Children rushed through the driving rain to greet the tour bus carrying the five combat veterans. It was only the second time the youngsters at the school in Tam Ky had laid eyes on Westerners.
When Ron Oskar opened an umbrella, the children eagerly gathered beneath the canopy. The suitcases pulled by the visitors contained school supplies. For the students, it was akin to an American Christmas.
Inside, Oskar took a seat behind a boy and girl who were sharing a desk. Occasionally, the girl turned to look at the group, her eyes wide with wonder. Oskar grinned as he explained that folks from the United States look different from the Vietnamese.
With her index finger outstretched, she tenderly poked Oskar's belly.
''Yeah, it moves,'' he said, motioning for her to touch it again.
''Buddha,'' the little girl said.
Intrigued, her desk mate gave it a try.
''Big Buddha,'' he said, giggling.
A few feet away was veteran Charlie Forsyth, who has a gray-and-white beard that stretches down his chest. Eagerly, the youngsters took turns stroking it and running their hands on Joe Caley's downy arms. Hairy bodies are a novelty in Vietnam.
''The kids were so respectful to us,'' Oskar said. ''They've left a lasting impression on my life.''
At another school in Mac Dinh Chi, Tom Saal stood proud. His officer's class, which had suffered the highest number of casualties in the war, funded a school in memory of the lieutenants who died.
''It is the only thing I ever built in Vietnam,'' said Saal, a retired Akron schoolteacher whose face beamed with pride. ''Instead, we [U.S. forces] spent . . . years blowing things up in that country.''
Antics and keepsakes
The tour bus that transported the warriors and their group across Vietnam was sometimes similar to a school bus — the mischievous bunch sitting in the back.
''I tickled Joe's face with my feet while he was sleeping,'' said Saal, snickering like a mischievous boy.
It was a spot where tomfoolery helped soften the emotional trials of the day; where all the overgrown kids, including the Rev. John Schluep of Warriors Journey Home, could act like snot-nosed adolescents; and where the veterans could debrief and ease difficult memories.
While some of the men destroyed their military certificates and medals after returning home to an unwelcoming country some 40 years ago, there were a few things they saved — sometimes not on purpose.
Caley's son, for instance, recently found some awards Caley had received and forgot to dump in Lake Erie with the rest of his things from the war.
But some of the mementos are more macabre.
During a visit to his home, Ralph Knerem dug out his old uniform and helmet to show a reporter.
''That's an ace of spades,'' he said, pointing at the card stuck in the helmet band.
Placed in the mouths of the dead, it was his battalion's calling card.
Though Caley was required to give his helmet back to the Army, he remembers it well.
He asked a talented soldier to draw an Ohio map on it. Inside the map, Caley sectioned off 365 blocks to represent the number of days he had to spend in Vietnam. Each day he marked out one of the blocks — until there was none.
Expression through art
Writing poetry is good for the soul.
While some of the men wrote while serving in Vietnam, others started after they returned to the States. The ability to do so, and do it well, surprised even them.
''War and battle are an inversion of spiritual intimacy. Battle is an odd dance between two people; in fact, many of the dance steps for ballroom dancing are rehearsals for fighting hand to hand or in close quarters,'' said Schluep, pastor of First Congregational Church in Tallmadge and a vet who was stationed in Alaska during the post-Vietnam era. ''There is an ancient eastern saying, 'Never give a sword to a man who can't dance,' or the Celtic saying, 'You cannot pick up the sword until you have picked up the drum.'
''A true warrior has a spiritual side and awareness that is often expressed through an art form, be it poetry, painting, sculpture or pottery.''
During their visit to Vietnam, the men had the opportunity to share their poetry with others — including former enemies.
''We were reading peace poetry with people who we tried to kill 40 years ago,'' Saal remembered.
There are many stories about how the trip has affected the veterans' lives. They have been able to forgive themselves for some of the things they did during the war — realizing now that they were simply following orders. They know the people of Vietnam are understanding and gracious. They have paid their dues. And as difficult as it may be, they deserve to have joy in their lives.
Since his return, Caley has joined Saal and Forsyth to help the folks who live at Freedom House in Kent, a transitional shelter for homeless veterans. They all continue to participate in the biweekly meetings of Warriors Journey Home. And they encourage other Vietnam veterans to return to the country.
It took the men years to prepare themselves to return to Vietnam, with the help of the People of Strong Hearts — those in the support group who share the burdens of what the combat veterans have experienced. Initially, some said they had no desire to go back.
Forsyth admitted that he was somewhat fearful of returning to Vietnam. But traveling with the group made him feel safe.
''In a way, it was like I was going with a spiritual unit instead of a military unit that was going to control with violence and guns,'' he explained. ''This unit had peace and healing in mind.''
Like Forsyth, Saal began to heal some time back. But when looking at a photo of himself from the trip, standing in the East Sea with his arms outstretched, he shook his head.
''That's not me in years past. I was never that happy or liberated. That tells me so much about how I've changed,'' said the generous man, who refused to bargain with street vendors, believing that he owed them every cent for what the Americans had done to their country.
''I was definitely beginning to get better, but now I catch myself laughing — right out loud.''
An outward sign of a healing soul.
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.