CRESTVIEW — The last time Terry Faulkner visited Vietnam, his hosts from his recent visit were trying to kill him.
But that was in 1968, and they were enemies. This time, 48 years to the day, they met as friends.
On March 25, Faulkner and two other Vietnam War veterans, Steve Edmonds from California and John Cimino from Atlanta, stood on “Firebase 14,” a hilltop where nearly a half-century before, each thought he would die.
“It was quite a battle,” Faulkner said. “When it was over, you pinch yourself and say, ‘Am I really still living?’”
This time, instead of the U.S. Army sending them up the hill about 300 miles north of Saigon — now called Ho Chi Minh City — it was former North Vietnamese Army soldiers escorting the vets in an open-transport truck that nearly overturned on the steep, narrow trail.
“That day in the battle, we were determined to kill each other, but now we stood there shaking hands as friends,” Faulkner said.
‘IT WAS VERY EMOTIONAL’
Returning to Vietnam brought back a flood of memories and emotions, Faulkner said. He didn’t know what to expect after the grueling, nearly 24 hours of travel.
“When we arrived, there was no hesitation. It was like we were long-lost friends. It was very emotional,” he said. “It put a different outlook on it, meeting them face-to-face. You realize they were soldiers like we were, doing what they were told.”
The GIs won the battle, decimating the determined North Vietnamese soldiers, many of whom are buried in a cemetery the vets visited with their five hosts, who were among the handful of survivors.
“They said there were a few more still alive, but they were incapacitated,” Faulkner said. “Most lost their lives in the battle.”
He and his comrades visited the cemetery, saluted their foes’ bravery, and reflected on war’s devastation, but primarily focused on the present and the future.
“At no time was there mention of what we did during the battle. There was no mention of killing,” Faulkner said. “That wasn’t the purpose of the trip. It was to say ‘Hey.’ The years have made us wiser. On that day of battle, men on both sides died.”
‘A GREAT EXPERIENCE’
Faulkner and his wife, Karen, were surprised by the kindness of people he was once thought were “the enemy.” Even strangers smiled on the street, one family inviting them to see their home.
“We were walking along the street and we heard someone say, ‘Hello.’ They all know how to say ‘Hello.’ They wanted us to see their house, so we spent an hour with them,” Faulkner said.
“They were very polite. I wish all Americans were that polite. During the war, we had to look at them as the enemy, but they’re really very gentle and polite people. All of them are.
“Especially in the North, everybody comes out to greet you. They all talked about how great America was. It was really a great experience mingling with them.”
‘I’M A DIFFERENT MAN’
Faulkner has no regrets about his two-year tour of duty in Vietnam, saying, “I have nothing to apologize for” when someone asked if he intended to apologize to his hosts.
“I would pick up a weapon and defend my country again, but I’d want to know what’s going on this time,” Faulkner said. “We were told we were fighting communists. That’s kind of what I thought, we were fighting communists. I didn’t realize the poor man’s son went to fight the war and the rich man’s son stayed home and got richer.”
After having met his former foes and Vietnamese people, Faulkner, now retired from a career with Chrysler and an evangelist, said he’d like to return to Vietnam to share his faith.
“I told Karen, ‘I’d like to come back one more time. I’d like to preach the gospel to them about Jesus and let them know how great he is,’” Faulkner said.
“I’m a different man than when I went over there ... Instead of a weapon of destruction, I’d like to take a weapon of construction.”