CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea – For some, the U.S.’ involvement in Vietnam isn’t some distant memory but rather it is etched into their mind, a journey often too painful or difficult to revisit.
Since 2012, March 29, became a day to commemorate the service and sacrifices of the nearly 3 million service members who served in Vietnam. Although today the nation honors those who served in Southeast Asia, many Vietnam Veterans, recall their return home, which was marred with protestors and violence.
For J. Freeman Neish, a retired U.S. Navy Sailor and U.S. Army civilian, the little-known holiday became an opportunity for him to open up about his time in Vietnam as an adviser to the Vietnamese Navy River and Coastal Patrol Forces from 1969 to 1970 patrolling the Mekong River Delta.
“This was the most gratifying assignment I ever had in the Navy, despite the fact that people kept shooting at me, which was quite distressing,” said Neish of his 14-month deployment.
Neish, who stands about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, joked that it was the only time in his entire adult life that he was glad he was not taller, which perhaps saved his life as Viet Cong forces fired upon his position.
“The Viet Cong were terribly poor marksmen,” he said. “Being vertically challenged as I am, I was a very small target and survived the multiple encounters with the VC unscathed.”
Today, Neish is active in the expatriate-Veteran community previously at Yongsan in Seoul and now center around the community outside of U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys. He has many stories to share from Vietnam but recalls two separate experiences that shaped how he remembers the war.
“One of the saddest experiences I had as an adviser, was when I heard one of the village chiefs in my area had a daughter with a severely cleft palate,” Neish recalled. “An Australian doctor in the area was volunteering in Vietnam as a specialist in repairing cleft palates. When I suggested to the village chief that I could arrange for this doctor to repair his daughter’s physical problem, I was surprised he was reluctant to have this done. I mentioned that this doctor was a world-renowned specialist in this field and the family, finally – albeit very reluctantly – agreed."
After several surgeries, the five-year-old girl was able to return to her village.
“The transformation was profound,” Neish said. “She was able to eat and speak normally. There was only some residual scar tissue on her upper lip.”
It didn’t take long for word to spread throughout the entire district, Neish recounted. Unfortunately, that also included the enemy.
One evening not too long after, the Viet Cong infiltrated the village, searching for the young girl who was miraculous healed by the foreigners. Going door-to-door, they finally found her, the five-year-old girl huddled in her home. They swept her up, and viciously murdered her as her parents looked on, unable to do anything, Neish said.
According to witnesses, the Viet Cong chief said, “Let’s see the foreign doctors fix this,” recounted Neish.
Neish never imagined that this act of kindness would have resulted in this horror carried out at the hands of the enemy.
“Having spent so much time immersed in the Vietnamese culture and environment, I certainly should have known this could happen,” said Neish. “I still cannot believe how promotion of a political ideology could possibly be furthered by the sacrifice of a five-year-old girl.”
Neish service in Vietnam would eventually come to an end, but he would forever carry the scars of the experience. After a grueling 20-hour flight across the Pacific, Neish landed at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. He hopped on a bus, which was to take him to a warm and comfortable place to rest.
“As I got off the bus, in uniform, with my seabag, a hippie girl – probably a college student –, threw her lit cigarette at me and screamed, ‘mercenary pig,’” said Neish. “I replied that I was very tired, but perhaps she could come back a few hours later and we could talk about it. She again threw another lit cigarette at me and shouted that she would never talk to a ‘baby killer’ before stormed off.”
As he reflected on that moment, Neish could not help but think of the young, five-year-old girl, whose life he tried to enrich was snuffed out at the hands of the enemy. Deep inside he knew who was the true ‘baby killer,’ but it does not make the loss any less painful.
Today, when service members return home from deployments, there is often people lined up to welcome them home, many of them veterans, some having served in Vietnam. They know the reception they received and want to ensure today’s service members get the welcome they deserve.
“It’s heartening to see how service members returning from deployments are treated in airports,” said Neish. “They are often welcomed with hands clapping and comments like, ‘Thank you for your service.’ This is certainly, a step up from the so-called welcome we received as we returned from Vietnam.”