Jim Lachman likes to tell people that in 1968 he went to Vietnam to kill Vietnamese, but in 2012 he went to paint their nails.
Lachman, of Brockport, is a 2010 graduate of Genesee Community College and is currently pursuing a Bachelors in Social Work at the College at Brockport.
A Vietnam veteran, Lachman had the opportunity to return to the battleground this past year -- not as a soldier, but as a guest. Through Brockport's Vietnam Program, he earned 15 college credits studying Vietnamese culture and completed many hours of community service in the city of Danang. He chronicled his experience in a blog called "Danang again." (There's a link at the end of the article.)
On Nov. 13, he contrasted his two experiences in Vietnam in a speech titled "A Forty-Year Journey from Vietnam to Vietnam," which was held at his alma mater, GCC. We invited him to sit down with us and share some of his insights for readers of The Batavian.
Lachman and his wife, Bernie -- who joined him for part of his stay in Vietnam -- were interviewed at Coffee Culture in Batavia last week.
What did you do in the Vietnam War?
Jim: I was part of the C-130 Squadron in the Marines. I worked on large airplanes called VMGR 152s. We were stationed in Okinawa, but we had a sub-unit in Danang. I was there for three months, then I went back to Okinawa. Then I spent three months with the flight crew as a plane mechanic, so I was in and out of Vietnam, Thailand, and up and down different airstrips. We flew cargo and troops back and forth. Most of the missions I flew were flight-refueling operations.
So you didn't see any combat, correct?
Jim: No. I was one of the lucky few who weren't exposed to any of that.
How did you get involved in Brockport's Vietnam Program?
Jim: I was in a U.S. History class at GCC in 2010, and there was a little Asian woman sitting next to me. I asked her where she was from, and she said Vietnam. We developed a friendship -- I asked questions. She told me about a study abroad program in Vietnam at Brockport, and I said "Oh, okay..."
What exactly did you do while studying abroad in Vietnam?
Jim: I probably got about 100 hours of community service while I was in Vietnam. There was a large community service component.
Each week we spent an hour and a half in a nursing home with ladies in their 80s and 90s (there were some men, too). We helped them pick mulberries and peanuts, and they loved to have their nails trimmed and painted.
Then we did an hour and a half a week at Agent Orange group home, and we also did home visits to kids who were too sick to come to the group home.
Bernie: We know the effects of agent orange on American soldiers, but we don't know about the effect it had on the people who live in Vietnam. It has affected three generations with birth defects, mental sickness, (etc.)
Jim: The way I like to put it is, we put poison in their backyard and it's still there.
We also did English instruction two nights a week and delivered food and medical supplies to a leper village. Then we got 15 credit hours studying Vietnamese history, politics, culture and language.
What was the big difference between your first visit and your second?
Jim: I contributed to the death of two million Vietnamese people by being part of the war. By contrast, in 2012 I learned about the culture and the people, and I connected with them on a human level. And I fell in love with them.
A former Viet Cong chairman who now writes for "Da Nang Today" (a Danang newspaper) interviewed me for an article on a "former invader who was coming back to do good." He asked me questions, and he was very curious. But if we had met 40 years ago, someone would have been taken prisoner.
Today, Vietnam is a wonderful vacation spot. You see people there from China, Australia, Russia...They have wonderful and very cheap accommodations, beautiful beaches...and the Vietnamese people don't like the sun, so we'd have the beach almost to ourselves (during the day).
Bernie: I came to visit Jim for a month. It was a two thousand dollar round trip by airplane, and that was the most money I spent the whole time.
I shopped at the tailor stores, which are family owned businesses. The Vietnamese are known through much of the world for their tailor-made clothes.
As a woman in Danang, I could walk safely at night. I couldn't do that in Batavia. All the stores (in Danang) are street-level. (Store owners) got to know me, and I knew that if anyone ever tried to molest me in the street, they'd be all over them.
I went into a bookstore once, and no one there knew English. So they went two stores down and found someone who did. That's what they want -- they want to communicate.
And they revere the elderly. One time we went into a coffee shop, and one of the first questions they asked before seating us was, "How old are you?" Because we're over 40, we were always in the most honored spot.
Jim: And (accepting that courtesy) was part of my being a guest, part of accepting the culture as it was. One of the things the Vietnam Program page on the Brockport Web site says is that as students, we are guests of the Vietnamese government. So that's how I conducted myself. The last thing I wanted was to be an "ugly American."
At every other place I had served (in the Marines), I had the opportunity to connect with the people and the culture. Going back to Vietnam, it was like I had a second chance, you know?
Even if I didn't like an experience, I would try to write about it in a positive way on my blog. At the exit dinner (held at the end of the program), one of the chairmen said, "We've been enjoying your blog" -- "we" meaning the Communist Party. When I told my son about that, he said: "Well, did you think they wouldn't?" Honestly, I never thought about it -- I just wrote from the heart.
What would you want people today to know about the Vietnam War?
The man who taught my politics class was in charge of the Liberation Front (the enemy) in Danang back in '68. He said Vietnam has a "market economy with a socialist orientation." It seems to me that their government works as well for them as ours does for us. I often wonder what would have happened if the U.S. had allowed the Vietnamese to have their elections the way they had planned. When the U.S. got involved, it went from 1956-1975 until (the Vietnamese) could unify their country.
Bernie: People our age will ask us, "Did you go to North Vietnam or South Vietnam?" It's just Vietnam now.
Jim: I can think of two men in history who wanted to preserve national union: Abraham Lincoln and Ho Chi Minh. They both wanted the same thing.
After doing some research, I found out that what I was taught about Communism and Ho Chi Minh growing up might not have been the truth.
So then you would say that the Vietnam War was not worth it in the end?
Jim: In humanistic terms, I would have to say no. It wasn't worth all that death.
What I was told when I went over was that I was being sent to stop Communism. After I came home, I discovered the real reason: The U.S. military was serving as the hired guns of capitalism. The reason (for the war) was that the capitalists in charge of the U.S. government wanted to control all trade in and out of Southeast Asia.
We would have been better off staying out of the whole thing and allowing the Vietnamese to have their elections and be the government they were going to be. It would have saved a lot of lives.
As an American military man in Vietnam, how were you treated when you returned home?
Jim: When I came back in July of 1969, I had heard the stories. So when I came into Travis Air Force Base in California, I put on civilian clothes in the bathroom. I made the choice not to call any attention to myself. Even today, I choose not to wear (my Marines hat), because I just got used to that.
Bernie: When I was a sergeant instructor in the Reserves (in the 1970s and 1980s), we were taught not to wear our uniforms when travelling on a civilian conveyance. Then when the Vietnam veterans insisted that the Desert Storm soldiers be honored, the culture changed. It went from "we're against the war" to "we support our troops."
What led you to speak about your experience at GCC on Nov. 13?
Jim: I was there because of Josephine Kerney, who was my sociology professor (at GCC). She does a lot of study abroad stuff, so in association with the Vietnam Program I'd run into her at fairs and such. I talked about the contrast between my first trip to Vietnam and my second, and it fascinated her. She wondered if I would come in and talk to her class about it, and that led to it being a larger event where anyone could come.
Do you have any thoughts on the current war in Afghanistan?
What I learned from my Vietnam experience was that I can't trust the government. I wonder what my government is lying to me about now. Is (the war in Afghanistan) about money? Is it about pharmaceutical interest in what we can extract from the poppy that grows there?
I've heard it said that "Afghanistan is where empires go to die." Alexander the Great tried (to invade), the Russians tried it, and now it's us.
A Kodak retiree, Lachman returned to school in 2008 out of a desire to become a counselor for military veterans. Currently in his junior year at Brockport, he plans to go on for a master's degree so that he can counsel veterans "who saw things that no one should have to see."
For more information on his experience, go to www.danangagain.blogspot.com.