We were so honored and fortunate to have on our Vietnam tour a war hero (although he would never call himself this) and a survivor of one of the war’s saddest events. Greg was an Air Force medic during the Vietnam War, and was part of the Operation Babylift mission. He was on the initial plane that crashed shortly after take-off, killing 138 people, including 78 orphans and 35 Defense Attaché Office Saigon personnel. Greg suffered collapsed lungs and five broken ribs, various other injuries, and still was able to get many of the orphans off the plane to safety. We organized a special visit to the crash site for him to pay his respects, which he was able to do when we arrived in Saigon. On our flight back to the States, we interviewed Greg about his experience of being back in Vietnam after all these years.
Zoom: Why did you come to Southeast Asia with Zoom Vacations.
Greg: Because I have been on trips with Zoom in the past and appreciate the special first class treatment. I have always wanted to revisit Southeast Asia and, in particular, return to the Saigon crash site and pay my respects to those who lost their lives on April 4, 1975. When I first spoke with Joel he readily assured me that a special side trip could be arranged. I felt confident that if any company could arrange this for me it would be Zoom. I wasn’t disappointed.
Zoom: Did you have any epiphanies from this experience or from the trip in general?
Greg: I had several epiphanies while visiting these countries that are so different than our own. That happiness can be found in the simplest of things, especially in the daily contact with other humans.
That kindness is definitely contagious and is spread with just a smile or slight gesture of understanding and acceptance. Although I’ve always felt that diversity is wonderful, being completely opposite of another culture is a beautiful thing when kindness is felt. While visiting the crash site, I felt an uplifting of my spirit and understanding that – for some reason – I was spared because I needed to do what I have done these past 42 years; that is: to somehow make, in my own small way, the world a better place in which to live. The survivor guilt that I felt for many years has finally left me.
Zoom: Wow, that alone made it a powerfully cathartic trip. What was it like being back here after all these years?
Greg: It was great to be on this trip as I enjoyed every moment of it; however, it was was also very sad to see first hand how the Vietnam War affected so many lives in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and how many have suffered. Because (before retiring) I worked at the VA, I knew how the war affected American Veterans, but thinking of how it devastated these countries was something that I had pushed to the back of my mind. In making this return visit, I felt guilt that – over 40 intervening years – I hadn’t thought much about them before. I saw first hand how everyone suffered because of the Vietnam War.
Zoom: What misperceptions do you think people have about the Vietnam War?
Greg: I’m not sure that many people, today, have a good perspective about the Vietnam War. The misperception that I think people had during, and immediately after, the war was that young men were gung-ho to go to Vietnam so they could demonstrate their machismo. Many who served in the war had protested or resisted the war. But, because of personal circumstances, found themselves fighting in it. It hurt when coming home to then hear someone infer that – because you served – you somehow were a “baby-killer.” Because of that, many Veterans kept their military service in Vietnam a secret. It wasn’t until years later that Vietnam Veterans united and formed an alliance with each other and could be proud that they had served.
Zoom: How about misperceptions with Vietnam in general?
Greg: The main misperceptions I believe are that it is still a war torn country, and that the Vietnamese people would be bitter towards American and treat them with disdain. Nothing could be more wrong. There are so many beautiful sites to see and things to do in today’s Vietnam! And, even though I had heard that, it still was a pleasant surprise to experience it fist hand. Moreover, there are the Vietnamese people ….. they are remarkable! They couldn’t have been more gracious, kind and friendly toward us. They seemed to have gone through a great healing process … one that has made them a better people.
In general, the Lao, Vietnamese and Cambodian people could not have been any more friendly or warm. We had opportunities in each country to visit and interact with authentic local residents. And, without exception, they showed a friendliness and warmth that felt so very genuine, sincere and heartfelt. I will always remember the sights we saw and the people we were privileged to meet.
Zoom: Have you talked to other corpsman who have returned to Vietnam? Do you remember what they have told you about their experience?
Greg: Yes, I remain in contact with other corpsmen from the Vietnam Era. One in particular, Phil Wise, was on the plane with me and so badly injured they almost gave him up as not survivable. He’s written a book, Fragile Delivery, which gives an account of his life and experience of the Baby Lift endeavor.
Zoom: So obviously a trip like this for you could have sadness and bring up bad feelings. Did this happen for you?
Greg: Yes, as I mentioned above, I have had “survivor’s guilt” all of these years. I still have to admit that I don’t totally understand why I was spared while so many good and innocent people perished. That made me sad. But, returning to the crash site really did seem to lift some of that guilt.
Zoom: Did you do things on this trip that you’ve never done before?
Greg: OMG, Yes! We explored caves, swam by beautiful and unique waterfalls, enjoyed a Baci Welcoming Ceremony, distributed food to monks, prayed and received blessings by monks, witnessed how local people truly live, visited temples, explored the mysteries and sights of Angkor Wat and so many other first time (and lifetime) experiences. It really was “a trip of a lifetime”.
Zoom: Plus, I know that you had your first massage ever on this trip, and you had a total of five! So, what advice do you have for people considering a trip to this part of the world?
Greg: Do it!! You won’t regret it. You’ll learn so much and come away from the trip a better and more enlightened person.
Zoom: Did this experience awaken other curiosities for you?
Greg: You bet! I am now more curious than ever about Buddhism and other religions in southeast Asia. There are so many things I think you can learn about yourself and about life in general by taking note and learning what these religions have to teach us.
Zoom: We know you have traveled with other tour companies in the past. How is Zoom Vacations different?
Greg: Zoom just always turns out to be a notch above (or ahead?) of the others. Service, arrangements and the program in general are always “first class”. I know that both you (Bryan) and Joel make a genuine effort to personally explore and find the “best” of any location Zoom takes travelers to visit. The groups are always small enough that each person is given personal attention along the way – which is a “plus” that is very much appreciated! That “personal touch” effort was especially valued by me on this trip because of the arrangements made for my solo return to the Baby Lift crash site.
Zoom: Where would you like to go next?
Greg: I have a bucket list. India, Australia, Brazil/Argentina … for starters.