Lifestyle

Tuesday 29 July 2014

The Irish veterans of Vietnam: why they went to war

Anne Roper, an RTE documentary maker, discovered that over 2,000 Irishmen fought in this bloody conflict

I HAVE always been a little obsessed by the Vietnam War. As a child living in the United States during the Sixties, I saw the carnage unfold on television each night. Part of that obsession is because Vietnam seemed so close to home. My uncle served with Air America and was stationed in Saigon for more than 15 years. My uncle married a Vietnamese woman who owned a French restaurant in the city and they raised seven children there. I knew that other Irish emigrant families had sons who were drafted into combat. But they were harder to find. Most Irish soldiers gave their US address when conscripted. Eligibility for the draft was part of the payoff for holding a green card. I hadn't realised that so many Irishmen had actually fought in Vietnam. Though there are no official statistics, it is estimated that over 2,000 Irish wore an American uniform. At least 18 of them are listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC as killed in action. Four others served with the Royal Australian Regiment. In May 2001, I was invited by the American Legion to their annual Memorial Day Service in Athlone. There I met Michael Coyne from Co Meath.

Michael left school at 13 and was later sent to America where most of his extended family lived. He worked at a Chicago furriers until his draft notice came. He never once thought of escaping back to Ireland: "I suppose I wanted medals. In those days people would die for medals." In 1968, with his first pay cheque, Michael bought an 8mm Bell and Howell film camera and began shooting the Vietnam War from behind a machine gun on the back deck of an M48 tank. Most of the men he served with died in battle. Michael kept the demons at bay by smoking dope. He figures drugs were part of a grander plan to keep soldiers malleable: "They even gave you these things called 'jolly green giants', which I only took once. Had me jumping over the tank and unable to sleep for three days. But they sure made you gung ho for battle."

Last autumn, I followed Michael back to Vietnam. To the towns on the Ho Chi Minh trail he blazed through on his tank more than 30 years ago. He admits he was frightened to return: old ghosts and feelings of guilt rose to the surface: "The Vietnamese people were heroes really. I feel ashamed of what the US did here."

Michael was amazed at how warmly he was received. At Cu Chi Tunnels he met with Viet Cong veteran Le Van Tung who shook his hand and said: "I never knew Irish fought in the war. Only Americans. We hated the soldiers, but now we have left that all behind and only have good feelings."

For those who lost a relation, good feelings are harder to come by. Gay Nevin's brother Christy was the first Irishman to die in Vietnam. He too had been drafted, but when his family tried to get him to come home he told his mother, May: "No, Mam. I'll never be called a deserter."

But he also needed a job, to send home money to his large family struggling back home in Balla, Co Mayo.

When Christy's body was flown back to Shannon, there were protests in the Dail. Pickets stood outside the US embassy when May went to collect her son's posthumous medals. Christy's death was such a news event that showband singer Brian Coll asked if he could write a song about him. Gay still hears The Blazing Star of Athenry from time to time on local radio. When May died, at the age of 87, a few weeks after I interviewed her for the documentary, the song was played at her funeral in Mayo Abbey. May is now buried next to Christy. Not far away, in Sligo, lives an Irishman who served with the US Air Force in Vietnam. His name is Gerry Duignan and he was born in Carrick-on-Shannon. After a year working in New York, Gerry joined up to further his education and he learned Vietnamese before he shipped out in 1968. Once 'in country' he spent any free time he had teaching English at a Catholic orphanage near Cam Rahn Bay. It was there that he met Hoa and Lieu. Hoa was a local woman who Gerry fell in love with. He hoped to marry her and stay on in Vietnam after the war. But one night all that changed when Communist forces attacked the village where Hoa was living. Lieu was a child that he befriended. She was nine when Gerry ended his four years service just before the war ended: "I kept writing to the orphanage, but heard nothing."

Though I searched for Lieu before I finished the documentary, I could find no trace of her. Then, when I returned from Vietnam last November, I received news that Gerry and his partner, Flora, had just had their first baby, Medbh. By one of those cosmic coincidences, the same day I received an email from a New Zealand man who had met Lieu some years before. After faxes and emails and keeping secrets from Gerry until I could be sure Lieu was real, I drove up to the Duignans' house in Sligo on Christmas Eve and handed him all the correspondence gift-wrapped. Plus a letter from Lieu herself, translated by a kind but bemused young Vietnamese woman whose family runs a takeaway in Ringsend. Lieu is now married with three children and works part-time at the orphanage the name of which has since changed. She and Gerry now keep in regular contact. She remembers him well, as she does Hoa, who is buried near the place where she died. On January 3, 2002, the entire orphanage turned out for a memorial service in Hoa's honour. In Sligo, prayers were said as well.

I have always wondered what makes men go to war. In the case of the Irish veterans I interviewed, there are some strands that linked them. Most never finished school and came from poor country backgrounds. Emigration was a route to employment, but a green card also meant eligibility for the draft. Most grew up listening to war stories told by fathers who were active in the Irish Civil War.

All were Catholic and were taught early that Communism threatened that way of life. All felt they were doing their duty protecting certain freedoms. And in the aftermath of September 11, they hoped people might understand better what they felt they were fighting for more than 30 years ago.

Many of the Irish veterans have come together to try and set up a memorial museum in Athlone, where Irish soldiers from all conflicts might be remembered. For Michael Coyne, the message he wants to convey in the documentary is simple: "If we don't look at why men go to war, if we don't examine the reasons and try to understand it, then wars will just keep happening. Which means more people will die. And nobody who has been through it wants that."

If you would like to contact the Irish Vietnam Memorial Project or other Irish Vietnam veterans, write to: Top Floor, Capel Chambers, 119 Capel St, Dublin 1, or phone/fax: (01) 872-2371. 'The Green Fields of Vietnam' is on RTE One at 10.10pm next Tuesday

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