The Road Back

| Sun Sep. 6, 2009 5:10 PM EDT

All Jim knew about her was that she was thirteen years old.

That and the fact that she was Vietnamese (they were in Vietnam, after all).

He hits fast forward…

Jim is back in Vietnam. But he’s no longer a grunt walking point for the Big Red One.

He’s traded in his green jungle fatigues for a light gray two-buttoned suit, white shirt and an earth-toned tie. Jim’s also added a beard to the mustache he wore back then. They’ve both gone gray. He’s a proud "second father" walking Linh down the aisle alongside her Vietnamese father. She’s about to begin a new life, start a new family. She wears pearls in her long hair and has pink eye-shadow with glitter in it. She is beautiful.

It’s been a long, strange trip, says Jim with a laugh as soft as snow falling on a mine field.

When asked, he talks about how he first met his "daughter."

It was fate, he answers without hesitation, but just as quickly makes it clear he is not talking about a Deity.

"God died in Vietnam," he says, "and I can show you the village." It’s a line Jim heard somewhere, but it’s also what he believes.

There’s no way, Jim says, he can ever believe again in a Supreme Being who would, as he points out, "allow all that shit to happen." If there is a God, Jim adds, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the Bastard.

Maybe it was a spirit that brought them together, he offers, echoing a belief common in Vietnam.

It had to be something pretty special, anyway, because Linh wasn’t even part of the official welcoming party that day.

He hits rewind…

They are at a school in Hanoi. It is a hot day and humid and the children are singing to Jim and a delegation of other returning American veterans. Little girls in clean white shirts present carnations to the men. The flowers are red — the color of good luck throughout Asia.

One small girl stands off to the side, shy and alone. Something about her catches Jim's eye. He smiles at the thin 13-year-old with the round, pretty face. Linh beams a big smile right back at him.

Something happens in his heart. It's all tangled up with pain and emptiness, but also with love and something else. The light of Linh’s smile probes the hole in Jim’s heart and he feels the darkness retreat a bit.

"There was just this… instant…connection between us," he says groping for the right words, but with a smile you can hear over the phone. "I can’t explain it."

Over the years, Jim has kept in contact with Linh and her family. He has made eighteen trips back to Vietnam, and always tries to spend as much time as possible with the family that has become entwined with his own. When Linh graduated from high school and her Vietnamese family didn’t have the money to send her to a university, it felt like the most natural thing in the world for Jim and his wife to pay. They also put Linh’s sister through college. You want the best for your children.

Every time he returns from Vietnam, Jim can tell the wound in his heart has healed more. "It’s closing, little by little," he says.

If things go as they have in the past, that hole should shrink even more this week, when Jim makes his 19th trip back to Vietnam. He has a new role to play on this visit: as the proud grandfather of a baby born to Linh and her husband on August 17th.

A boy: seven pounds, twelve ounces.

"I know this might sound strange to some people," Jim says. "But, what I learned more than anything in Vietnam is how to love people. I learned the value of a human life. How each one makes my life better. How can you not love someone?"

I know he’s talking mostly about his daughter, Linh, and the comfort, joy and healing she has brought. But someone else hovers over the conversation like a spirit. The other 13-year-old girl. The one whose path crossed Jim's more than a dozen years before Linh was born.

Jim doesn’t know anything about her, except that she was 13-years-old and Vietnamese and that he killed her.

He was 19-years-old at the time. The act that ended her life carved a hole in Jim’s own heart, a wound that only began to heal when he traveled back to Vietnam where a different 13-year-old girl smiled at him on a schoolyard in Hanoi and she and her family allowed him to love them.

He hits play…

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Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger at Mother Jones and publisher of The Phoenix Sun. This piece appeared first in Brief Back.