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Going back

U.S. veterans return to Vietnam to build homes and connections

By Phil Kloer

Veteran Jim Forbes, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969-'70, works with a Vietnamese mason to lay bricks for Luu Thi Bong's new Habitat home. ©Habitat for Humanity/Ezra MillsteinVeteran Jim Forbes, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969-‘70, works with a Vietnamese mason to lay bricks for Luu Thi Bong’s new Habitat home. ©Habitat for Humanity/Ezra Millstein

When the wheels of his plane left the ground at Saigon’s airport in 1972, U.S. Army combat photographer Neal Pointer told himself, as so many Vietnam War veterans did, “I will never come back to this place.”

But he did go back, 40 years later, with a group of fellow veterans to build houses with three Vietnamese families on the first Habitat for Humanity Vietnam Veterans Build.

“I felt I had left a part of me in the jungle,” Pointer said, “and somehow, in going back, I might find at least part of what was left behind.”

He found Pham Thi Hong Thuy, a widowed mother of two girls, 14 and 9. Their lean-to shelter was made of tarpaulins, held up by bamboo poles, furnished with a few items and a small altar holding a photograph of her late husband, flanked by incense. All three slept on one bamboo mat.

Over the first two weeks of April, he and the other Americans built Thi a simple, secure brick home, as well as homes for two of her neighbors in the village of Binh Ninh.

They bonded as vets frequently do. Made some new friends. Buried some old ghosts. And when the time came to say goodbye to their Vietnamese families, some tried not to cry. It was the only thing they failed at.

Veterans return to Vietnam to build houses, connections (slideshow)Slideshow: Veterans return to Vietnam to build houses and connections

Twenty-two veterans, most in their 60s and a few in their 70s, made the historic trip, along with a few spouses and a handful who were honoring deceased Vietnam vets in their family. Carol Welles, a pediatrician in Malibu, California, built in honor of her veteran father, and brought along her son Ian, 13, who was by far the youngest person in the group, and a favorite of many. (The Vietnamese were fascinated by his braces.)

“I’ve been on more than 20 Habitat builds like this — Global Villages, the Carter Work Projects — and this is the best one I’ve ever been on,” said Ken Bensen, one of the event organizers. “The war was a bond, and the whole volunteer team bonded, every one of them. And I’ve never seen homeowners work as hard as they did on these homes.”

The seed for the Vietnam Veterans Build was planted during the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, when volunteers built homes in several Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam.

Afterward, some Vietnam vets approached Bensen and talked about how therapeutic the home building had been. Bensen recalled one saying, “The last time we were here, we were trying to kill them, and now we are building houses for them and helping them rebuild their lives.”

Bensen started planning the 2012 build at that moment, and enlisted the help of Jack Devine, a former vice president of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Continue reading: Going back, (continued)