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A changed country, a changed man
by MATTHEW NASH
That’s how Leonard “Lenny” Horst, a retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer, summed up his recent return to Vietnam.
Forty years have passed since Horst served his last of five tours as a Navy SEAL in the formerly war-torn country. For 18 days, Horst and his son, Leonard “Len” Horst Jr., traveled along Vietnam’s eastern coastline to gain a better understanding of the country he left decades ago. The country is drastically different from Horst’s memory. It is growing and thriving economically. The lone structure he recognized was an old water tower.
“It’s a country that’s been reunified,” Horst said. “The construction was overwhelming with new bridges and skyscrapers. It was strange coming to a tollgate on a four-lane highway.”
Running water and showers in rural areas are longtime norms with cement structures, satellite dishes and big-screen TVs featured in many homes.
The phrase “living in the here and now” came to fruition for Horst in Vietnam.
Since his tours, Horst has suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Len Jr. said growing up his family heard all the war stories several times, which skewed his own idea of Vietnam.
“I was pretty ignorant going,” Len said. “I thought I was going to rice paddies and jungle. It certainly was not. There were a lot of metropolitan areas with a young population in the city. Being wrong was humbling.”
Most places they visited had seen skyscrapers built over former war zones.
Len said a turning point for his father was in Hoi An.
“He was so worried that when he left that country they left land mines riddled on this land and then to see them dredging and putting six-, eight- and 10-story hotels and resorts for vacations on those spots, he was like, ‘They’re doing OK,’” Len said.
“That worry in his mind is gone or at least lessened.”
On the trip overseas, Horst said he initially was scared but seeing the change in landscape and people soothed him.
“To go back and be welcomed, a lot of war fires were put out,” he said.
Their tour guide opened up to them and Horst got the opportunity to share his experiences with the man and others in the tour group.
“My father would talk to some Vietnamese people and they would say that (the war) is not forgotten but it’s forgiven,” Len said. “Everyone said there were no winners in war.”
They visited some of the sites that Horst saw during his tenure as a SEAL.
On one peaceful boat ride, Horst realized he was going back to an island that had haunted him for 40 years. Len said his dad spoke of it often during his childhood because some soldiers died from booby traps there.
“For him there were waves of emotions when things came together,” Len said.
They were both in shock when they landed.
“I couldn’t believe this, and here we are having a barbecue,” Len said.
At first, Horst said he was fearful of the island.
“Now they’ve made it into a wildlife preserve with an eco-tourism tour. I was impressed,” he said.
Horst said he had an auxiliary mission: to look for information on a Sequim woman’s husband who served in Vietnam and is as yet unaccounted for.
“I promised her I’d go over there and check. I went to the war memorial but didn’t learn anything,” he said.
“I put his name on a piece of paper and placed it on an island in Hanoi. It was unspoiled and a beautiful place.”
Horst said his favorite part of the trip was interacting and sharing the experiences with the American, Australian and Canadian tourists. He also felt successful in observing and learning new methods for gardening and creating soil.
Len said the trip helped him separate who his father is, who he was prior to the military and the war, and what part is the post-traumatic side.
Horst plans to take photographs to the veterans he knows with Veterans Affairs.
“I want to show veterans what’s happening and hopefully it can make a difference in their lives,” he said.
“I got the joy of being with my son and I finally got some peace of mind. The mines are gone and it’s more of a holiday routine there, and the people will smile at you and there’s a feeling of love,” Horst said.
“That’s one thing I’ve got with my son and family is love. We need more of that in this world and maybe we won’t be doing battle.”
Reach Matthew Nash at email@example.com.