Vietnam veterans Bob Matthews and Bill Dixon have returned to enemy territory twice.
In 2009 and again in 2012, they took bicycles, school supplies and candy for children. They even built a playground.
The former soldiers found peace, but the mission isn’t over. So they’re going back again on May 7 and might continue to do so until they simply can’t anymore.
“I don’t think anything in life is done until your life is done,” said Dixon, 69.
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Matthews, who lives in Cary, started the Bridge Back Foundation years ago to teach students about the history of the war and finish the mission of helping the South Vietnamese.
Since then, they have raised thousands of dollars and recruited six other veterans to join their next trip overseas.
“A lot of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam felt we left too early,” said Matthews, 69. “We’re making up for what we didn’t do the first time: helping the kids in South Vietnam have a better life.”
Matthews and Dixon spend a lot of time thinking about the war and its lasting effects. They have traveled the country teaching a course called “Lessons of Vietnam” to middle school and high school students.
But after serving during some of the most intense years of the war – 1967-’68 – Dixon said he wasn’t so sure he ever wanted to go back.
Forty years ago, “there was no way I would have gone back,” he said. “Living that life for a year and then coming back to the treatment we got, you wanted to forget about Vietnam altogether. But we can’t.”
The South Vietnamese haven’t forgotten the men’s efforts. When Matthews and Dixon returned for the first time in 2009, the response was overwhelming.
“The children are so unbelievably appreciative,” Dixon said. “A brand new pencil over there is almost like Christmas.”
So playgrounds are a luxury.
When they went to the Nuoc Ngot Orphanage in Da Nang in 2012 to build a playground, “kids started going down the slide before we were done building it,” Dixon said.
This time, they’re going to the city of Dong Ha to build a playground at an orphanage where many of the children are disabled. This one will have slides, a climbing wall, swings and monkey bars.
“If you’re not a perfect specimen, you’re pretty much shunned over there,” Dixon said.
One veteran’s first trip back
Angelo Carmen, who hasn’t been back to Vietnam since his tour in 1969, will be there to help.
It may be the last step toward closure. The 71-year-old says it took decades to “mellow out” after one of the darkest experiences of his life.
“Seeing my friends go down and not get up again, putting people in a helicopter that you know isn’t coming back ... it left a big emptiness in me,” Carmen said.
Recovery started with little steps.
First, Carmen had to get over his fear of Asian people after he got home from war.
“They used to be shooting at me,” he said. “A lot of ill feelings and a lot of fear.”
Then he had to climb out of the “Jack Daniels bottle I lived in for years.”
After that, he started visiting Vietnamese businesses, including restaurants. For a long time, he didn’t want anything to do with the culture.
Now, Carmen says he’s both “apprehensive and excited” about going back.
He has no idea how he will feel. So he’s thinking about how the children will feel to get help.
Carmen’s daughter was 3 years old when he was at war. He thought about her safety and the injustice of war every time he saw a young Vietnamese child.
“Being little is a time to be happy and have fun,” he said. “Those kids in Vietnam deserve better than what they’re getting.”