As executive director of the Baytown-West Chambers County Economic Development Foundation, Mike Shields in the business of looking forward. Recently, though, he got a chance to journey back to a place of strong memories when he revisited parts of Vietnam he had last seen as a young soldier.
Shields was one of seven former soldiers to visit the country along with other infrantrymen of the 101st Airborne Division that was engaged in what is now referred to as the battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord.
“It was really a healing trip for me,” he said. “I was one of the lucky ones to struggle through it.”
Many of his brothers in arms did not return alive. Others never regained normal lives due to physical, mental or emotional scars.
The journey back was sponsored by The Greatest Generations Foundation, a nonprofit that started as a mission to take World War II veterans back to the places that had shaped their lives during that conflict.
With few of that generation left, Shields said, the organization will be shifting its focus to Vietnam-era veterans. His group was one of the first from that conflict to be hosted by the organization.
“The whole purpose is to help GIs come to terms with what they saw and did.”
The trip leaders from the foundation were really good at getting the former soldiers to talk and come to terms with the traumatic past of the war.
He remembers the war as a time of hopelessness. “We felt like we were already dead and it just hadn’t happened yet.”
“We weren’t the same. The nightmares tend to linger a long time.”
The recent visit, though, was to a very difference Vietnam than the one he had experienced as a soldier.
Vietnam, he said, is a beautiful country, and is now a vibrant one as well.
As they visited sites he had known in the war, Shields said, some of them had simply been bulldozed down and forgotten. Others marked the memories of what occurred during the war with shrines and cemeteries.
One that particularly impressed him was the former Camp Eagle, which is now an industrial park but still has some of the old Army buildings standing.
Shields said he would almost describe Vietnam today as “capitalistic communism.”
One Vietnamese man he met on the trip had been a child at the time the Americans pulled out of the country. He told the visiting Americans that the following 20 years had been miserable, but the country changed direction in 1995 and is now doing well.
As they stayed in different hotels, Shields said they even met some American military personnel. One young Marine they met was following leads on locating the bodies of American service members who have yet to be returned home.
Another group was working to locate and neutralize minefields left from the war.
Shields said the Greatest Generations Foundation has asked him about leading a future trip to Vietnam for other veterans in the next year or so—a project he may take on.