When War Images Are Replaced With Something New

Veterans are being honored Tuesday for the time they have served the country. One Vietnam veteran in Petersburg has found healing by going back to the country that was once only known to him as a place of danger and destruction.

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War can hold difficult memories for many Veterans. Sam Bunge is a Vietnam vet living in Petersburg.

“If you said the term Vietnam I would think about mud and wet and danger and people getting hurt,” Bunge says.

Sam and his wife Linda volunteering in Vietnam in 2010. Photo courtesy of Sam Bunge.
Sam and his wife Linda volunteering in Vietnam in 2010. Photo courtesy of Sam Bunge.

Vietnam was a deadly war killing over 58,000 American soldiers from the late 1960s through the mid ‘70s. Those that returned alive were the lucky ones and Bunge knows it.

“I consider that my life after 1969 is borrowed time and so I try to take advantage of it, enjoy life and be good,” Bunge says.

He was in Vietnam for one year from 1968 to 1969.

“After I returned to the States in ‘69 and got back into real life, I wanted nothing to do with it,” Bunge says. “You couldn’t have dragged me into a Vietnamese restaurant.”

It took 40 years to change his attitude. In 2008, while Bunge was reading a veterans magazine he noticed an announcement about Vietnam veterans volunteering to build schools back in Vietnam. He had long been a volunteer himself as a fire fighter in Petersburg and he was drawn the idea.

“I said that sounds like something I’d like to do,” Bunge says.

So Bunge decided to return to the place that was a battle ground in his mind. He wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I was anxious. . . .because of my previous experience in ’68-’69,” Bunge says.

What Bunge saw was a surprise. So much had changed.

Bunge: “There’s electricity almost everywhere. Roads are improving. New areas are being opened up. For example, my first project was in a place called the A Shau Valley which is where Hamburger Hill is.”

Angela: “What does that mean? Hamburger Hill?”

Sam Bunge and ARVN LT in Vietnam in 1969. Photo courtesy of Sam Bunge
Sam Bunge and ARVN LT in Vietnam in 1969. Photo courtesy of Sam Bunge

Bunge: “Oh that was a. . .very significant battle in 1969. . .with the 101st Airborne. Um.. . when I was there in 1969 it was a free fire zone littered with craters from B-52s and the only people who lived there were the North Vietnamese Army. And now, there’s a nice paved road that runs the length of the valley. There are thriving agricultural villages, there’s electricity, irrigation, and a lot of the land is under cultivation. So it’s quite a nice change.”

Bunge believes the process of volunteering was even more beneficial to him than to the Vietnamese who later used the schools he helped build. His memories changed from very negative images to some that are much more positive.

“Now if you say Vietnam I think about green and crowds and smiling kids,” Bunge says. “I was able to replace a lot of nasty, ugly images in my head with more contemporary, peaceful and cheerful ones. Vietnam nowadays is a really nice place. It’s beautiful, there’s an enormous variety in landscapes, some of which are pretty spectacular. The architecture is just fascinating and amazing. The Vietnamese people are very, very friendly.”

He says the proper word to describe it is reconciliation.

Bunge decided to return to Vietnam three more times after the war to build schools in remote villages. Besides the construction work, there were also planned meetings with Vietnamese veterans. He says through translators, they made the best of it. They would sit around a table, introduce each other, eat Vietnamese food, shake hands and take pictures. He says there was a mutual respect. Yet there was one particular instance when Bunge feels like he really connected with someone. It was when he was touring around the country after the volunteer work was over.

“In 2008, a buddy and I went down South where I had operated also, around Saigon and our driver-interpreter took us to a restaurant and there was a poster on the wall of the lady who was a proprietor of the restaurant and she was wearing her Vietcong uniform decked out with medals. Of course, this is after the hostilities has ceased. And she was a local heroine of the Vietcong Women’s Battalion and I had operated right in that area for six months in 1968 and we agreed that we probably had shot at each other (laughs) and we were both happy that neither of us had gotten hurt and we were happy to see each other being prosperous now,” Bunge says.

The volunteer group that Bunge was involved with was around for 25 years before it disbanded recently. Bunge says it’s due to members getting older and having difficulty fundraising.

He says he doesn’t know if his experience can translate to the modern wars. The wars are just so different. But Bunge hopes that if the conflict in the Middle East ever does pass, then perhaps for some modern day soldiers they too can find peace by revisiting their old battle grounds in the decades to come. Only time will tell.