IIn May of 1992 I was hired as a project manager by a private non-profit company who had a contract with the US Agency for International Development to deliver technical consulting services in Public Administration to countries in Central & Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
I few years before I obtained a Master of Public Administration Degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for the sole purpose of doing just such international work However I was just thrilled and amazed that my dream had resulted in me being on the first wave of peacemakers into the former Soviet Union and their bloc countries. I am sure I am one of thousands of Veterans of America’s war in Vietnam who has been trying to find some way of righting a wrong, or really righting the feelings of being wronged and being on the wrong side of history. And here I was 22 years after my war ended getting that opportunity to go into the heart of the “evil empire” to make a small contribution toward world peace.
So you can imagine my feelings on a late afternoon in November of 1992 when, just after a briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC, I found myself across the street standing in front of the Vietnam Memorial. It was 10 years almost to the day that I was there for the dedication ceremony of the memorial and over the passing years I had spent hours there as a volunteer during my time in the nation’s capital between consulting assignments. In a moment of solitude I actually spoke to my former comrade’s whose names are etched in the polished black marble and told them of my good fortune and the adventure that lay just before me. On the way out of the memorial I passed by a kiosk and noticed on display lapel pins from my old unit, the XXIV Corps. The unit was de- commissioned after the war so I never noticed these insignia pins, a white heart on a blue background, in all the previous times I had been there. I purchased the last 4 he had, stuck them in my canvas briefcase and headed to the airport and my flight back to Connecticut where I was living.
Two week later, on Thanksgiving Day, I arrived in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan to begin the process of planning and negotiating for more advisors to return to teach a two-week program in democracy and capitalism. The following day we were taken to a state farm and winery a few hours from their capitol city. After the tour, our hosts gave us a huge luncheon, which was a way to show- case their award winning wines, cognac and champagne made in the facilities we had just toured. Of course no feast in the former Soviet Union is official without vodka for such and occasion. We were all seated and as custom suggested, our host led off with his toast of welcome after which I was expected to follow as leader of our delegation. During my comments I mentioned that as a former soldier in Vietnam I was especially thankful, on this our special holiday in the US to be involved in mission of peace and friendship to our former adversaries in the cold war. I proposed long lasting peace between our people and our governments.
The next to toast was a Kazakh, and he stood up and said that he too was a Veteran of Vietnam. The room filled with laughter, as it was obvious that he was one of the Soviet Advisors to the North Vietnamese Army. He and I were asked to have our pictures taken together and during the posturing I asked him what he did in Vietnam, and he said he was an advisor, helping shoot down our planes. I said that I was in those planes. The room again filled with laughter. In mock anger, I pointed my finger at him and asked, "so why did you try to shoot me down?"...He said, " I was not trying to shoot you down, I only wanted you to come down and have a drink with me!" The room filled with even louder laughter.
On the way back to Alma Ata, he and I were in the same van. I remembered that I had those 4 pins from the memorial, and I gave him one. I told him that the pin was a symbol of my unit in Vietnam and heart means.... And he interrupted and said..."peace and love"" and gave me a hug and a kiss on each cheek, Russian style. I said that we are lucky to have survived our experience. He replied. "All the world is a stage and we are merely actors!" I was not prepared for Shakespeare in the evil empire.
A few days later, I saw him and asked about the pin and he said he gave it too his daughter who wore it to school to show her friends. She told them about the American who was once and enemy and is now in Kazakhstan as a friend on a mission of peace. I was humbled at the good will that was being generated by such a simple gesture. A few months later I was in Ukraine on a similar project and was asked by journalists if I had any interesting “ anecdotes” from my travels. I told about meeting the Kazakh who was not trying to shoot me down in Vietnam but only wanted to have a drink with me. They loved it. The story of my mission of that anecdote appeared on the front page of the Kharkov, Ukraine paper.
Because of the good will generated by my pin, I had several made and found the proper place and time to present them to each of the delegates we selected for training in the US. I hosted each delegation for 4 days in Washington, DC and on the final evening, I took them to the apex of the Vietnam Memorial and told them that the names were the sacrifice made by my generation of Americans in our battle with Soviets during the Cold War. Now that we knew better, it was up to us in our small ways to make sure this never happens again. To remember this moment and our time together, I gave them each a pin, with the white heart on a royal blue background. They immediately pinned them on and there was not a dry eye in crowd, including the people who stopped to listen. A former Soviet Colonel hugged me and with tears in his eyes, said, " all soldiers should be veterans".
At their farewell dinner that evening, they were all wearing their pins and mentioned that they were all members of Joe Brett’s unit. I was again touched by the deep feelings that had been generated by a simple gesture. Later in the evening, in the hospitality room, one of the delegates was looking into the bottomless pit of his glass of vodka and quite softly mentioned that he was a Soviet Soldier in Budapest when they put down the revolution attempt in 1968. “I was ashamed of what I saw there and what I did there,” he mentioned with heart felt emotion as evidenced by his the mist in his eyes. He went on to say that now he had no country and no hope and that all was lost.
The former colonel leaned over to him and said, “ How can we be lost when we are in America talking about such things.”