What a Veteran Discovered About Himself Upon Returning to Vietnam

For this post I’ve invited a friend to guest write.  Tom Davis (known as TCDavis on the internet) is a retired pastor, interfaith peacemaker, and my Web guru.  Take it away, Tom!

— Joan


Thanks Joan, for the opportunity to post here.
About a year ago I joined a group of writers convened by Joan.  We meet weekly, and recently decided to call ourselves the Brandywine Writers’ Circle.

TCDavis_portraitI like to have specific listeners in mind when I write.  That’s how I managed to turn out sermons every week for over twenty years:  by holding in my imagination particular persons to whom I am speaking .  My BWC colleagues fulfilled that role for me in a recent project, a kind of travel journal called Double Exposure:  A Veteran Returns to Vietnam.  I say a kind of travel journal, because Double Exposure is really more about me than the place I fought in forty three years ago.

Along her own very difficult life’s journey Joan experienced deep benefits from journaling, which she tells about in her book, Fatal If Swallowed: Reclaiming Creativity and Hope Along the Uncharted Path .  Now she encourages others to journal as a path toward healing.  I’m sure that’s why she asked me to write here on what I learned about myself through the writing of Double Exposure.
Well, Joan, here goes:

I learned that merely by recording events I can increase my awareness of the significance of what happens on any day.  Also, I learned that when I reflect thoughtfully about what happens, in order to weave events into a larger story, they take on even more significance for me.  Let me illustrate.

At mid life, while working for a master’s degree in counseling, I received the assignment to write a psychological autobiography.  Students were urged to be absolutely candid, and to interpret as best they could the meaning of their experiences.  I had returned from Vietnam almost two decades prior, but had never written about my war experiences.  I didn’t have flashbacks, but over the years certain memories kept rising from the deep. They would reappear every so often in my mind’s eye. Writing about them for the assignment, even in a very superficial way, quieted them somewhat.  They visited me less often.

The writing of Double Exposure was even more cathartic, for in this effort I had to ponder troubling memories, really come to grips with them, and face what they told me about myself.  This was scary and sad.  I was grateful for the support of colleagues as I stirred up the mud.

What I discovered about myself is that I was capable of surprising acts, both laudable and deplorable.  I was capable of selfless, loving acts, and angry, vicious ones.  This realization, mind you reader, never hit me in all those years  I was raising a family.   I had always thought of myself as basically a good person.  Coming to grips with my war memories ripped open that self-protective veil to reveal a dark side I had not acknowledged before.

Finally, the writing of Double Exposure made me aware of a deep desire to make amends.  I have started a photo sharing group at Flickr.com between Vietnamese and American photographers.  Most of the members are young Vietnamese, and several are from north Vietnam, the kinds of persons I was doing my best to kill in 1970–a striking and redemptive irony!  Please join us at http://www.flickr.com/groups/vietnam-unitedstates_sharing and share pictures of the America you love.



Skip to comment form

    • Linda Hall on January 30, 2013 at 4:25 pm
    • Reply

    Tom — I was deeply moved by your post, and so glad that Joan and the writing group were the catalyst to open the memories (and the wounds) of your Vietnam experiences all those years ago. I look forward to reading “Double Exposure.” It’s wonderful that you’ve started the photo sharing group between Vietnamese and Americans. What a compassionate, healing project. Thank you for sharing.

    • Joan on January 30, 2013 at 4:50 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for visiting my blog, Linda. I hope you’ll visit frequently because I’m using the blog to promote public awareness about how journaling can help heal the heart and mind.

    • RuthAnn Purchase on January 31, 2013 at 3:17 pm
    • Reply

    Dear Pastor Tom & Joan,

    Thank you for helping me put writing higher on my priority list again and for inspiring me to believe the process itself, is healing, the process is freeing.

    I participated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s 13 Colonies Prayer Journey and the Crusade Walks of the ’90’s. We met with the descendents of those who both blessed and cursed the Original People, first on this continent and then across the “crusade” routes. We listened to their version of history (AKA Howard Zinn) then we practiced “identificational repentance.” I wrote while traveling, but have since moved and miss placed the journal entries. I have been asked to speak about those trips, but feel ill prepared without those journals. And I feel badly writing about my self, when it is their story I should be sharing . . . meanwhile, mine is . . . hard to swallow, as it were! (Thanks, Joan, for that analogy!)

    Maybe it is time that I sit quietly and wait for ways to express what those journeys meant to me then and how they affect me now. Or maybe you are calling me to reconnect with some of those I traveled with, to write many short stories of our personal change and the ripple affects.

    Here is a little insight on the IR movement in one of it’s new forms:

    I realize while reading that link, that I no longer use the term “Christian” or any other Greek or Roman terms if I can help it, like a good Friend (Quaker) who gathers on “First Day” (Sunday). And that is a direct result of my time on those prayer journeys, learning to stand in the shoes of those who were oppressed in the false names of a “religion” that stole their dignity and denied their humanity.

    I adopted this practice of “laundering my language” as they taught me in South Africa, because I came to see how oppressive governments like Greeks and Romans and English and others, had ethnically cleansed the story of a Jewish Messiah. Since the prayer journeys, I have attempted to use the Hebrew terms when speaking about Yeshua Ha-Mashiach (Jesus the Messiah). When I refer to Pesach or the Torah, I use their original names with their translation so that others not only understand, but have a heightened awareness to cultural sensitivity and dignity and honor for the person and His Story, the story of the Prince of Peace . . .who would have never . . . don’t get me started !

    This habit has translated into my work with all people, including the Lenape of our own region. I am currently attempting to include their place names in maps and talks and teachings and maybe even at our new National Park in Delaware! So, as you can imagine, I have an awful lot to write about the affects of those fellowship”s” of reconciliation, as you both do, and I must learn to write for my own health, more than for the reader . . .and that is my “take-away” from this blog, for which I am today, and hope to be forever, grateful.

    Thank you, Tom, for following your heart as hard as that may have been!

    And thank you, Joan, for reminding me that if I try to swallow too much and hold it all down,
    I will implode!!! Here’s to the “redemptive irony” and to my own resilience!

    Xeli Wanishi!
    (Many Thanks in Lenape 😉

      • Joan on February 1, 2013 at 8:44 pm
      • Reply

      Dear RuthAnn,
      I’m so glad that we met each other through Many Candles One Light, and then reconnected when I saw you had mentioned the Lenape Indians in one of your emails. I’m a Delaware native, and have always wanted to learn more about the first inhabitants of this place. Thanks for that link in your comment about identificational repentance. You first found yourself doing IR with respect to America’s sins against the Lenape people. I first found myself doing IR when I was teaching an intro to religion course at the University of Miami in the early 80s. For one lecture had to familiarize myself with Christians’ reflections about the Holocaust. That’s how I came upon Rosemary Reuther’s stunning book, Faith and Fratricide, in which she traces the roots of antisemitism all the way back to New Testament authors, and then follows the juggernaut of sordid internecine hatred–(Christians are, after all, an offshoot of Judaism)–all the way forward to Hitler’s Third Reich. Presbyterians are big on corporate repentance. That’s why our standard order of worship includes a prayer of repentance, not because we’re not capable of confessing our own individual sins, but because there needs to be a regular means for the expression of identificational repentance.

      — TCDavis

    • Susan Moseley on January 31, 2013 at 3:59 pm
    • Reply

    Dear Tom, Joan, Readers, and Writers,
    Thank you for this blogspot where those of us who are journal-writer-wantabes can be inspired and encouraged. I write for professional and academic purposes, but have not yet committed to the kind of writing that would help me shine some light into my own shadowy memories. Tom’s profound “aha” that he is capable of good and evil, light and dark, is a movement from being unconscious to conscious and is, I believe, the only way we move toward healing the opposites — Wholeness. I will come back to this blog.
    Thanks and peace,

      • Joan on January 31, 2013 at 8:41 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks, Susan, for commenting. I think Joan would agree that writing is not absolutely necessary for recovering. Whatever leads to reflection helps. Just sitting in silence with the Quakers sometimes works for me.

  1. I read “Double Exposure” when Tom released it last year and was profoundly touched by his journey. I am also a part of the Vietnam generation but was, fortunately, just young enough to avoid the draft. Being part of the human race means we contain capacity for both good and evil– in varying proportions. Developing awareness of it is the first step toward spiritual growth. Tom has left trail markings other pioneers can follow.

      • Joan on January 31, 2013 at 8:36 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Bill, which points out that it isn’t just veterans who need to acknowledge the shadow side. It’s a universal human need, lest the ignored part should begin to manifest itself in harmful ways, to oneself and others!

      — TCDavis

      • Joan on February 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm
      • Reply

      Bill, thanks for visiting Joan’s blog and leaving a comment, and thanks for reading my book. I’m not a 12-stepper, but I have friends who are; and as a counselor I studied that method of recovery, which is a spiritual method. When one begins the twelve step journey one has so little self-awareness. One blames others for one’s behavior. Blaming is part of the self-protective veil that I talk about in this post. As one progresses, in the company of other suffering but supportive souls, one gains courage to let the veil down and see oneself truly. As you write, developing awareness of the shadow side is the first step toward spiritual growth.

      — TCDavis

  2. Tom, I so much enjoyed reading your post. I believe that just the act of articulating your thoughts in writing can be so freeing and rewarding. When we write, we are forced to reach deep into ourselves and often make discoveries that release us from emotional pain. I look forward to reading “Double Exposure.”

    best wishes,
    gloria hochman

      • Joan on January 31, 2013 at 8:27 pm
      • Reply

      Hello, Gloria
      Thank you for visiting. Sometime I would like to get a crash course from you in writing news features. I have come to see that religion writers are getting laid off in large numbers, due to the stress on print media. In the future, if anyone is going to cover religion well, it will have to be devoted and trained amateurs.

      — TCDavis

    • hilman on January 31, 2013 at 10:51 pm
    • Reply

    I never put myself in huge war like Vietnam war, but however, especially for myself, with “Double Exposure” (what made by Mr. Tom) make me think that war not bigger than my/our own war as human or followers of Jesus because for me The War against The Past what haunt and i want to throw away/crucified : bad memory & pain is the biggest war. And the most important : The Cure of It what i found in “Double Exposure” and that’s one of what i needed and what i love so much from “Double Exposure”. Thank you so much for made and share “It” Mr. Tom 🙂

    Best regards

    (Hilman Hansya)

      • Joan on February 1, 2013 at 1:44 pm
      • Reply

      Dear Hilman,
      I appreciate your comment so much, because you have shared your story with me about overcoming abuse in so many forms. I celebrate with you that the way of Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies, is capable of healing our wounds. That loving way makes us strong to do good, instead of returning harm for harm. Peace, my brother!

      — TCDavis

    • Anne Gunn on February 1, 2013 at 2:10 pm
    • Reply

    I am grateful to Tom for many things — at the moment, for sharing the presence of this blog. What has been said thus far by Tom, Joan, RuthAnn, Susan and others is especially encouraging to me. I am not a blogger, but I fancy myself as a writer of sorts. The aha moment for me is that it is enough to write for myself alone as a way to let the Light grow more deeply in me — in the hope that I can share the Light in our dark and troubled world. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll return often to this blog.

      • Joan on February 1, 2013 at 8:00 pm
      • Reply

      Dear Anne,
      I’ve been writing online for many years, even before the internet started, when Ecunet had bulletin boards that one accessed by downloading pages of text with a modem. That technology was so slow! But it didn’t need to be fast for what I wanted: an online community that would help me grow wiser. In fact, the slowness of that conversation–sometimes days were spent composing responses–made for a very thoughtful and helpful forum. So much internet communication these days is lightening fast. People fire off a few lines impulsively, without pondering. I love the Christmas passage, “Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart.” I like slower conversations which promote pondering. I’m glad that you have taken something precious to your heart in reading what has been written here. Joan is a splendid teacher to help people be more aware of their inner life through writing. I’m glad you’ll be returning to her blog. She has much to offer!

      — TCDavis

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned from Tom’s self-discovery upon returning to Vietnam. Perhaps we all have aspects of personal, family or even national histories that don’t get acknowledged until re-visiting occurs intentionally. I wonder about the step before the re-visiting — the moment when we sense re-visiting is needed and feeling transitions to action. What triggers that desire to go back and reconsider the past and come to fresher more complete understandings of personal or family or national events? I’ve had such moments and re-visits. Time doesn’t today permit writing about them, but Tom’s blog has made me think about them in a new way. Thanks my friend..!

    1. Dear Rob,

      Great question, “What triggers that desire to go back and reconsider the past?” When the North Vietnamese army overran Saigon in April of 1975 I began to have troubling dreams, because I was afraid for the safety of South Vietnamese persons I had come to know as friends. I felt guilty for abandoning them. After I got back from the war in 1971 I wanted to cloak myself in my regained civilian identity and forget the whole stinking mess. But troubling dreams in the wake of Saigon’s fall wouldn’t let me forget. They triggered my first attempts to reconsider. I devoured Vietnam war novels and war movies. It was scary. It was sad. In 1978 in an almost empty theater–thank goodness!–I broke out in loud sobs as Alice and I watched the film, “Coming Home.” Much later there were gentler triggers. Aging is one. As I head into my senior hears I realize that I probably have fewer years left than I’ve already spent. So, I’m moved to ponder the meaning of my life. What have all those years been about? What have I learned from them? This trigger is more philosophical than visceral. But it’s just as useful!


  4. Thanks for sharing TC

    • Jim Bennet on February 5, 2013 at 1:08 am
    • Reply

    Your post is very interesting and the pictures are wonderful. Very narrow path on a long trail. Lesson: “One must maintain balance while walking a narrow path.” I passed the title of your book on to a friend (Vietnam vet) who with is wife will be returning to Vietnam for three weeks in March

    • Ellen Casson on February 11, 2013 at 3:57 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for sharing this, Tom. I recall the benefit of writing letters, in my growing up years. My mother encouraged it – even required it – and I remember as i grew older, especially in college, that it was a way to not only share what was going on, but it was a way to help relieve anxiety, to make up over disagreements, to let things go. I am encouraged that there is a new trend toward journaling for young people today, since we have moved away from writing letters. We all need “safe” ways of expressing the awareness that we are all flawed creatures capable of great things but often filled with disappointment and feelings of inadequacy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.