The last time Paul Ogren set foot in Vietnam he was concerned with mortar shells, machine gun fire and explosives.
But during a two-week stay that wrapped up earlier this month, the Morro Bay resident experienced Vietnam in a much different light.
Ogren, 67, returned to Vietnam for the first time since 1969, taking an unusual tour that included meeting with former North Vietnamese Army soldiers — one of them a man who fought against Ogren’s platoon in a battle.
Ogren and fellow platoon mate Ron Reddy of Colorado also sampled the country’s cuisine, navigated bustling traffic, exchanged gifts and conversed with locals through a translator.
In addition to meeting North Vietnamese veterans, Ogren met with family members of former NVA soldiers.
“It was a very moving experience,” Ogren said. “I met a wonderful old woman whose brother died in the war. She couldn’t have been kinder.”
Ogren said the woman told him they still leave the door open to their home as a gesture to her brother. She hopes he will someday walk through.
“Just talking to her made me choke up,” Ogren said.
An invitation to return
In the decades after his year-long deployment between 1968 and 1969, Ogren “never in a million years” thought he’d return to Vietnam.
The former sergeant (E-5), a member of the “Red Warriors” — a U.S. Army 1st battalion, 12th infantry regiment — went on to a career as a fire science instructor at Allan Hancock College.
The trip came about after a Vietnamese man named Duc Binh Truong contacted Ogren through Facebook a couple of years ago.
Truong was looking for information about the combat and potential burial sites of his two uncles at Landing Zone Brillo Pad, a U.S. Army base with a helipad where Ogren had fought.
The base was located in the central highlands of Vietnam west of Kon Tum, a provincial capital. The location was strategic for U.S. troops to block Vietcong, or Vietnamese guerilla fighters, from attempting to infiltrate and gain control of the region.
Truong noticed one of Ogren’s posts about LZ Brillo Pad and invited Ogren to visit Vietnam and tour parts of the country, and to provide information that would help him in his quest.
“I wasn’t sure how I felt about it,” Ogren said. “I wasn’t sure exactly what the reaction would be. But I think, just as the Americans are looking for closure, the North Vietnamese also are looking for closure as well.”
A delayed trip
Ogren initially decided not to go, but he shared information about Truong’s request with fellow Red Warriors.
After learning of the story and communicating with Truong, Ogren’s platoon mate, Reddy, decided to make the trip last year. Reddy’s positive experience encouraged Ogren to go this year.
This spring, Ogren, Reddy, Truong and their Vietnamese guides visited the hilly spot that played a significant role in the lives of those involved.
Ogren and Reddy provided information about the combat they experienced but weren’t able to specifically help Truong identify burial sites.
“I’ll remember May 16, 1968, until the day I die,” Ogren said. “At about 2 a.m., they attacked us. It lasted about two hours or so. They had significantly more people, but we had more firepower. I think if they knew how outnumbered we were, though, things could have been worse for us.”
In a conversation with a North Vietnamese Army veteran during the journey, a former mortarman, Ogren said they shared recollections of a battle and the positions of opposing soldiers that were remarkably similar from their different vantage points.
“I was absolutely convinced based on what he was telling me that we were on opposite sides in the same fight,” Ogren said. “Our platoon went down to 17 from 35. They dropped about 40 men. They were very good soldiers, and they fought extremely well against us.”
Truong said in an email to The Tribune that every year on March 26 since 2010, NVA veterans have honored the soldiers killed in Kon Tum to commemorate another battle that took place at LZ Brillo Pad on March 26, 1968.
Truong said he has invited U.S. veterans to the event and to see the site to help promote peaceful, friendly relations and develop a better understanding of one another. Truong said he realizes the “hurt” and “loss” on both sides.
“We want to promote our beautiful country and friendly people to everyone in the world,” Truong said. “Vietnamese people do not like the war and hope peace for everyone in the world. We had the chance to exchange our thinking, feeling and more understanding about each other.”
A new lens
The memory of how places in Vietnam looked when he was there compared with now also struck Ogren.
He was impressed with how villages, once with modest dirt roads and little infrastructure, now have new streets, curbs and gutters, and impressive buildings.
“They have built a whole new country in 40 years,” Ogren said.
Gifts were also exchanged on the trip. Ogren was delighted by a Buddha carved from bamboo, and in return he offered Vietnam-era P-38 can openers to his guides — 20 of which he bought on eBay before his journey.
“They were a hit,” Ogren said. “You would have thought I gave them the keys to Fort Knox.”
Ogren said that as a young soldier, he didn’t spend much time thinking about the morality of the war or the politics behind it — rather his primary focus was to protect his fellow soldiers and keep himself alive.
In an interview with Ogren and his hosts by a Vietnamese TV station, some of the North Vietnamese veterans said “we believed in Ho Chi Minh” (the leader of the North Vietnam revolutionary movement and president of North Vietnam for more than 20 years).
Ogren said they thought of him as the equivalent to their George Washington.
Despite the differences of language, culture and military history, Ogren said he developed a fondness for the people he met on his trip.
And it opened his eyes to modern-day Vietnam, a much different place than the country he left behind in the 1960s.
“The Vietnamese people are truly wonderful,” Ogren said. “I see them more as brothers now. The Vietnamese and American soldiers and their families both went through a lot.”