JASPER, Tenn. — Jim Ryon clutches the gold-and-red medal in both hands and holds it against his chest, eyes closed. He waited 45 years to feel its metal barbs within his grasp.
Since a U.S. Navy admiral handed him the medal three weeks ago, he’s gripped it tightly, sometimes seated on a footstool surrounded by lonely darkness inside his Jasper home.
There he recites prayers of forgiveness to those he helped kill decades ago on a beach south of Da Nang, Vietnam.
Ryon, 64, spent more than 30 years stifling memories of the war. Bursts of anger, battles with alcohol and an early retirement forced him to confront what happened.
Then a few years ago the Navy veteran began seeking a talisman to help resolve his confusing role in a convoluted war — the medal others had received, but not him and his shipmates.
A simple piece of metal and ribbon might bring him healing, might help him set things right.
If his plans work out, he’ll soon hand that hard-won medal to a stranger in another land.
At 19, Ryon saw his notions of war shattered on Sept. 13, 1966, while serving aboard the USS Stormes, a warship supporting South Vietnamese troops ashore and the U.S. Marines assigned to them.
Word came over the radio that enemy troops were overrunning the fishing village of Mo Duc, so the crew began firing.
The ship’s guns fired on and off for five days, lobbing 25-pound projectiles into the beachside hamlet. Reports later would estimate more than 225 enemy killed, 50 wounded and up to 80 structures destroyed.
But not everyone killed was an enemy soldier.
Some of the men learned at the time, and others learned later, that dozens of children and clergy had died when the ship’s shells crushed a church.
Ryon heard spotters recount seeing body parts hanging from trees, an image he cannot erase.
The operation muddied the John Wayne-like wars that he and others imagined. There were no clear lines, no good guys and bad guys, and sometimes in saving one’s own troops, innocents died.
“I’m not blaming things on Vietnam but it’s hard to explain when you’re 19 and what your hopes were before you got there ... and there’s always something that keeps you from going 100 percent,” Ryon said.
A NEW GOAL
Ryon met Jack Seebacher, 72, about a year after the retired U.S. Air Force major returned from a trip to Vietnam.
In the Air Force, Seebacher spent his time in Vietnam interacting closely with civilians, driving all over the country, to places others said he was “crazy to go.”
But in the process he saw the Vietnamese people and experienced their hospitality amid a brutal conflict.
Later, when the United States pulled out combat troops, he wondered what happened to those who remained.
It took Seebacher about 30 years, but in 1999 he returned to the country with his wife with a translator. Based in a hotel room in Saigon, he took trips to the countryside, dodging the tourist spots and most-visited areas. He wanted to see the Vietnam he had lived.
What he found was a country changed but a people still welcoming.
“They were warm, caring. I couldn’t have been treated more graciously,” he said.
He and his wife stumbled upon his old office in downtown Saigon. It’s a karaoke bar now.
They saw clean streets, young people smiling, handing treats, welcoming.
And a missing generation.
The sight hit him hard. There were many older people, many young people, but few people his age.
Those were lost to the war.
He met a Vietnamese man who had fired artillery into his buddies’ bases, likely killing fellow servicemen. Seebacher pointed to massive craters, pockmarks of American bombing runs.
They shook hands. Seebacher still has the photo, which ran in the Chattanooga Times Free Press lifestyle section on May 31, 1999.
Seebacher’s experience gave Ryon the thought that something like reconciliation was possible.
But he had to have something to bring.
Years later, after phone calls to distant shipmates, the men managed to get U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., interested in their cause.
So on May 27 two retired admirals and one active-duty admiral stood with a small section of the Stormes’ crew, listened to accounts of the barrage and handed the men their medals — the Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation for Gallantry.
Ryon points to a photo of the medal reception, remembering the feeling. Once he held the medal he didn’t want to let it go. But the camera shutter had hardly clicked when the thought burst into his mind.
“I want to take this to Vietnam.”
THE STEPS AHEAD
Ryon has talked with fellow Vietnam veterans. Some run a reconciliation business. They arrange everything, taking veterans on tours of famous battle sites or just places special to them, places of heartbreak or joy.
That’s one option.
The other is to get a passport and buy a plane ticket.
Seebacher says “go.”
Ryon sees why that’s smart and why he has to be careful. He’s on more than a dozen medications and a fixed income, so the trip won’t be easy.
Those he’s talked with who’ve gone back, who’ve seen the places again, say they were greeted with open arms. That their apologies were accepted.
There are others who don’t agree.
Seebacher showed a film of his 1999 trip to the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter shortly after returning.
Over half the audience walked out, he said.
“Didn’t want to see it, couldn’t care less if the whole country slipped in the sea,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s still the case. Our brothers won’t talk about it to this day.”
Perhaps Ryon will return to Mo Duc. Perhaps he will find a survivor of the bombardment or a relative of someone who perished and hand over his medal. Maybe he’ll just lay it on the grave of someone killed that day.
Equally possible, he’ll find the village, hand over the medal and receive a blank stare, an insult or rejection.
Either outcome, Ryon accepts.
“It’s a healing thing, even though it brings sadness.”
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...