryside was also hostile. At night, we stood guard duty inside our wire, and rock apes, or monkeys, roamed outside the wire in the jungle. These monkeys can weigh over one hundred pounds, and at night they can resemble a person. Occasionally they, too, would throw rocks at our defensive perimeter. Everyone outside the wire was a potential enemy. Whatever moved was a potential rifle target. We were prisoners within our own barbed wire.

My job as a trained field radio operator was to maintain communications among the small units within our battalion, the individual line companies, and the battalion headquarters. This meant I had to go into the field or bush on a regular basis with fighting units. It was my duty to carry a twenty-five-pound field radio on my back, along with my own equipment: food (Crations), a shovel for digging in at night, two canteens, a pistol, and an M-16 assault rifle with 175 rounds of ammunition. Many Marines got heat exhaustion walking all day in the one-hundred-degree tropical jungle.

One of my assignments was to work as a relay operator on a prominent hilltop outpost called the Rockpile. There were ten of us up there. The Rockpile was accessible from the ground only by helicopter. It was the highest peak along the DMZ. There I provided clearance for aircraft and ground resupply convoys. I could observe and listen to most major military action from my nine-hundred-foot perch on a crag of rock.

From the Rockpile I was able to witness our weapons of mass destruction: the B-52 bombers with their two-thousand-pound bombs. These bombs would relentlessly pound the earth into submission. Fires erupted on the horizon, and the ground shook with enormous rumblings. Other aircraft also attacked the earth with Agent Orange. Agent Orange not only destroyed the jungle, but it also produced many major agricultural problems for the local farm people who lived off the bounty of the Earth. It also destroyed the farmers’ health. It was an evil tool of war that continues to create a lot of suffering.

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One time I was giving radio clearance for a CH-46 cargo helicopter to pass over the Rockpile. I gave the signal. I looked up a second later and there was only a wisp of smoke where the helicopter had been in the sky. A communist gunner had fired a fifty-caliber machine gun accurately. The CH-46 had been flying low because of visibility and low ceiling in the early morning humidity. Eighteen marines perished. I was on the recovery team. We found one survivor, barely alive, and it looked as if all the bones in his body were broken.

I volunteered toward the end of my tour to accompany a resupply convoy to Khe Sanh. I was standing in the lead vehicle. On this occasion the communists must have been only a few feet away, hiding in the thick elephant grass that lined the narrow one-track highway, when I passed. Minutes later we heard their distinctive AK fire, four or five vehicles back. They had waited to open fire until they had more numerous targets. Sixteen Marines died on flatbed trucks that day. The next day we revisited the area. The dead lay where they had been killed.

My friend Arthur and I drew straws after that attack to see who would accompany the new lieutenant. I won the draw and accompanied the more experienced captain. Arthur was killed accompanying the less experienced lieutenant, with a few days left in his tour of duty. I visited with the captain not long ago, in 2006. He was dying of Agent Orange-related cancer. I attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetary.

I was unhappy in Vietnam. There was so much suffering all around, daily. The only escape was booze during the intermittent R&Rs.* I wanted to go home to the USA. I wanted to begin a new life. But I now know that home is where you are; it is up to us to create the conditions for our own happiness.

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A Difficult Journey

I survived Vietnam. I was lucky. But it was a difficult journey home. There was guilt leaving Vietnam, as our brothers were still there facing the suffering. In Okinawa, my friend Norm and I received word that our medic had been killed. Norm and I drank beer to excess every night during our transition back to the United States. We always ordered three beers––one for Norm, one for me, and one for the doc who was killed.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, I was admitted to the Oakland Naval Hospital. My “jungle rot” skin disease was severely infected from cuts and constant humidity. I was bandaged in gauze, like a mummy. I could not get discharged from the Marines in my condition, but my friend Norm was okay to go. It was a difficult farewell. I felt alone. I had lost the doc and now Norm.

In July 1968, I was discharged and left for home in Connecticut. There were many hurdles to face. I had to finish where I’d left off in high school. There were very few job prospects, as I had little training other than with a field radio and an M-16 rifle. Additionally, I had drinking and emotional problems: anger, resentment of my peers that didn’t go to war, and poor family relationships. The American culture was in a political turmoil. I felt the troops coming home were blamed for this war. This made me even angrier and more resentful.

My wife and I experienced many of the residual effects of the Vietnam War, and our marriage ended after eighteen years. In my thirties, I had a heart attack and two types of cancer, all related to Agent Orange. My wife had five miscarriages, also related to Agent Orange. My doctor advised us to stop trying to conceive a child. Later, we were denied adoption due to my past heart condition and limited family support.

In 1982, I went with a friend to the opening ceremony of “the Wall” in Washington, D.C. Of the fifty-eight-thousand-plus names on the Wall of American Soldiers Killed in Vietnam, most were in their early twenties––all with so much more to live. On the other side of the world, in Vietnam, many, many more were killed in this senseless war. Some Vietnamese people have told me that the hills in northwest Quang Tri Province cry at night with the hungry ghosts of the war.

Many Conditions for Happiness

My story gets better. Although there are many seeds of suffering in me, there are more than enough conditions for happiness.

I was first introduced to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh at a Veterans Retreat at Omega Institute in New York in the 1990s. I attended on scholarship. During this retreat, the seeds were planted; I began to look more deeply into the roots of my own trauma and guilt. I began to rethink my Vietnam experience.

I struggled with my education, hindered by my drinking. However, I completed college and earned three masters’ degrees, in counseling, educational psychology, and clinical social work. I began the course of study in social work, with a focus on international issues, in the late nineties after taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The seeds for my aspiration for the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings were planted. I feel fortunate to have had such wonderful teachers as Lyn Fine, Helen Hunt-Perry, and Roberta Wall on my path.

My studies took me to Vietnam. Since 1999, I have been to Vietnam six, soon to be seven times:

1999: I did an independent study on post-war issues as a graduate social work student. I fell in love with the country and people again, as I had in 1965 with the children of Da Nang. I learned to sing songs.

2000: I completed an internship with Asian Family Services in Hartford, Connecticut. I returned to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with a group of ex-refugee Southeast Asian staff to explore orphan issues.

2003: I returned to Vietnam with the non-governmental organization PeaceTrees Vietnam.** Its mission is to reverse the legacy of war by clearing unexploded war bombs and planting trees in their place. I was told last year that eighty-two percent of Quang Tri Province is contaminated by these unexploded bombs. Children and farmers continue to die.

2005: I returned with Thay and friends and became acquainted with the root temple in Hue. My practice deepened. I took a small group to visit PeaceTrees Vietnam. On my return, I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing by Thay in Massachusetts. I received the name True Pure Peace.

2008: I attended Vesak in Hanoi with Thay and the Sangha.

2013: Now retired from work, I took a course, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I went to Vietnam for three months with my wife, June, and taught English part time as a volunteer. I taught young children in a primary school in Hue. We sang many songs. Following that, I went on the Roots of Buddhism in Vietnam Retreat with Trish Thompson.

2014: I leave in a few weeks for our second mindfulness retreat in Vietnam with Ms. Thompson. Following this retreat, I will tour Vietnam with Veterans of Peace. We plan to raise money and create awareness about issues of unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.

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I am now remarried and have three wonderful stepchildren. I retired after twelve years as a psychiatric social worker on a mental health unit within a maximum-security prison, and five years as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapist, counseling returning war veterans with the Veterans Administration.

I am writing this in Southeast Asia, where the warm breeze flows, the air is fresh, the sun is out, birds chirp, local fruit is succulent, orchids are in blossom, and there is an absence of war. I look around at many smiling faces and say to myself, “Thank you.” I have gratitude for my many conditions for happiness.

Our practice continues to transform my life. I take my refuge with the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings continue to be my liberation from suffering. I write this for all my friends on the path of understanding. May I be free from suffering. May you be free from suffering. May I be happy and well. May you also be happy and well.

*“R&R” is military slang for rest and recuperation, rest and relaxation, or rest and

** For information or to support PeaceTrees Vietnam, visit www.peacetreesvietnam.org. To support efforts to restore the environment and neutralize the effects of the war, visit www.landmines.org.vn.

Jeff Nielsen, True Pure Peace, practices with the Heart of the Valley Mindfulness Practice Center in Norwich, Vermont. He lives with his wife, June, and Jack Russell terrier, Mr. Watson. He is willing to accept any donations towards resolution of the issues of unexploded bombs and Agent Orange in the name of Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Chapter. He can be reached at jeffreyrnielsen@msn.com.

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Basket by Basket

By Ron Landsel mb66-Basket1

It has been said that bomb craters in post-American-War Vietnam were not always filled in by gathering earth from outside the craters, but by the painstaking work of loosening up the densely compacted soil from within the crater itself, basket by basket. Heard years ago, this story has been a light for my path.

I attended my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1997, at Omega Institute in upstate New York, in a veterans group gathered in a little building called Cabin by the Field––a safe haven apart from the several hundred general retreatants. In tears and joy, our group was gently supported by Lyn Fine and Roberta Wall, and for the first time since my combat experiences in Vietnam, I sat and shared with several Vietnamese monastics, including Sister Chan Khong––veterans of our same war. Their sharing offered first-time glimpses of interbeing and deep listening. Doors to my heart were opened to understand my own suffering as only a part of the suffering of many. For the first time, I felt the courage within me to share openly with soldiers, spouses, children, and protesters suffering from the American War in Vietnam. Now, some seventeen years after our wonderful new beginning together, my volition continues to transform my suffering enough––basket by basket––in order to try to help others who suffer the wounds of war.

Thay heartens veterans to understand that we are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. He encourages us to achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, to be able to break our silent suffering and share with all of society the roots and the legacies of war. May veterans, youth, parents, educators, and governments join in breaking this long silence of wars and lend voice to our prayerful chant, “May there be no place at war.”

Ron Landsel, True West Garden, served in Vietnam in 1968-69 as a radio operator with 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. He lives and practices in Oceanside, California, with his wife, Margaret, and the sisters and brothers of the Rising Tide Sangha.

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