I never mourned Vietnam
Elephant grass grows seven feet tall in Vietnam. It covers hundreds of meters of jungle terrain and grows in clumps under trees and alongside riverbanks. Vietnam veterans described it as the “wait a minute” grass. Wait a minute, my hand is cut. Wait a minute, my boot is caught. The tall, green blades of elephant grass have edges as sharp as razors. There is no known use for elephant grass. The locals can’t even use it as thatch for their homes.
I saw elephant grass on television in the ‘60s, but I didn’t know what it was. There were American troops hiding in it. It never occurred to me that the Viet Cong were hiding in it, too. Few details about the Vietnam War ever impressed themselves in my mind, until years later when I pondered the war and knew that the ugly memory of what happened there lurked in my mind, not unlike elephant grass, harmless enough from afar, deadly up close.
In 1998, I visited Ho Chi Minh City, founded in 1698 and formerly known as Saigon, to complete research for my first novel, Let Their Spirits Dance. The novel tells the story of a Chicano/Latino family living in post-war Vietnam. The mother of the deceased Vietnam veteran receives an inner call to travel to the Vietnam Memorial Wall to honor her son before her death. By an amazing quirk of fate, I had dedicated the book to the memory of Tony Cruz, whose family was the first I interviewed. I did not know Tony had told his family when he left for Vietnam over 30 years ago that one day they would read about him in a book; that he would be famous and he would “make history.”
Of the 3.14 million men who served during the 30-year conflict in Vietnam, 191,000 were men of Latino descent, although there may have been thousands more not using a Spanish surname who remain unidentified. Every fourth or fifth name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall is a Spanish surname. Interestingly enough, 6 percent of the Congressional Medals of Honor awarded for service in Vietnam went to men of Latino and Asian descent.
As I took in the Vietnam experience, I found myself shedding tears for the injustices suffered by so many. Images rose in my mind: coffins coming home by the hundreds, draped in American flags; friends from school who had been drafted; the barrios, our Latino neighborhoods emptied of young men who were not in college, and the faces of young American troops running and hiding, shooting and being shot at on television newscasts of the war. This I had seen and forgotten.
Elephant grass in Vietnam cuts like a knife. It is unsafe. It can kill. American troops took chances hiding in it, but there was no choice. Soldiers had to adapt to the terrain. Jungles were fiercely hot and humid, the days long and tedious, filled with uncertainty and always, great thirst. Life for those who waited in the States was uncertain, too. There was no elephant grass to cut the flesh, but there were great losses of life that cut into the soul. Shame ran rampant as Americans uncovered the truth about destructive decisions the government made concerning the rules of war in Vietnam. The process of mourning was put aside, and then it was never mentioned again. Life went on. Men came back, some to live prosperous lives, others to a life of self-destruction, drugs and psychological problems. I never mourned Vietnam until I stood in elephant grass, and ran my fingers over its razor-sharp edges, slowly – until I saw blood.