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Finding Love in Hanoi on a Healing Journey

by Sarah L. Blum

Trish, my dear colleague and friend, was killed on her 63rd birthday in 2011, when the sideview mirror of a large truck clipped the back of her head while she was walking near her home.  I was shocked by the news of her sudden death, which left me emotionally vulnerable. The ambulance whisked her to the hospital where her body was kept alive because she was an organ donor. I drove to the hospital hoping to see her family and ended up in the elevator with her organs. I knew it was Trish. I could sense her— and the pulse of life flowing through her vital organs, which would now give life to many others.

I stared at the aqua and silver containers with their high-pitched sound and could feel the pulse, pulsing energy that was keeping her organs alive. The sight and sounds, knowing her organs were in those containers and my own sensitivity in that moment, drew me in like a magnet and then abruptly yanked me back to my worst memories of our soldiers’ body parts— when I was an army operating room nurse in Vietnam in 1967.

I could not feel that life-force energy back then. Everything was about death and destruction. My brother soldiers, so young and full of life, lost so many parts of their bodies. Booby traps, land mines, AK-47’s, grenades, mortars, rockets, and Punji sticks could maim and destroy young life in a heartbeat. And they did.

I could see the lines of sorrow and stress etched in the faces of the Vietnamese people, but I could not trust them. I didn’t know if they were Viet Cong ready to turn and kill me. Yet I could see they loved their land, cared for it diligently and tenderly, as they did their elders and children. There was a war inside of me; respect for them or fear of them. Both.

I never knew if they might sneak out of the tunnel and booby-trap our outhouse. Two hundred miles of tunnels ran from Saigon to Cu Chi with hidden openings, including one with a visible outlet eight feet in front of the door to our operating room and three feet beside our outhouse. The Viet Cong, adept at deadly traps, could easily creep up from the tunnel, rig one to our toilet seats and whoever tripped it would be blown up. I lived in terror of being the one to set off the booby trap.

Trish’s organs triggered many Vietnam memories. A similar flood of images showed up in April of 1996, when I saw a headline, The PeaceTrees Vietnam Program. While reading the article I was gripped with emotional intensity. The first PeaceTrees trip into Vietnam would plant trees to heal land riddled with child-killing landmines. An American and Vietnamese team would first remove the landmines and then the teams would plant the trees. I wanted to go, yet I was terrified.

It did not help that I remembered the rats that ran along the two-by-fours above my bed in Cu Chi. The thought of going to Hanoi, where they kept our prisoners of war, was deeply painful. Even so, I knew from the moment I saw that article that I was going back to Vietnam.

This was a deep inner knowing. My connection to the Divine has always been my lifeline starting when I was about seven years old in 1946, listening on the radio to The Greatest Story Ever Told.  The Master called Jesus was real to me and I hung on His every word. Even though my family was Jewish, I knew that I belonged with Jesus and trusted Him.

At the first gathering of the PeaceTrees group in Seattle, I met Sherry, a Seattle Times reporter who was writing a story about our group. I agreed to do an interview with her and to bring my army field jacket and boots. It had been over ten years since I talked about being in Vietnam during the war.

For two hours, Sherry asked me about my experiences at the 12th Evacuation Hospital in Cu Chi, Vietnam. Each question brought vivid memories.

Up by six AM each morning wearing my fatigues and boots, and in the mess hall eating breakfast with other nurses, doctors and corpsmen. After breakfast, to the OR where we began doing Delayed Primary Closures (DPC’s) of the soldiers’ wounds. All war wounds are considered ‘dirty,’ so we didn’t close them up when we took out the shrapnel and dead tissues. Only after three days of antibiotics, irrigating their wounds and changing their bandages every four hours did we close them. Dustoff helicopters brought us fresh casualties with multiple blast wounds or imbedded shrapnel all over their body, bloody gaping wounds and broken bones in arms, legs, or pelvis.

In the OR, the surgeon looked over a soldier’s body filled with wounds and metal pellets, then looked at me to ask whether I wanted the right or left side. I had no idea I would be doing the same work as the surgeons, yet it was what we did and what was expected. One soldier had wounds on his chest, abdomen, arms, and legs. I made a cut over each wound, removed the shrapnel with forceps, tested the muscle tissue to see if it was alive, cut out all the dead tissues, cleansed each wound with a salt solution then bandaged them. The soldier went to post-op to recover from the anesthesia, then to a surgical ward where the nurses cleansed and re-bandaged the wounds every four hours.

Sherry asked me about attacks. We were mortared a few weeks after I arrived.  I was in our primitive shower all soaped up ready to rinse, when I heard an odd sound, a soft whistle, then a thud and explosion. A young, intense-looking soldier appeared in front of me. There were no doors on our shower— it was just a wooden stall with three sides. The soldier was in full battle gear: flak jacket, helmet, rifle and said, “Ma’am we are being mortared, you need to go to the bunker NOW!”  I said, “Okay,” but continued to rinse, impatient with the slow, pencil-thin water flow. He raised his intensity level and shouted, “Ma’am if you don’t come with me to the bunker now, I will have to carry you there!” It was clear that he meant business. I put on my short little robe that barely covered my butt over my wet, soapy body and slid through the hooch, dripping soapy water through my robe and down my legs to my flip-flops.

Our bunker was a cut out below ground level surrounded and covered with sandbags. I ducked down there and was temporarily blinded going from the bright sun to the darkness inside the bunker. Someone’s hand guided me to sit down on a bench. When my eyes adjusted, I could see my chief nurse wearing her helmet and flak jacket, and some of the other nurses from our hospital. My chief nurse said, “We will stay in here until it is all clear and then go back to what we were doing.”  A minute after she said that, a soldier appeared at the opening to the bunker and said, “We need Lieutenant Blum in the OR immediately.” I looked at my chief nurse and she nodded to go.

I ran out and hurried to the shower to rinse off the dried soap, plus mud from the bunker, and scrambled into my fatigues.  I sprinted to the OR amidst loud thuds and explosions of mortars. A soldier yelled at me to put on my flak jacket and helmet and I shouted back, “I can run faster without them.” I truly did not think they would do me much good. If I was hit, there was nothing I could do to stop it. I only weighed a hundred pounds and the flak jacket added about thirty pounds more and weighed me down, so I never wore it and just ran as fast as I could. We were mortared often.

***

After giving Sherry the interview, my body reacted to what had been unleashed inside me. Because those memories and feelings had been submerged for so long before talking to Sherry, there was too much energy moving through me too fast and some became blocked. I was in extreme physical pain for several weeks following.

By November of 1996, I was calm and felt ready when I left SeaTac Airport. When I landed in Hanoi and got up from my seat, all that changed. I felt like I was walking in a dream. Everything was in slow, s…l…o…w…motion. One step at a time I went down the stairs from the airplane to the tarmac. I stopped in the middle. Some part of me said… I can’t do this… while all of the rest of me was still walking down slowly. I was barely breathing. At the bottom someone said, “Breathe, Sarah, breathe.” I took a breath and a god-awful sound came out of my mouth—a guttural scream. All the memories and pain seemed to come out in a cry. I stayed by the plane on the tarmac crying until I could make my way into the terminal to go through customs and the security lines.

My mind was telling me we were in Hanoi, where our POW’s were held and tortured, the seat of the communist government and the North Vietnamese troops that took over Vietnam in 1975. I spent that night in their government guesthouse and barely slept.

It was a tortuously hot night with a noisy ceiling fan above. The fan blades reminded me of helicopters and casualties. My sheets were sticky from sweating due to the heat, humidity, and my own terror, as I remembered swarms of red locusts jumping into the soldiers’ wounds, mortar attacks, and the big howitzers firing. The wet sheets took me back to those on my bed at the 12th Evacuation Hospital in 1967. The mamma sans washed our sheets in dirty brown water that smelled so bad I wanted to puke every time I got near them. But it was 1996. I was not in Cu Chi, I was in a guesthouse in Hanoi, Vietnam. Communist Hanoi. That was the immediate problem.

I sat on the bed, instead of lying down looking up at those fan blades. My stomach felt full of lead, so it was very hard to take any deep breaths. I prayed for courage and strength to get me through this healing journey.

My shoulders shook as I began to sob deeply. I was grateful for the sound of the fan covering up some of my sounds so I didn’t wake anyone. I realized that I didn’t even know where the others were sleeping. Oh my God what have I gotten myself into? What happened to all my confidence, calm and courage? Then the terror came roaring back… Okay, I think I get it… my thoughts are doing this. A few minutes before I had been calm and relaxed. How did I do that? I remembered praying and talking with Jesus, so I concentrated on Him and what it feels like to be with Him. Please, I really need to hear and feel you now. Ever so slowly, as I concentrated on Him, his smiling face, dark skin, loving eyes, I felt his love for me and began to feel more relaxed. Was this real or am I imagining Him?  Oops, when I ask that question the feeling of calm goes away… back to feeling Him and His comforting love…relaxation… feeling…. not thinking… whew, that is better.

I don’t know how long I sat there, but I did not lie back down until I felt much calmer and could handle that ceiling fan. Gradually my body began to relax and as long as I did not focus on the fan, the sheets, or being in Hanoi, I was okay. Finally I was able to sleep.

After breakfast I sat by a pond, writing, enjoying the sunshine, warmth, and the pink and white lotus blossoms floating on the water. After a few minutes, I heard giggling and saw children looking over a tall, red fence about thirty yards ahead. I waved at them and began singing to them. They responded with their own songs in their language. I sang out love through my songs and received love back in their songs to me. After a few songs, my fear was gone and my body was relaxed. Hanoi had a new meaning. I was full of joy and gratitude for the children being there and giving me a healing experience. Soon, after leaving the pond and the children, we loaded onto our buses and went south to Dong Ha.

We arrived in Dong Ha and were greeted with great joy by Mr. Le Van Thu, the Chairman of the International Relations Committee for Quang Tri Province. He was youthful, enthusiastic and spoke to us in relatively good English. His enthusiasm, joy and spirit filled the lobby of the government guesthouse we were packed into. Jennifer, a pleasant 27-year-old woman, was my roommate. Our room had two very plain beds and a shiny hard floor. In the bathroom, there was a small oval receptacle for a toilet, a drain hole in the middle of the floor and a tiny sink with a small amount of water coming out of the spigot. We used bottled water to brush our teeth and the dripping water for hand washing.

We had six Vietnam Veterans on our team, all male except for me. Jerilyn Brusseau led our procession carrying a beautiful candle that looked like the earth. She was literally holding the earth in her hands. We walked two abreast for one mile down the road. Together we went, rain or shine, down that same road for the next three weeks. As we neared the planting area we could see colorful flags waving wildly in the breeze and hear celebratory music over loudspeakers. My spirits were high from the moment I met their team, and were going even higher with the colorful flags and music. I was filled with joy and gratitude to be in Dong Ha planting PeaceTrees at the sight of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, Khe May, a Marine Artillery Base.

After a ceremony and speeches, we gathered in teams of four people – two international members and two Vietnamese. The work was hard: digging, hoeing, weeding, putting in the tree, and covering it with the soil creating a mound. Putting bamboo support strips around each tree was the beautiful part of the process. Together with our Vietnamese partners we wove each strip of bamboo around the eight tall bamboo stakes that stood up straight around the tree. Starting at the bottom and working our way up to the top, we wove four strips in and out of the stakes, then tied the joints together creating a strong cylindrical protective structure. We planted thirty-seven varieties of indigenous Vietnamese trees including, cinnamon, banana, cardamom, and ginger.

Every day, first after breakfast, and again after lunch and a rest, we made the one-mile journey down the road, often in rain and mud. It was then that we had time to talk with our Vietnamese partners and even though we spoke different languages, we learned to communicate well.

The planting itself was healing— the four of us working together. We were planting new life with those whose parents may have been our enemy during the war and where Agent Orange previously killed anything growing.

On my 57th birthday, December 5, 1996, we took a trip to a cemetery by what had been the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), dedicated to all those who died on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our group laid a wreath and we all lit incense. We walked around and saw the tens of thousands of grave markers. I gave into my grief and let my tears flow as I thought about the horrendous loss of life and limb by all those who participated in that war, regardless of their nationality or beliefs.

Before the end of the three weeks I took a short side trip to Cu Chi, where I had been stationed in 1967. At my request, we went to the tunnels of Cu Chi.

Before going into the tunnels, we watched a demonstration by a man whose father fought and died as a Viet Cong soldier in Cu Chi. He showed us where the Viet Cong made decisions about the war in the tunnels, where they did surgery, slept, and ate. I even saw some of our missing surgical instruments in a glass case down there. We ate cassava root baked in the tunnel, the same way they did during the war; the Viet Cong survived on that for years.

The most instant healing transformation occurred when I was shown the booby traps and torture instruments the Viet Cong used on our soldiers. This same man demonstrated how the booby traps worked. He put a piece of wood into the trap, mimicking a soldier’s leg. I heard the sound of the booby trap’s nails and jagged metal meeting the wood and saw how some of our soldiers’ wounds were created. The demonstration felt like an attack on my brother soldiers. At first I could not look; it was too painful to imagine a soldier’s leg being mutilated. My body cringed and I turned away. Then I made myself look and concentrated on grounding myself and taking deep breaths.

Because I was in so much emotional pain watching, I closed my eyes and connected deeply to my soul and my Creator. I thought about home and asked: If I were at some fort in the US where a battle took place that we had won, what would that be like? I thought there would be someone proud who was describing what we had done and how we won. After that thought I asked my soul, so what is the difference here? At that moment, I felt something that is indescribable, like an infusion of understanding, acceptance, love. I felt it filling me and touching every part of me. I could not see or experience any difference between this communist soldier and me as we were both held in this incredible love. From that moment on I have held only the highest regard for the Vietnamese people regardless of what side they were on. I perceive them to be beautiful, ingenious, creative, and tenacious. It was a miraculous healing transformation for me that has remained with me from that moment on.

Over the course of the PeaceTrees trip we planted 2000 indigenous Vietnamese trees to create Friendship Forest Park and transform the land. What a blessing that healing journey back to Vietnam was for me. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity given to me, and my courage to accept it.