Vietnam War became part of their lives
America’s war in Vietnam, which ended 37 years ago, rarely enters the consciousness of most American people today. But this is not true for veterans like James Corrigan, Thomas Vallely and Walter Robinson, whose lives changed dramatically because of America’s military involvement in Vietnam.
Corrigan, of Wellesley, left Vietnam in April 1970 after 14 months working for an artillery unit which provided fire support to infantry units in central Quang Ngai province. Then 21, Corrigan struggled to get back to a normal life in America.
“When my feet hit the ground back here, I was in a different track than the one I had previously been on – one I couldn’t get back to. It was more of an interruption that a continuance of my life,” Corrigan said.
Corrigan said he didn’t finish college for another two years, but instead decided to take a job in the Waltham-based Metropolitan State Hospital, which provided care and treatment for the mentally disturbed and criminally insane.
“I loved the work there, and to this day, it remains my most favorite job. It may have been that I needed a job like that at that time in my life.”
Corrigan worked at MSH for two years before going back to Boston College to complete his bachelor’s degree in English. Corrigan, who has worked as a builder in Newton, where he lives with his wife and two children, said though the Vietnam War became a very distant memory, whenever the drums of war begin to sound, he can’t help but think of it.
“A deep sense of futility and betrayal by our own government has remained deeply ingrained in me, and I look upon any war now with a studied mistrust,” Corrigan said.
The Vietnam War would have been a closed chapter in Corrigan’s life if he hadn’t gone back to visit Vietnam in 2006-07. He said he traveled there to study the citadel in a central city of Hue because he has been writing a book that reflected some of his experience in the Vietnam War, and it began in a flashback to the battle in Hue in 1968.
“The war is what many Americans think of when they hear about Vietnam. It will probably remain this way for veterans who have not seen Vietnam. I have been fortunate enough to have returned and seen Vietnam,” Corrigan said. “I have been pleased to see the country at peace and striving to become part of the world community. I would love to revisit Vietnam.”
Like Corrigan, Thomas Vallely, a Newton native who joined the Vietnam War as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps in 1969, also returned to Vietnam. But he didn’t arrive as a traveler but as a Massachusetts State Representative invited by Senator John Kerry as part of a goodwill delegation.
“The first time I went to Vietnam, I prayed to go home. The second time, I went and never really came back,” said Vallely, who visited Vietnam 15 years after he returned to the United States in 1970.
Unlike Corrigan who was drafted into the army and sent to the Vietnam War after losing his student deferment, Vallely said he volunteered to participate in the war when in high school because he was quite supportive of what the American Army was doing in Vietnam.
“I thought it was a good idea. When I returned, I didn’t think it was a good idea. I went [to Vietnam] with no knowledge but a myth that when America went somewhere, it always did good,” said Vallely, who fought twelve and a half months in Da Nang.
“I believed in that myth, but when I came home I didn’t believe in it. I changed my own mind when I was a young person in Vietnam.”
So did his close friend, Walter Robinson, who was sent to the war in 1970 and worked there for a year as an intelligence officer.
“The war was a tragic error for the United States. I became, from first-hand experience, more skeptical about US government policy, and less willing to support the use of military force.”
Robinson said America’s war in Vietnam also changed his life in the way that he became a journalist after returning from the war.
“My job was to find things out. I think the experience [as an intelligence officer] drew me into journalism,” said Robinson, who spent more than 30 years at the Boston Globe before joining Northeastern University as professor of journalism in 2007.
Similar to Robinson, Vallely said it was his experience in the Vietnam War that motivated him to pursue politics after he received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts Boston. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1980, serving until 1987.
His 1985 trip back to Vietnam laid the groundwork for the Vietnam program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, which was created three years later by the scholarship the Kennedy school offered to him but he refused. Under his continuous leadership since 1988, the Vietnam program has been committed to foster understanding between America and Vietnam, and to studying Vietnam’s socioeconomic development with the goal of enabling it to integrate successfully into the global economy.
He was credited with establishing and coordinating the HCMC-based Fulbright school, which has emerged as a center of excellence in public policy research and teaching in Vietnam. Vallely was also one of the ones laying a foundation for the Vietnamese Fulbright program, which has selected 20-25 qualified Vietnamese professionals per year to study in U.S graduate programs since 1992.
“It [the Vietnam War] changed my life a great deal. It was an important part of my life. It was a very hard part of my life. But it was something that I have never completely forgotten about,” Vallely said. “I was lucky enough to come home physically in one piece, went to college and got involved in the public life, about 15 years before I became interested again in Vietnam and its issues. I want to continue to do that.”
With the goal of contributing more to the development of Vietnam, Vallely has worked with his Vietnamese partners and colleagues in the education business on a project to make the Fulbright school, which has dealt with one subject in public policy, the beginning of a top university in Vietnam.
“We are looking to build a private, non-for-profit, independent Vietnamese university. We are in the process of negotiating both in the U.S and in Vietnam. I think it will exist in 2-3 years for sure,” said Vallely, who now frequents Vietnam six to seven times each year.
The Vietnamese University to be headquartered in HCMC is not his only plan in Vietnam. Vallely is also working on a historical documentary on the Vietnam War in which he said every real participant will cry “because the war was very difficult for people in Vietnam who fought and sacrificed in it.”
Vallely revealed that the film was shot in Vietnam for the first time last month and is expected to be aired in the United Stated in September 2016.