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Return to Vietnam

A veteran, his daughter, their journey

Archive for November, 2007

Calling all local Vietnam veterans

November
30

One of the greatest rewards of this Return to Vietnam project has been the opportunity to meet so many other veterans, particularly from the Lower Hudson Valley: Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. My family has lived in Briarcliff for 20 years, but my father was always too busy commuting to Manhattan and volunteering with numerous Greek American organizations to do much with local Vietnam veteran groups. Also, as a grateful immigrant, an officer (as opposed to a draftee) and someone who had remained in the military, he felt he had a different perspective on the Vietnam War than the more vocal veterans out there.

But, now that he has retired and we’ve spent months exploring these issues, we’re finding plenty of other Vietnam veterans and family members, some within a 15-minute drive, who can relate. Thanks to this project and yesterday’s editorial in The Journal News, my father has discovered an entire community to share stories with – the funny ones as well as the traumas.
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For example, Karen Petrellese of Yonkers wrote to us this week about how much her father – fellow 25th Infantry Division Vietnam veteran Gregory Kanych Sr. – and his friends have appreciated this project. The Army buddies were recently featured in a Veterans Day story in The Leader-Herald, as the subjects of a painting showing them reunited at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

We also heard from Johnny Blalock Sr. of Mount Vernon, asking for more information about our visit to the Black Virgin Mountain. A Sleepy Hollow High School graduate, he served with the 175th Aviation Company (“The Outlaws”) in the Mekong Delta, but was shot down by the mountain on Dec. 26, 1966.

Stay tuned this week for the story he requested.

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Friday, November 30th, 2007 at 6:04 pm |
| | 1 Comment »

The cycle of life: peace, war, peace, war, peace…

November
29

A motorcycle is the best way to get around Ho Chi Minh City’s buzzing streets. My father and I experienced this for ourselves, courtesy of Bao Anh, Vietnam veteran Bernie Duff’s girlfriend and partner in humanitarian work. Hurtling through the crowds, ankle to ankle with other riders, dodging the random pedestrians, bicyclists, taxis and trucks crossing our traffic signal-less paths … was an exhilarating experience. Somehow, we didn’t see a single crash; all the drivers seem to know just what the other motorists are going to do, though we rarely saw anyone checking a mirror or even wearing a helmet.

It’s like swimming with the sharks – on the back of a shark. Then again, maybe it’s what tourists think when they see Grand Central Terminal during rush hour.

Short-term adrenaline rush aside, it surely amazed my father’s 24-year-old ghost to see him, 40 years later, grinning his head off on the back of a motorcycle expertly steered by the daughter of a North Vietnamese military officer!

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Another interesting aspect of this ride, however, is that it also brought one of his Greek Civil War stories full circle:

“When I was about five years old, I spent the summer at the mineral spas in Kaiafa, where my mother used to work as a maid. A local policeman would come around every day on his bicycle, and put me on the front and give me a ride around the hotels. It was a special treat.

One day, he didn’t show up. After a few days, I asked why. They told me he had been killed by Communist guerrillas.”

My father doesn’t remember this policeman’s name, but says he’ll never forget how much fun those bicycle rides were … almost as much fun as riding on Bao Anh’s motorcycle.

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 29th, 2007 at 8:15 pm |
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A piece of their hearts: Female Vietnam veterans

November
28

I’m a woman, and the daughter of a Vietnam veteran with a long memory (aided by plenty of memorabilia), but I never knew much about the thousands of women who served during the Vietnam War – except for my father’s fond feelings for the female USO entertainers and the morale-boosting powers of pinups – until I attended a heartbreaking performance of “A Piece of My Heart” at Cornell University in 2000.

The characters in that play are based on real women, but they couldn’t possibly have prepared me for the real thing: Kathleen Fennell, one of the 14 Vietnam veterans on our recent journey. She served as an Army nurse in Cu Chi from 1968-1969, and continues to honor the spirit of her fallen sisters through memorials and foundations in America and by working to set up clinics and provide medical care in Vietnam today.

During the memorial service we held between Cu Chi and Tay Ninh earlier this month, Fennell emotionally read the names of the 75 American, Australian and New Zealand women who died during the Vietnam War. They include eight military nurses and dozens of civilians who worked with the American Red Cross, government agencies, journalism outlets and other organizations.

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Here she is, next to fellow Vietnam veterans Jeffrey Keahon (far left) and Robert Montarro (middle). Play the audio link below to hear Fennell’s portion of the service, and if you haven’t already, click here to read my earlier post with a slideshow from the ceremony.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Wednesday, November 28th, 2007 at 7:42 pm |
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Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh City: Vietnam veteran plays Santa Claus

November
27

“Doc” Bernie Duff, a member of Rockland County’s Vietnam Veterans of America, is gearing up for the annual tradition he started after moving to Vietnam last year: dressing up as “No En,” Santa Claus, and visiting disabled and poor Vietnamese children at local schools and institutions. You can read about his plans on his blog by clicking here.
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By the way, Duff’s blog also alerted me to the fact that Doc Bao Truc Tuyen, an online Vietnamese newspaper, has apparently borrowed my story about him. I can’t read Vietnamese, and the online translation sites aren’t very helpful, so I’ll have to take Duff at his girlfriend’s word that most of this story is from my reporting. (Not sure how I feel about this, but Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Tuesday, November 27th, 2007 at 10:35 pm |
| | 4 Comments »

In Vietnam, commemorating Rockland’s fallen Vietnam veterans

November
26

During the humanitarian tour of Vietnam earlier this month, our group of Rotary Club members and Vietnam veterans from Rockland County and other parts of the country held three memorial services, honoring nine of Rockland County’s 46 fallen Vietnam veterans and other people who didn’t make it home from the conflict. My story about this ran in today’s Journal News: click here to read it.

During the final ceremony, held Nov. 16 in a deep grove of rubber trees between Cu Chi and Tay Ninh, several of the group members read poems and names out loud, before we dedicated the pile of flowers and burning incense. Click on the video link below to see some photographs from the memorial, and to hear the first and last poems, read by Howard Goldin, of Monsey, and Butch Sincock, of Pennsylvania. Both men served in the area with the 25th Infantry Division in 1968 – as did my father, but the three didn’t know each other back then.

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Notice at the end, there’s a Vietnamese woman who walked up to the memorial as we were leaving, and tenderly adjusted some of the incense. Fortunately, I happened to look back before getting on the bus, got the shot and pointed it out to the others in our group. Everyone, including my father, was very moved by her actions.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Monday, November 26th, 2007 at 5:50 am |
| | 1 Comment »

Vietnam veterans say ‘Never Again’ to troops returning from Iraq, Aghanistan

November
25

Not all post-traumatic stress is created equal.

This became very clear to me earlier this month, as the 14 Vietnam veterans in our group – including my father – shared some of their stories on the long bus rides between Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and Tay Ninh. (Many were prompted by the memorial services we held there; check tomorrow’s Journal News for that story.)

Not everyone who served in Vietnam had done so involuntarily, through the draft; some, like my father, had joined the military as officers, eager to serve their country. Some of the veterans had seen countless gory battlescenes, but a few had served in supporting roles in offices or ships that rarely or never saw combat. Some were wounded, some weren’t. Some had never been on a plane or outside the country before; my father was an immigrant from a war-torn country. Some shared funny stories, like my father’s rabbit breeding program and USO show memories, but others chose to reveal wrenching tales of lost lives and harrowing bloodshed. Some stayed in the military after returning from Vietnam; others couldn’t wait to get out.

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But they all had some trouble readjusting when they got home, including Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Sunday, November 25th, 2007 at 12:16 pm |
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Getting the kids to the school, or the school to the kids

November
24

My story about our group of Rotarians and Vietnam veterans building schools in remote parts of Vietnam and giving rural kids bicycles to get their current schools ran in today’s Journal News – click here to read it.

On Veterans Day, while my father and I visited Cu Chi, the rest of our group attended a dedication ceremony for the Rose School, a three-story building under construction outside of Dalat. When finished, the school will accommodate more than 400 ethnic Montagnard children, ages 18 months to 6 years, under the tutelage of the Dominican Sisters. Spring Valley Rotary Club’s Schools to End Poverty (S.T.E.P.) program has raised $24,000 for the project from Rockland and Orange county Rotary Clubs and schools, and will be giving more to help get the building finished early next year.

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The photo above shows Howard Goldin (left) and Ed Frank (right), both Spring Valley Rotarians and members of the Vietnam Veterans of American Chapter 333. Click on the video link below to watch a photo slideshow of the dedication ceremony, including the presentation of the gifts of vitamins, soccer balls, toothpaste, toys and school supplies presented by the Rotarians and Vietnam veterans to the schoolchildren and their families.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Saturday, November 24th, 2007 at 11:22 am |
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Vietnamese, Cambodian kids show Rockland spirit

November
23

Just a quick note today – but check back tomorrow for my story in The Journal News about what Rotary Club members from Spring Valley and other Lower Hudson Valley towns are doing to help at-risk Vietnamese children stay in school.

And for those of you just tuning in, directed here by Nancy Cutler‘s In Focus: Rockland blog, or Bernie Duff’s blog:

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During our recent trip, my father and I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of American T-shirts and hats on Vietnamese and Cambodian children. (While traveling south through the sweltering Mekong Delta, our group even saw a village teenager keeping cool in a D.A.R.E. T-shirt from Los Angeles, and a dusty little boy wearing a New York Yankees baseball hat!)

Of course, the kids we met don’t realize what they’re wearing; they were just happy to have some new clothes. But, it’s still nice to know we’ve left our mark – literally, in the form of local logos, in addition to all the medical supplies, toiletries, vitamins, toys and other donations we helped distribute. Maybe the next time travelers from the Lower Hudson Valley are in Vietnam, they’ll be pleasantly surprised to meet a small child proudly wearing a Piermont P.A.L. T-shirt…

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Friday, November 23rd, 2007 at 4:27 pm |
| | 1 Comment »

Vietnam veterans give thanks for survival, peace

November
22

The story I wrote about the thankful orphanages in Vietnam ran in today’s Journal News; click here to read it.

We got a Thanksgiving e-mail from “Doc” Bernie Duff this morning (afternoon in Vietnam), sharing what he is thankful for on this holiday: his girlfriend, his family, his “garbage pail kids,” the people of Vietnam, the veterans and his friends.

My father and I will celebrate Thanksgiving at West Point with our family today, dining among other veterans and their guests. We’re both thankful for our “Return to Vietnam,” and that the country has been at peace for the last three decades. And, we have a renewed appreciation for his first return from Vietnam, too. There were many close calls during the Vietnam War, and almost all the veterans on our trip still think about people who died in their place – sometimes literally, by saving their lives, or when positions or schedules were randomly switched by a commanding officer.

For my father, the hours we spent at Ton Son Nhat airport waiting for our flight back on Saturday night reminded him to be thankful that he made it out the first time; he had taken this photograph while waiting to fly home on March 1968, showing the gaping hole in the old terminal’s ceiling created by a Katyusha rocket that had recently killed some other soldiers – just as they were about to leave Vietnam.

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Dr. Ronald Hanover, a psychologist specializing in PTSD at Manhattan’s VA Hospital, says many of his patients don’t fly, because it brings up the panic they felt when boarding their “Freedom Bird” Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 22nd, 2007 at 9:00 am |
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Thanks from the Go Vap Orphanage

November
21

I’ve stayed in touch with Kim Browne, the British woman who was one of the last babies airlifted out of Saigon before it fell in 1975. She is staying in Ho Chi Minh City for a few more weeks, volunteering at the Go Vap Orphanage – where she spent the first two months of her life – and looking for information about her birth mother. Kim said the orphanage will be able to save the lives of more than 50 babies born with hydrocephalus, thanks to the donated brain shunts delivered by the humanitarian tour group my father and I traveled with last week. (Read more about this special delivery in tomorrow’s Journal News.)

Kim recently uploaded this video from the orphanage’s hydrocephalus ward. And, click on the video player below to view some of the photos I took at the orphanage on Saturday.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Wednesday, November 21st, 2007 at 8:59 pm |
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Finding Jesus (Buddha and Confucius, too) at the Cao Dai Holy See

November
20

I mentioned the Cao Dai temple in Trang Bang in my last post, but we also visited the huge Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh last week.

Remember when Lt. Dan asked Forrest Gump if he had found Jesus yet, and Gump replied that he didn’t know he was supposed to be looking for him? Well, as we watched the daily noon service at the Cao Dai Holy See with Rotary Club members and Vietnam veterans from Rockland County, my father unexpectedly found Jesus, depicted along with Buddha, Confucius and other religious figures inside the massive, ornately decorated temple.
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Our tour guide explained that Cao Dai, a Vietnamese religion, combines elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and other world religions. It can get confusing, so just click here if you want more information about the faith. And, here’s a quick slideshow with the sights and sounds of part of the noon service.
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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Tuesday, November 20th, 2007 at 4:53 pm |
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Meeting the family of the ‘girl in the picture’

November
19

After visiting Cu Chi on Veterans Day, my father and I stopped for an unforgettable lunch in Trang Bang: at the roadside noodle shop owned by the family of Kim Phuc, the famous “girl in the picture” who was photographed fleeing, screaming, naked down the road after a napalm attack in 1972. The humble shop is next to the town’s colorful Cao Dai temple, but aside from that and the photos of Kim – then and now – on the wall, we never would have found it without our tour guide.

During our meal, we met Kim’s adorable 3-year-old great-nephew, Dang Khoi Ho. He was shy at first, but warmed up after my father gave him three of my chocolate chip granola bars. (I didn’t need them that day anyway – the soup was delicious!)

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And here, with my father — quite a change from the photo this family is most famous for:

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Monday, November 19th, 2007 at 2:39 pm |
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In his own words: “Doc” Bernie Duff on his Vietnam War paintings

November
18

“Doc” Bernie Duff, an Army medic during the Vietnam War and member of Rockland County’s Vietnam Veterans of America, started painting scenes from the war five years ago, while receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He moved to Vietnam last year and now lives in Ho Chi Minh City with his girlfriend – the daughter of a former North Vietnamese military officer. (Ah, peacetime.)

While in Ho Chi Minh City and Tra Vinh, I spent a few days talking to Bernie about the related changes to his artwork and humanitarian goals. The story ran today.

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Click on the video link below (or go to this YouTube page) to hear him talk about eight of his Vietnam War themed paintings: Price Tags, Frozen Heat, Childhood Lost, Nefarious Memories, Faces, More Than Friends, Bait and Snitch, and Heather’s Homecoming-Operation Babylift.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Sunday, November 18th, 2007 at 2:30 am |
| | 9 Comments »

Return from Vietnam

November
17

As you read this, my father and I are on our way back to the United States. But our journey continues: I have several Vietnam-reported stories scheduled to run in The Journal News this week, and I will continue updating this blog daily for at least a few more weeks. (There’s quite a lot of material I haven’t touched on, including photos, videos and audio recordings from the various places we visited, by ourselves and with the group.)

As we left our hotel for our flight to Japan, four wedding receptions were taking turns posing for photographs in the lobby, and one band was singing “Why, Why, Why Delilah” so enthusiastically, it drowned out the usual noise of all the honking cars and motorcycles whizzing through Ho Chi Minh City.

Last time my father left Vietnam – also en route to the U.S. through Tokyo – he took this book of matches as a souvenir from Camp Alpha, the processing center in Saigon where soldiers coming into or leaving Vietnam spent a night prior to going to their assigned unit or back to the states.

matchfront.jpg Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Saturday, November 17th, 2007 at 5:30 pm |
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Reeducating tourists at the War Remnants Museum

November
17

My father didn’t want to go to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, because we had heard that it’s a very one-sided, anti-American portrayal of the Vietnam War. We walked up to the entrance, where he had planned to leave me for an hour, but then the American military vehicles and weapons in the courtyard got his attention and he shelled out the $1 admission fee. Here he is, standing next to an M-48 tank.
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Most of the museum, with the exception of an exhibit of peace-themed children’s art, consists of photos depicting the horrors of the Vietnam War, beginning with the fight against the French in the 1940s and 1950s, then through the American involvement. Unfortunately, as our group had warned us, the information is not always accurate, especially because it completely ignores the fact that South Vietnamese (ARVN) forces were involved in combat operations. You walk through the museum, and you get the distinct message that Americans and their international allies came in and attacked the Vietnamese people, without any mention of any dispute between the North and South Vietnamese.

And then, as I went through the museum, I realized something that rings true for the other places we’ve seen on our trip: the Vietnam War here is portrayed as a resistance war between Vietnam and America, not as a Vietnamese civil war with American involvement. There are no references to South Vietnamese troops anywhere: not at this museum, not in any cemeteries, not in any war memorials. It’s as though they never existed, and the war was simply, as they call it, the American War.

It’s all rather Orwellian.

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Saturday, November 17th, 2007 at 8:00 am |
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Meeting an ‘American War’ hero: V.C. Jane?

November
16

We had lunch in Tay Ninh today, a town about three hours northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. Several of the Vietnam veterans in our group, including my father, had served in combat operations in the Cu Chi – Tay Ninh area 40 years ago, so they shared some of their memories with us and marveled at how much the rural villages have grown since then.

It turns out that the restaurant owner, a woman named Tuyet Ngoi, was a highly decorated Viet Cong guerrilla. She came out and showed us her medals and traditional checkered V.C. scarf (it can also be used as a bandage), and through an interpreter, proudly explained that she had been a soldier from 1970 to 1979, first fighting the Americans and South Vietnamese, then the Cambodians.

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Some of the veterans hugged her or shook her hand before we drove off to our tour of the nearby Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain).

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Friday, November 16th, 2007 at 7:40 pm |
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Down the rabbit holes in Cu Chi

November
16

We went to Cu Chi again today, this time with the rest of our group of Rockland County Vietnam veterans, Rotary Club members and friends. We ended up at a different tunnel tour – no shooting range at this one, but we got an excellent demonstration of how the Viet Cong guerrillas disappeared down these tiny tunnel holes.

You have to see it to believe it. Click on the video link below.

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When you crawl through just a small segment – enlarged for American tourist benefit, but still extremely cramped, dark and damp – of these handmade tunnels (including underground hospitals, kitchens, you name it), you get a shocking sense of “the enemy’s” will in the Vietnam War. How do you fight people who are willing to literally live underground, indefinitely? It’s almost as bad as fighting suicide bombers. The Vietnam veterans in our group just shook their heads, and we moved on…

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Friday, November 16th, 2007 at 11:52 am |
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‘Garbage Pail Kids’ – life for Cambodian refugees in Tra Vinh

November
16

On our way from Can Tho back to Ho Chi Minh City Wednesday, we visited a dump in Tra Vinh, a rural province near the Cambodian border. There, “Doc” Bernie Duff, a Vietnam veteran who moved to Ho Chi Minh City last year, showed us his “Garbage Pail Kids” – a group of about two dozen children, some with parents or grandparents, who live and work in the trash heap, digging around for recyclable pieces of plastic that can earn them about 80 cents a day.

Our group handed out clothes, vitamins, toothbrushes, toiletries, candy and toys, but in contrast to the cash-strapped orphanages and schools we’ve visited, I couldn’t help feeling this was really a hopeless situation. These people are ethnic Cambodians who fled that country, and some don’t speak much Vietnamese. Duff is paying for some of the younger children to go to school, and when the dump is moved in a few months, said he wants to get some showers built at the new site.

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Stay tuned for more photos and a profile on Duff as an artist, veteran and grassroots humanitarian. In the meantime, click on the video link below to see 13-year-old Song and 9-year-old Quary show us what they look for in the trash every day.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Friday, November 16th, 2007 at 6:00 am |
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My father’s gun: like riding a bike (if he knew how to do that)

November
15

We’re heading back to Cu Chi with our group of Rotarians and Vietnam veterans. I’m hoping to get another shot at firing an M-16, which is the weapon my father used here 40 years ago. (The Cu Chi tunnel attraction features a shooting range with all sorts of military weapons, including AK-47s, but I wanted to stick with the father-daughter theme.)

When we went there by ourselves on Veterans Day, my father and I each took a turn. I couldn’t tell if anyone was hitting the targets – it’s practically a driving range, and the targets don’t flip if you hit them – but I’m pretty sure I missed. My father couldn’t tell how he did, either, but at least he held the rifle correctly. Click on the video link below to watch him back in action.

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This was the first time he had fired an M-16 since leaving Vietnam in 1968. Afterwards, he said Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 15th, 2007 at 3:00 pm |
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Fighting brothels with bicycles

November
15

Remember those dramatic 1980s Sally Struthers television appeals, about how just pennies a day could buy a bag of rice that saves a child‘s life? In the Mekong Delta, activists working against human trafficking believe that just $50 can buy the bicycle that stops a poor Vietnamese village girl from dropping out of school and ending up in a Cambodian brothel.

This ongoing bicycle project appealed to the Rockland County Rotarians, veterans and friends traveling in our humanitarian tour of Vietnam, and the group raised enough money to donate 36 bicycles this week. My father and I attended the ceremony with them on Tuesday, and were astounded at the delighted screaming that greeted our arrival. I wish I had gotten it on tape – the closest comparison would be to a Michael Jackson concert in the 1980s. (I’ll try to stop making so many ’80s references, but both of those were spot on!) The other folks in our group confirmed that this was an especially enthusiastic welcome, although they were very warmly received when they dedicated a school in Dalat and donated 40 pediatric wheelchairs earlier in their trip.

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My father made some new friends at this ceremony, and gave out his e-mail address to several dozen clamoring children with notebooks, eager to practice their few words of English. He’s been marveling at the brightness in the faces of Vietnamese children today – even the ones we met, who have led extremely underprivileged lives – than the ones with the sad eyes he remembers from the Vietnam War.

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 15th, 2007 at 7:00 am |
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Culture shock: it doesn’t lose suction

November
15

My father was born in a poor Greek village during World War II, then grew up during the Greek Civil War. He had lived in the United States for less than half his life when he first arrived in Vietnam in 1967. So, while other American soldiers had to get used to the utterly foreign living conditions, my father always says he felt right at home. “No running water? No flushing toilets? No problem!”

Well, walking along the riverfront in Can Tho a few days ago, we saw a sick old man lying on the sidewalk getting about a dozen heated glasses stuck to his back and yanked off, leaving behind red, swollen marks.

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The rest of us were fairly aghast at this nonchalant medical procedure, but once again, my father chuckled and shared his own fond memories of cupping treatments: “My mother used to Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 15th, 2007 at 12:05 am |
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The things they’ve carried

November
14

During the Vietnam War, an Army grunt typically carried about 60 pounds of supplies on his back. The Vietnam veterans on our trip remember every item well, ranging from the all-important Zippo lighters to the letters from home. Click on the audio link to hear Army veteran Howard Goldin, of Monsey, NY, describe what he humped around 40 years ago.

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On this trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, the 14 Vietnam War veterans and the other travelers have also carried about 60 pounds of equipment, but the kind of things they’re much happier to haul around. Click on the video link below to see Howard show a small sample of what the group has been dropping off at orphanages, schools and poor villages.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Wednesday, November 14th, 2007 at 11:00 am |
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Vietnam veterans: ‘We never felt safe’

November
14

Sorry for the posting delay, folks. Internet crashed at our Can Tho hotel. We just got back to Ho Chi Minh City, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed…

Now that we’ve joined a group with 13 other Vietnam veterans, I’m seeing a different side of nature in Vietnam: the dangerous side. I don’t mean the snakes and insects, though we’ve seen plenty of those; it’s the haystacks, termite hills and mangrove patches that once served as ideal hiding places for Viet Cong guerillas, turning almost any place troops traveled into a potential death trap. In other words, as my father put it, “We never felt safe. Maybe the base camp was safer than being out in the field, but you were always a target.”

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Here’s some mangrove leaves we floated by on the Mekong Delta. Click the audio link below to hear Ed Frank, a Navy veteran, explain what made this such a dangerous plant.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Wednesday, November 14th, 2007 at 8:54 am |
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Back to school (building) in Vietnam

November
13

Rotary Club chapters in Rockland County and other parts of the country have pledged thousands of dollars to help build schools in poor, rural areas of Vietnam. On Sunday, the members of the group my father and I are traveling with went to Dalat to check out a Catholic school that is nearing completion.

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The Rotary Club of Spring Valley has given more than $20,000 to the Dominican Sisters to build this school. Rotarians Howard Goldin (center, in navy blue shirt) and Ed Frank (on his right, hands together), who are also members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 333, started the process during their trip here in 2006.

Today, Howard and Ed are taking us to another possible school site in the Long Xuyen area. Stay tuned for more news about that.

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Tuesday, November 13th, 2007 at 12:04 am |
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Vietnam veteran reunion on the Mekong Delta

November
12

Including my father, there are 14 Vietnam veterans and one non-Vietnam veteran in our Rockland-based humanitarian tour group of 31 people traveling through Vietnam. Several of veterans once served together, including a helicopter pilot who rescued two of the other soldiers in the group. Check back for that story later – it’s a good one.

Ed Frank, of Congers, NY, has reunited with Tom Phelps, of San Diego, Calif. They served together in the U.S. Navy on a Tango boat on the Mekong Delta in 1969. Here’s a photo of Tom (left) and Ed (right) then:

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And now:
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Check back later to hear their thoughts on cruising the Mekong River, then and now. In the meantime, here’s a quick video clip of one of the boats we rode on the river today.
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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Monday, November 12th, 2007 at 6:59 pm |
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A Vietnamese adoptee looks for answers at the Go Vap Orphanage

November
12

We’ve met up with the Rockland County Rotarians and veterans, and are heading down the Mekong Delta today to visit more orphanages and places where some group members spent the Vietnam War.

One woman we met last week, Kim Browne, is staying in Ho Chi Minh City to keep working at the Go Vap Orphanage. Browne was one of the last babies airlifted out as Saigon fell in 1975. Now 32, she has traveled from her home in London back to Go Vap – her own former orphanage – to teach English and work with the disabled children while trying to find information about her birth mother.

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You can view Kim’s story by clicking on this YouTube link.

Stay tuned for more news from our journey with the Rockland group.

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Monday, November 12th, 2007 at 7:00 am |
| | 3 Comments »

Lighting a candle for a fallen friend

November
11

On our way back to Ho Chi Minh City today, we drove by a Catholic church in Cu Chi – probably the same parish that helped supply those rabbits my father’s unit gave to the villagers 40 years ago. The church was closed, but my father left a lit candle in the courtyard as a Veterans Day tribute to his friend Lt. Joe Lingle, the Virginia Military Institute graduate killed April 25, 1967 – a month after he and my father had arrived in Vietnam.

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Joe and my father had met at the Infantry Officers Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Sunday, November 11th, 2007 at 3:08 pm |
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Veterans Day from the other side: ‘American War’ memorials in Vietnam

November
11

We spent an hour today trying to get to the former 25th Infantry Division base in Cu Chi, which our guidebook incorrectly stated we could visit. It turns out it’s all part of a Vietnamese military base now, completely closed to the public. My father took some of the red, rocky dirt home as a memento, at least.

After a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, we discovered two memorials nearby: a large cemetery and a temple whose walls list the names of more than 44,000 Vietnamese people from the Cu Chi area killed in the “American War.”

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Here are my father’s thoughts on the unexpected Veterans Day experience: Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Sunday, November 11th, 2007 at 11:00 am |
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On Veterans Day, remember the Vietnam vets who didn’t make it home

November
11

Happy Veterans Day. Thousands of Vietnam Veterans of America members, including dozens from Chapter 49 of Westchester County, are gathering at the wall memorial in Washington, D.C. for the 25th anniversary dedication today. Here in Vietnam, my father and I are heading to Cu Chi, where he was based with the 25th Infantry Division from March 1967 to March 1968, and the area where his friend and fellow Army Lt. Joe Lingle was killed a month after arriving in country.

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Check back for news about our experiences there.

In the meantime, click on the audio link below to hear a memorial poem read by Jim Murphy, a South Nyack, NY man who served in Vietnam with the Air Force in 1968. Murphy wrote this to honor Alexander Roczen, a friend also killed just a few weeks after arriving in country. It was recently published in Post Traumatic Press 2007.

Download:

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Sunday, November 11th, 2007 at 12:15 am |
| | 3 Comments »

News from the Rockland Rotarians, veterans (Nov. 5)

November
10

Ed Frank, Rockland VVA president and co-organizer of the humanitarian tour of Vietnam that my father and I are joining tomorrow night, sent me more news about the group’s activities today. (Scroll down to read his Nov. 2, 3 and 4 dispatches, posted earlier this week.)

While traveling south from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, the group visited the Demilitarized Zone a few days ago. Here’s a photo of Ed (right) with another group member last year.

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Click here to read Ed’s news from last Monday and check back for current photos and more updates from this group of Rotarians, veterans and family members. Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Saturday, November 10th, 2007 at 5:25 pm |
| | 1 Comment »

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An American volunteer at a Vietnamese orphanage

November
10

The Rotary Club group visiting the Go Vap Orphanage with us in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday included Jennifer Weaver, a 22-year-old recent Lewis & Clark College graduate who has decided to stay on until the end of the year, while her parents and the rest of the group return to Seattle.

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Jennifer will live with the orphanage’s director and work with the disabled babies and children. Click here to watch the YouTube video I’ve made of her story. (I’m having trouble uploading videos directly to this blog right now.)

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Saturday, November 10th, 2007 at 12:00 pm |
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Bringing smiles to the Go Vap Orphanage

November
10

We visited the Go Vap Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday, tagging along with Son Michael Pham and his group of Seattle Rotary Club members on their humanitarian trip to deliver clothing, medicine, school supplies and treats for the children.

This little girl, Hien, stole my father’s heart.

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I’m having trouble uploading videos to this blog from here, but in the meantime, click on this YouTube link to watch a scene from the orphanage.

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Saturday, November 10th, 2007 at 1:41 am |
| | 3 Comments »

Bright lights, big city

November
9

We touched down in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City last night. (Both names are commonly used; I’ll talk more about that in a future blog post.)
We could immediately see the city is a booming metropolis, with blazing lights on jammed highways visible from the air – an inconceivable sight during the Vietnam War 40 years ago. My father was also bemused to see the remains of the fortified U-shaped walls that once protected American military aircraft, now standing vacant in the grassy field beside the runway.

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Check back tomorrow to view photos and videos from our trip to an orphanage with Son Michael Pham, the Seattle Rotary Club member who led Ed Frank’s group from Rockland here last year. Pham’s group this year includes a Vietnamese British woman who was one of the last babies airlifted out in 1975 and has returned to search for her birth mother, and a recent college graduate who will spend the next two months volunteering here. The groups will merge Sunday night for dinner, when the Rockland Rotarians arrive in Ho Chi Minh City.

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Friday, November 9th, 2007 at 12:00 pm |
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Hong Kong: the R&R destination that got away

November
9

Soldiers in the Vietnam War were entitled to at least one Rest & Recuperation trip, usually of about one week. The most popular R&R destinations were Hawaii for the married soldiers, where their wives could meet them, or Bangkok and Hong Kong for the (cough cough) lonely (cough cough) troops.

My father made it to Singapore and Taipei for R&R, and stopped in Tokyo for a few days on his way home, but never got to see the infamous Hong Kong: until yesterday, during our layover.

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But Suzie Wong isn’t there anymore; in fact, the Wan Chai district where on-leave soldiers and sailors once congregated is completely unrecognizeable, built over by skyscrapers and infill developments that have added city blocks to areas that used to be waterfront. (The British Navy is also gone, of course.)

On to Vietnam!

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Friday, November 9th, 2007 at 9:00 am |
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‘God Bless Bob Hope’

November
8

Spending Christmas 1967 in a war zone far from home had one perk: a visit from Bob Hope, Raquel Welch and the other entertainers in that year’s USO Show. My father was one of the lucky soldiers who got to attend the show at Cu Chi and, for a few hours, “forget that there was a war going on.”

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He took this photo before the show started. Here’s one of the main attraction, taken by another soldier.

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Click on the audio link below to hear more about this story.

Download:

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 8th, 2007 at 10:00 pm |
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Christmas at Cu Chi

November
8

Like Ed Frank, most Vietnam veterans I’ve talked to have interesting birthday/holiday stories about the war. Dan Griffin, executive director of Westchester County’s Vietnam Veterans of America, has a good one about a light-up Christmas tree his family sent him, which soldiers took turns looking at on Christmas Eve by going into a muddy foxhole, one by one. (The light would have alerted the Viet Cong to their position.) He gave the tree to a random helicopter pilot resupplying them on Christmas Day; decades later, he found the pilot again when the guy randomly shared the story at a veterans’ event!

My father had been in Vietnam for nine months when he “celebrated” Christmas at Cu Chi. His sister sent him three miniature Santa Claus figures and a small tree, which he put on top of his desk at the 25th Infantry Division‘s Lightning Replacements School.

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It wasn’t much of a Merry Christmas, of course. Click the audio link below to hear the letter my father wrote to a friend, describing his feelings about observing the holiday while fighting in the Vietnam War.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 8th, 2007 at 11:00 am |
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A (relatively) happy birthday during the Vietnam War

November
8

My father and I are on our way to Vietnam, where we will be meeting later this week with Ed Frank, of Congers, and his group of Rockland County veterans and Rotary Club members on a humanitarian tour of the country. (I wrote this blog post from the airport, setting it to upload while I’m flying. Ah, modern technology!)

Before his group left last week, Ed showed me photos from his 1968-69 Navy service in Vietnam. This one stuck out – it shows the sticky young sailor on board Tango boat 49 in the Mekong Delta, holding the chocolate cake Mom had lovingly shipped over for his 21st birthday.

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Click the audio link below to hear Ed’s version of the story.

Download:

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 8th, 2007 at 12:05 am |
| | 2 Comments »

A parting gift from ‘Charlie’

November
7

We’re still en route to Vietnam. It’s a very long trip, especially with the 12-hour time difference and the International Date Line, and my father has been sharing memories of times he almost didn’t make it home 40 years ago.

In March 1968, about a week before he left Vietnam, the 25th Infantry Division’s base camp at Cu Chi came under a Katyusha rocket attack. Some shrapnel struck his “hooch,” igniting his mattress as he was sleeping. After the wounded had been evacuated and the all-clear sounded, he picked these pieces of shrapnel off the ground.

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Click the audio link to hear the full story.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Wednesday, November 7th, 2007 at 11:00 am |
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Welcome to the jungle, Viet Cong-style

November
7

Col. Andonios Neroulias and I are on our way to Vietnam right now, to join up with the humanitarian tour group of Rockland veterans and Rotary Club members. So far, it’s a much nicer journey than 1st Lt. Andonios Neroulias took 40 years ago, though the first leg – New York to Los Angeles – is the same. (One big difference: I’m pretty sure we just spotted Eric Dane, aka “McSteamy” from Grey’s Anatomy…)

Hopefully, we will also get a much nicer reception when we finally reach our destination. A few weeks after my father had arrived in South Vietnam in 1967, he was nearly killed by the VC during a search-and-destroy mission in a pineapple plantation. This M-16 rifle saved his life, but not the way it was necessarily supposed to… (hint: that dent in the middle didn’t come with the weapon.)

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Click on the audio link below to hear the full story.

Download:

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Wednesday, November 7th, 2007 at 12:05 am |
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A war story Bugs Bunny could love

November
6

Trying to win hearts and minds in a combat zone isn’t a new phenomenon created for the current Iraq War; my father’s Army platoon tried to do the same in Vietnam.

But their useful gift for the malnourished villagers – rabbits from a Catholic Church charity, hutched in old ammunition crates – had unexpected results.

Click here to see what happened.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Tuesday, November 6th, 2007 at 12:00 pm |
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Vietnam War art in Ramapo Town Hall

November
6

If you’re voting in Ramapo Town Hall today, or just passing through in the next few days, check out this painting by “Doc” Bernie Duff, a veteran who moved to Vietnam and paints scenes from the war. He donated it to the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 333 (Rockland County) in 2005, and the VVA has loaned it to the Town of Ramapo for display in the Council Room.

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This painting, “Hot LZ,” contains sand from China Beach, mixed in with the paint.

I’m meeting Duff later this week, so let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to ask him…

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Tuesday, November 6th, 2007 at 12:15 am |
| | 2 Comments »

Weather.com wackiness

November
5

I’ve been checking the Vietnam weather forecast every day for the last few weeks, and had been relieved to see the temperature hovering in the 70s, in contrast to the reports from last year’s humanitarian tour group from Rockland County about their muggy experience.

Well, it turns out I’ve been foiled by the 12-hour time difference; every afternoon, I’ve been checking Ho Chi Minh City’s temperature … at 2 a.m. During the day, it’s in the 90s!

At least now my luggage will be lighter! OK, back to packing…

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Monday, November 5th, 2007 at 5:58 pm |
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News from the Rockland Rotarians, veterans (Nov. 4)

November
5

Ed Frank, Rockland VVA president and co-organizer of the humanitarian tour of Vietnam that my father and I are joining later this week, sent me some news about the group’s activities yesterday. (Scroll down to read his Nov. 2 and 3 dispatches, posted yesterday.)

The group is visiting the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone and the Khe Sanh battlefield today. Here’s a picture of some of the travelers standing on the red clay of the battlefield last year; Ed is holding Jack Corbett’s West Dickens Avenue, which tells of the 1968 siege there.

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Click here to read Ed’s news from Sunday and check back for more updates from this group of Rotarians, veterans and family members. Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Monday, November 5th, 2007 at 6:55 am |
| | 1 Comment »

News from the Rockland Rotarians, veterans (Nov. 2 and 3)

November
4

Great news from Ed Frank, president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 333, on what the Spring Valley Rotary Club’s humanitarian tour group has been up to in Vietnam so far. The Rotarians, veterans and family members are heading south from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, where my father and I will join them next week.

So far, they’ve visited orphanages and schools in Hanoi and Haiphong. Here’s a photo of Ed at one of the orphanages during last year’s trip. (No photos from this year’s group yet – stay tuned.)

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Click below to read Ed’s dispatches from Nov. 2 and 3. I’ll post the next one tomorrow.

Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Sunday, November 4th, 2007 at 5:18 pm |
| | 4 Comments »

Dollars, dongs or Monopoly money?

November
4

I’m told American dollars are widely accepted in Vietnam. That’s a relief; we’re leaving in a few days, and I haven’t had time to try to get any Vietnamese currency (dong).

Last time my father was there, he used neither dollars nor dongs. Instead, troops carried Military Payment Certificates, which look like Monopoly money:

moneyfront2.jpg“American soldiers in Vietnam were paid with MPCs rather than actual dollars in order to prevent black market and money laundering activities,” he explains. “These notes were used just like regular dollars at the PX, officer’s and enlisted men’s clubs. Upon leaving Vietnam, a soldier turned in his MPCs and got regular dollars to go back home.”

Now, to paraphrase my old Columbia University journalism school professors, “This and $2 will get you a ride on the subway.”

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Sunday, November 4th, 2007 at 8:42 am |
| | 1 Comment »

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A girl worth fighting for?

November
3

From Betty Grable to Jessica Simpson, pin-up girls have been putting smiles on soldiers’ faces since before World War II.

During the Vietnam War, while other guys drooled over images of Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch, my good Greek father fixed his gaze on Corinna Tsopei, Miss Universe 1964. (Measurements: 36-22-36.)

Tsopei appeared a handful of movies after winning her big crown, and this promotional photo in The Army Reporter caught my father’s eye.

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According to Wikipedia and IMDb, she’s now 63 and married to Freddie Fields, an agent and producer. My father has gotten over it – so he says. (He saved the pin-ups…) Click below to hear the full story.

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Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Saturday, November 3rd, 2007 at 1:01 am |
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An early letter home from the Vietnam War (Part 2)

November
2

As promised, here’s the video of my father reading one of the first letters he sent home — New York, NY — during the Vietnam War, dated April 1, 1967. (Scroll down to last night’s post for more details.)

Download:

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Friday, November 2nd, 2007 at 3:12 am |
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An early letter home from the Vietnam War (Part 1)

November
1

“It’s a strange feeling and very hard to get accustomed to the idea that there’s a war going on, but I have convinced myself to keep my eyes open and my gun ready.”

Those are the closing lines of one of my father’s first letters home during his service in Vietnam, written April 1, 1967 on the back of this large military map of the country.

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Click below to hear him read the letter. I will post a video version tomorrow.

Download:

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 1st, 2007 at 7:57 pm |
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Research, not Rambo

November
1

Apocalypse Now, Rambo and other popular movies about the Vietnam War don’t show the real thing, according to my father and the other veterans I’ve talked to lately. Instead, they’ve given me a long list of books to read, supplemented by suggestions from people who have recently traveled to Vietnam.

Nearly everyone’s list includes The Girl in the Picture – the story of Kim Phuc, the burning girl famously photographed in 1972.

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I’ve also read The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell (the author wrote about returning to Vietnam with his father, a former marine); If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien (I read The Things They Carried in high school, then saw him read from it at Cornell a few years later); and Letters from Vietnam. There are plenty of books I haven’t had a chance to read – including Red Thunder Tropic Lightning by Eric Bergerud, my father’s Read more of this entry »

Posted by Nicole Neroulias on Thursday, November 1st, 2007 at 3:59 am |
| | 1 Comment »

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About this blog
"Return to Vietnam" chronicles the journey of Col. Andonios Neroulias USA (Ret.) of Briarcliff Manor, NY, joined by his daughter, staff writer Nicole Neroulias, to the country he fought in 40 years ago. They are traveling with Vietnam veterans and Rotarians from Rockland County and other parts of the country. Check this blog for daily posts, photos, recordings and slideshows about their experiences.
About the authors
Nicole and Andonios Neroulias

Nicole Neroulias grew up in Briarcliff Manor, NY, and graduated from Cornell University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has covered religion and city news in Cyprus, Connecticut and California, where she earned several fellowships and prizes, including a national Religion Newswriters Association award. She joined The Journal News in early 2007 and also teaches journalism at Columbia.

Col. Andonios Neroulias emigrated from Greece in 1956 and was commissioned an officer through the ROTC program of the City College of NY. From 1967-68, he served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry (Tropic Lightning) Division, whose main base was in Cu Chi, known for its intricate Viet Cong tunnels. Among his military awards are the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge. He is retired from the U.S. Army Reserve and lives in Briarcliff Manor, NY.
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