We met and had dinner with Mike in Qui Nhon. He was in Vietnam to find his peace 42 years after the war, and this is part of his story.
Vietnam Vet From Hartland Finds Peace In His Own ‘Valley of Death’
By Susan J. Boutwell
Valley News Staff Writer
On a gray morning last month, Michael Heaney dug below the weeds on a remote Vietnamese hillside and slipped a small military lapel pin into the earth. Then the 65-year-old former Army officer prayed.
“This is for Terry … and for the other nine guys who stayed here that day and who never came home,” he said.
Then considering the Vietnamese men who had led him to the secluded spot, halfway around the world from his Hartland home, Heaney added: “And also for the young Vietnamese boys who died that day, I pray to God, the father of all of us. We are all your children. We are together now, in love and in peace. None of us will ever fight again.”
Heaney, a former platoon leader who 42 years ago saw all 10 of the men under his command gunned down in an ambush by North Vietnamese soldiers, had returned to the land he calls “my valley of death” to reclaim a piece of his soul.
As he traveled to the ambush site with a translator, a Communist party minder and several North Vietnamese veterans, Heaney wrote in his trip journal, “I was in God’s movie, and wondered what the script would have in mind for me.”
The Hartland man, a father of five and a retired lawyer and college history professor, had traveled to Vietnam’s Central Highlands to exorcise a lifetime of sadness and guilt, embarking on a journey he had planned almost since arriving stateside as a badly wounded 23-year-old Army first lieutenant.
Despite the successful professional career and rich family life he built after his tour in Vietnam, Heaney spent countless hours trying to come to terms with the fact that he — unlike many of his Army buddies — had survived Operation Crazy Horse, a firefight so fierce it has been chronicled in military history books.
Heaney’s journey to the hills near the village of Vinh Thanh was his reason for returning to Southeast Asia. But the expedition also taught him more about the battle that ended his Vietnam tour, about war and about the enemy soldiers who killed his men in May 1966.
In addition, the trip bolstered his conviction that there are very few wars worth fighting. “The long-term effect on soldiers and their families is never a factor that’s sufficiently weighed when we’re deciding whether to go to war. It’s ‘Are we going to win? How long will it take? How many casualties?’ ” he reflected upon returning to his Vermont home.
“That’s almost the easy part. The hard part is what about the long-term consequences? Every time you fight a war, you’re consigning a large number of people and their loved ones … to pretty dire consequences — forever.”
Before Heaney left Vermont, he had written to a group of North Vietnamese veterans, asking whether they would help arrange a visit to the Vinh Thanh battlefield. He had not heard back before he flew to Southeast Asia and figured he managed to offend the former soldiers, or that perhaps they were suspicious of his motives.
Then, while checking e-mail in an Internet cafe several days after arriving in Vietnam, Heaney received a response.
“We like your idea of reconciliation,” a member of the group wrote.
Heaney traveled to Vinh Thanh, a small settlement outside An Khe, where the First Cavalry had been based in 1966. Not much had changed, he said. He found the rooftop bar where they used to drink Tiger beer, which was still on tap. He found an overgrown asphalt runway where they had landed planes. The strip was now home to squatters who Heaney learned preferred to set up their shacks on pavement, which attracted fewer rats than a grassy foundation.
As Heaney arrived to meet his North Vietnamese counterparts, a dozen or so old fighting men gathered at their veterans headquarters building, lining the stairs and the balcony to greet the American. He was, Heaney said, somewhat embarrassed to be “the talk of the town.”
He stepped into the parking lot, feeling “conspicuously Caucasian,” Heaney wrote in his journal. He looked toward the distant hill, the site of his ambush.
As Heaney and his escorts traveled to the battle site, the morning dawned gray, with low clouds, just as it had on May 16, 1966. The outlines of the hillside and nearby ridges startled Heaney.
“I start getting these very definite vibes, like, oh my, I’ve been here before,” he said in an interview last week. “It didn’t freak me out, but I felt very alert and almost like this whole thing happened yesterday. It’s been 42 years and I’ve had these images in my mind, in my heart, all this time and I really didn’t realize how accurately I had remembered the whole scene. So it was a very, very somber, sobering moment.”
“So there it is, the whole place right in front of me,” he said. “I can see where the helicopters landed. … I’m OK, but it’s a pretty heavy duty moment.”
On that long-ago day, Heaney and his men had gone scouting on what they thought was a “milk run,” a routine mission to scatter a rag-tag bunch of local Viet Cong fighters. Instead, they walked into what soldiers call the killing zone — the trap set for them on the Vinh Thanh hill, not by local gunmen, but by North Vietnamese Army regulars.
After the shooting started, Heaney learned his men were dead when he called for them to pull back into a defensive perimeter, and no one returned. So he called in Army reinforcements, massed down the hill.
Last month, Heaney gave the translator his digital camera to film a video of the return to his dead men. He tucked the First Cavalry Division pin into the dirt to honor the 10 Americans.
Heaney particularly wanted to remember Terry Carpenter, the 19-year-old Ohio radio operator who had been a constant presence at his side during the five months Bravo Company’s third platoon fought together. Heaney was dressed in shorts and hiking boots, which framed his scarred right leg, ripped through by a bullet in the Crazy Horse firefight.
“I was quite full of emotion when I was doing the little ceremony,” Heaney recalled. “But my overriding feeling was, this was so right, this was so appropriate. I’ve done what I came to do. I said goodbye to my guys. I can go on. They can go on. They are no longer abandoned souls up there on a mountainside. They’re free and I’m free. And I’ve sort of kept faith with them. I had a very strong feeling of that.
“The Vietnamese have this term, a phrase; they say ‘screaming souls.’ If people aren’t buried properly or they’re not found, they’re not prayed over when they die, they wander endlessly and they become screaming souls and you can hear them at night screaming. I felt like my guys in some way were these screaming souls because no one had come and said goodbye to them. No one had come and said, OK, it’s over, you can go on to whatever’s next — heaven, peace.
“I felt like that was my job. I was their platoon leader. I loved them. And I know it’s right, because I felt so good about it. I felt empty. It’s a good emptiness, it’s a peaceful emptiness, like a burden I’ve been carrying for so long had been put down appropriately, put down the right way.”
As Heaney looked up from the tiny monument he had brought to his lost men, he saw a peasant woman shuffling past. She carried a heavy load, two baskets suspended from a pole resting on her shoulders. He captured the scene in his journal, writing: “How baffling & curious we must have seemed to her. But she gave no sign of it, and continued on. Perhaps she was carrying the souls of my men — so much lighter & serene now — out of their wilderness, bearing them down from the hill so they could at last begin their joyful journey home.”
The morning’s events taught him “how important these rituals are,” Heaney said.
“Ceremonies, goodbyes, whatever you want to call them, all soldiers try to do this in the field when a unit loses people. Almost always, even if it’s in a dicey situation, they take time out and say their prayers and have a little ritual goodbye. But often it’s hurried and it’s not enough because the sense of loss is so deep that it can’t be handled quickly.”
But the violence on the Vinh Thanh hillside prevented farewells 42 years ago. Men lay dying. The medics were dead and most of the emergency supplies used up. Heaney and many others were badly wounded. Most of the American soldiers thought they would die on the hill, Heaney said.
When the shooting stopped and the NVA regulars retreated — much to the surprise of the Americans — Heaney was among those shuttled to a field hospital. He had to leave his men without a prayer of goodbye.
“In my case, it took decades to get this finished,” he said.
Heaney crossed his personal finish line with help from an unlikely source: some of the North Vietnamese veterans who belong to the Vinh Thanh District Veterans Organization, including a quiet, diminutive man who was on the other side of the guns during Operation Crazy Horse.
The man contradicted what Heaney said is American lore and military intelligence about the 20-hour battle — that the 150 U.S. reinforcements flooding the hillside to come to the aid of Heaney and his downed men were outnumbered 2-1 by a large North Vietnamese column that had been hunkered down in the hills.
The man told Heaney that there were only about 100 soldiers who had pinned down the Americans, ultimately killing 20 U.S. soldiers and wounding 40, including Heaney.
During a two-hour session with the veterans group, Heaney said, the man “started to tell me about the battle and some of the other fellows talked at him (in Vietnamese) and I think shut him down. What I’m guessing is that he was going into too much detail or may have been heading in that direction and they felt, this guy doesn’t want to hear about Americans you killed.”
But it wasn’t long, he said, before the soldiers began to share stories about the battle in which they and Heaney had fought.
“They wanted to know if I had been wounded. I showed them my wound and I was very proud of that. Thank God I had something to show ‘em. That sort of gave me some authenticity, some credibility.”
One man, the soldier Heaney got to know best, was very interested in his injury. “ ‘Oh, that’s awful. You got so badly wounded,’ ” Heaney recalled the man saying, through a translator. “Then he proceeded to show me his five wounds. He got shot in both shoulders, in both legs and the stomach, at different times, not all at once. So that became a big joke between the two of us.
“Whenever he met me, he would point to my leg and say, ‘Oh, you poor guy,’ ” Heaney said. Then the man he would come to call “Many Wounds” would point to his scars. “Many Wounds would say, ‘I have here, I have here, I have here.’ ”
But it wasn’t all lighthearted banter between Heaney and Many Wounds. Heaney said his new friend was trying to understand what had driven Heaney to return to Vietnam. One day, the North Vietnamese soldier asked Heaney: “What are your secrets?”
“That slowed me down, that question,” Heaney said.
“I said, ‘What do you mean? Am I hiding something awful? Are you talking about women? Are you talking about things I’m ashamed of?’ ”
“He wouldn’t answer me. ‘No. Your secrets,’ ” pressed Many Wounds.
“I think it was probably the way his words were translated. I think he was really trying to figure out, what do you really want to get out of this trip? … So I told him the best way I could. I told him what I’ve told everybody. I told him I wanted to find some peace. I wanted to put down a burden I think I’ve been carrying for some time. I wanted to say goodbye to my guys. And once they had a chance to hear some of that, they accepted me fully and accepted that this was a worthy adventure, an expedition, I was on. And they decided they wanted to help me with it. To make it as good as it could be. And they did. That’s exactly what they did. And I think it was good for them too. Because they heard an American acknowledging that this war had been a huge mistake.”
“So they had to think, well if Americans can feel this way, maybe they’re OK after all,” said Heaney.
On that Vietnamese hillside, Heaney was comforted knowing he and his former enemies “had done this thing together,” he wrote in his journal.
“Soldiers are always attracted to places where they’ve spent so much of themselves,” he said. “Part of my heart will always be in that country.”
And Heaney believes the souls of his dead comrades had waited there for him too. “That was their destiny. And I had come for them — to them — for what had been mine, all this time,” he wrote.
Many Wounds later told him that Heaney’s tiny hillside shrine had become a sacred place.
“Sure enough, he knew,” Heaney wrote in his journal. “Soldiers always know.”