Did you ever do something while serving in the Vietnam War that brought you happiness? So much so, that you longed to return and relive that experience. My guest writer today did just that – several times – and now shares that experience with us.
by Bob Staranowicz
When I left Vietnam in 1970, I left behind many memories, some bad, some good. I put the experience of Vietnam in the back of my mind for a very long time. But, in 1992, when I started writing about my experiences, the memories of a very important place were resurrected.
Each Sunday, someone from my company (501st Signal Battalion — 101st Airborne Division) would take laundry to an orphanage in Hue. On one of those Sundays, I was invited to go along.
That experience, and the many return visits to Kim Long, left an indelible impression on me that has never disappeared. When I finally made contact with the orphanage in May of 2008, I knew I had to return.
My daughter, Stacy and I arrived in Hue on a Sunday evening. Since it was already dark, there was nothing that I could see during the cab ride from Phu Bai that was remotely familiar.
So the next afternoon, with gifts in hand, we hailed a cab and headed to Kim Long Orphanage. As we exited the cab, we were greeted by a young Vietnamese girl, dressed in black. Her name was Trang and she was the “interpreter” for the sisters.
One of those sisters was Sister Xavier who was also a member of the orphanage staff when I left it last in 1970. Sister Xavier was still very active at 91. Although we didn’t remember each other, it did not matter. Sister Xavier greeted us with the same cheer and smile that all of the nuns did during our tour of the facilities.
We came upon an assistant changing the diaper of a one-year-old. Lin had come to the orphanage at the age of one day. When the diaper was on, she handed the girl to Stacy who walked the rest of the tour with her.
Lin was expressionless, it was somewhat sad to see this beautiful child and no smile.
Sister Xavier had now joined us on the tour – laughing at each comment any of us would make — but as we moved on, she lagged behind and Trang and Sister Chantal did not seem to feel obligated to wait for her.
We moved on to the newer section of the orphanage – Son Ca II. But before we left, I was about to meet two very special people. On one of my visits to Kim Long in 1970, I took a random picture of two boys playing in the garden.
I had sent this picture to Christian, the European liaison for the orphanage, who shared it with Sisters Chantal and Xavier. The day before we arrived at Kim Long, the orphanage was celebrating its 120th Anniversary. At that celebration were the two boys, now men, who were in that picture.
In terms of randomness and coincidence, who could have ever imagined that after 39 years, I would be, once again, meeting these two men. Tu and Lân and I spoke for a few minutes with the help of Trang. I had my picture taken with them and then they were gone.
We had to traverse small alleys and narrow streets to get to the newer section. We passed many small homes and business and out of some came young children, anxious to say hello to the two Westerners passing by.
On the way, we met a friend of Sister Chantal who was tending to his garden. He invited us in to show us the altars and tombs that he was preparing for the Tet Celebration. The Vietnamese New Year was less than a week away and the many preparations for it could be witnessed all over the country.
The new orphanage’s entrance is about a five-minute walk from Son Ca I, the former orphanage. The new complex is actually built on the former cemetery of the orphanage. We had to get there via a small street near the Perfume River. At Son Ca II, we saw a huge courtyard with trees and fountains. It had several buildings and was immaculately clean. It housed more classrooms, vegetable gardens, and a kitchen and dining areas.
One of the classrooms that we visited was a special needs class. The children here had all types of disabilities. There was a 22-year old Down syndrome girl who was very high functioning, another younger down girl and a boy with Cornelius DeLange Syndrome. There were also several others and they were all so happy to see us. We talked with them, played a little and they all wanted to sit with us. They all seemed so well adjusted and well behaved, but this had been true for all of the children we met this day.
We headed back to Son Ca I, it was almost time for school to let out and the transient children would be picked up by their parents. It was snack time and Sister Chantal was distributing cookies to the children. Again, there was no chaos or ruckus of any kind as each child received their treat.
I was pressed into taking about five children on a cyclo ride. This bike with a huge seat on the front – sort of a rickshaw – held the children as I whisked around the courtyard a few times. It was a real treat for them.
Stacy had a little girl latched on to her – Mai Ahn who was extremely cute. Stacy said she had a few “Angelina Jolie” moments that day and now understood why it is so difficult to leave any of them behind.
I had my own little girl who sat with me – Christian’s Godchild, Anh Xuan. She had taken a cookie from Sister Chantal and found me standing close by. She came over to me and took my hand and led me to a place across the courtyard and sat with me. It was as if she didn’t want to share me with anyone.
Later, the children – all the permanent residents – filed into the dining room where they all had their assigned seats. The little ones sat on lower chairs and tables, while the older ones sat on bar height type tables and chairs. The special needs children also joined in. There was no chaos, no noise, no misbehavior as Sister Chantal led them in prayer. They then sang a short song that we did not recognize, in Vietnamese.
The staff, both nuns and laypeople, served the children a meal of rice and shredded meat. It is amazing how much energy these workers have. I learned later that their day starts at 4 AM and sometimes does not end until after 10 PM. It is truly a labor of love for all of them. After dinner was done, the children were led back to their respective bedrooms to prepare for the show that some of them would be performing in that evening.
We then headed back to the area that we first entered earlier this afternoon where we met Sister Julienne Loan. Sister Julienne took over the responsibility of the orphanage in 2007. She is supported by Sister Chantal who guides her in this tough task. Sister Julienne replaced Sister Marie Kim who is currently in charge of a school for poor children in Tuy Hoa, in the South of Vietnam. Sister Julienne repeated the thanks for the gifts we had brought and also for the previous donation sent in 2008.
Sister Chantal then read from a script that Christian had prepared for her telling us that although this is the first time we meet, we are already friends. She told us that when the good sisters returned to Kim Long in 1991, the place was surrounded by barbed wire and it was simply just a slum of hen houses and dirty stables. With the help of God and many others, everything and more has been rebuilt. She spoke of the war and Sister Xavier’s longevity at Kim Long. She thanked us for the washer and stove the first donation had bought and she told us that we would always have a place at Kim Long.
We then were taken to the dining room where we were sat and started with a bit more of the homemade wine and then a can of Saigon 333 (ba ba ba) Beer. Sister Lihn then brought the first course of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). She then brought in a platter full of a great fried chicken (breaded with panco) and a whole fish. Everything was cooked to perfection. After dinner, we were lead to the courtyard where the children were waiting. We sat in 2 padded chairs while the others all had wooden or steel chairs. We felt like royalty.
Trang read to us, again from a script that Christian had prepared. She addressed Stacy and me, telling us what a great honor it was to have us at Kim Long and to me to return after all of these years. She told me that because I had sent a picture of the church to Christian back in May of 2008, that verified Kim Long was the orphanage I had known, she had renamed the church as “Bob’s Church”. She was happy that the church was the link in my return.
The church had been returned to Kim Long by the government just a few short weeks ago. Sister Chantal continued, telling us that it will be necessary to build a wall around the church soon to bring it back to Son Ca I. She thanked us for our previous gifts and new gifts and asked me to take thanks back to all who contributed. She felt that we would leave a piece of our heart in Kim Long, and I know we have. She told us that she and the staff would never forget us and we would always remain as one of their best friends. She ended with another thank you and sadness that Christian could not be here with us today. She invited us to come back at any time and we would always be welcome.
Trang then introduced the first act and each subsequent performance. There were singing and dancing and all were done rather well. All of the outfits worn by the children were made by the older girls in their seamstress class. Some were very ornately decorated and many were silk.
Our companions for the evening, Anh Xuan and Mai Anh, sat with us through the entire show, holding our hands, snuggling, just sharing their love. When the show was over it was difficult to let them go. It was difficult to say good-bye to all the children.
We returned to the reception room where we were given gifts by the good sisters, two bottles of homemade wine and four bags of Vietnamese coffee. A taxi was summoned and we were soon to end our visit of more than seven heart-warming hours. It all went too quickly and it was definitely not enough to spend at this great place. The sisters said good-bye to us in the traditional European manner of a kiss on both cheeks. We then got into our taxi as Sister Chantal gave directions to the driver and we were off.
This day was one of the most rewarding days I have ever spent anywhere. I am and will be, eternally grateful that I had my daughter there to share it with me. I don’t think that I have ever felt as good about anything I have ever done in a charitable way that I did today. I am absolutely positive that neither Stacy nor I will ever forget our day at Kim Long. We rode back to our hotel just talking about what had occurred that day.
If you would like to learn more about Bob’s trip to Vietnam, view additional pictures from his visit, or to donate to the orphanage, then please check his website: http://back2vietnam.blogspot.com/
Thank you, Bob, for a wonderful, heartwarming article, and for all you do for those kids. Thank you, too, for your service and sacrifice. Welcome Home!
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Would like to chat with you sometime Charles
I had experiences similar to Bob Staranowicz with the orphanages in Hue, Republic of Vietnam.
I served as the Senior Medical Advisor on MACV Team 3 in Hue which covered all of the provinces north of Danang to the DMZ from May1967-May1968.
I inherited the support mission for Kim Long Orphanage from Bob Helton, my predecessor, and Jim Van Straten, Senior Medical Advisor, I Corps, headquartered in Danang. In conjunction with medical personnel from the U.S. Navy and 1st ARVN Division, we conducted numerous Medical Civic Action Program (MEDCAP) visits at Kim Long. Medical screenings were conducted and basic medications were provided for minor illnesses. If a severe condition was discovered, Navy personnel might refer the patient to one of its facilities. During that time, there were no Army medical units in the area. They came after the Tet Offensive.
Since I had established a relationship with the orphanage, I was asked by the Team 3 Chaplain if I would coordinate the receipt and distribution of gifts from an organization known as the Armed Forces Vietnam Relief Fund located in the Oregon/Washington area. I gladly accepted and as you can imagine, I became quite popular on the campus.
Except for my experiences during the Tet Offensive, I enjoyed my tour of duty in Vietnam and had a number of interesting experiences. One such experience was working with Vietnam physicians who served the Nguyen Tri Phuong Hospital in Hue. I taught them English through my knowledge of French and they taught me Vietnamese through French since most of their professional training had been conducted in that language.
The motto of the 101st Airborne Division is “Rendezvous with Destiny.” Having served two stateside tours with the division, you can imagine how delighted I was when it and other units came to our rescue during the Offensive in 68.
I was afforded the opportunity to return to Vietnam, courtesy of Operation Comfort, headquartered in San Antonio, TX, along with a former Advisory Team 3 member, Don Hogan, Corps of Engineers. He had provided cover for me during the first night of the Offensive when I was summoned to the Command Post. Yes, he is one of my best friends.
We were anxious to go back to see the changes that had been made. Flying into Hanoi was not something either of us could have imagined a few years back. But there it was, bustling like any other big city, complete with its big box stores and teeming with scooter traffic. Included was a visit to the “Hanoi Hilton.” It really hit me hard to know of the many who stayed there, not of their own free wills. Then, it was on to points south by air and bumpy roads. Along the way, we were quartered in 4 and 5-star hotels, built on locations where pitched battles had been fought; places such as Dong Ha and Quang Tri.
Hue was hardly recognizable. Many landmarks were gone. I could barely remember the streets that I formerly traversed almost daily to get from the Hue MACV compound on the south side of the Perfume River to the Ist ARVN Division Compound inside of the Citadel.
A visit to the Son Ca Orphanage did not produce any familiar faces. But like Bob, I was impressed by the dedication of the staff, the cleanliness of the premises, and the decorum of the children. Finally, I had found a quiet place where it was all about preparing for tomorrow, whatever it might bring. It’s hard to think about children and war at the same time. Seeing their innocent and fresh faces made me long for peace as I had never wished before.
Then, it was tea-time, an honored tradition. Talking with the Nun in charge of the facility gave me hope for better days ahead.
For an exciting read on the complex mission of advising Vietnamese military authorities and a first-hand look at the culture and traditions of the Vietnamese, obtain a copy of the book entitled A Different Face of War by James G Van Straten.
Will there become a time when we will study war no more?
Can you contact me? Bobstar101@gmail.com
I can be reached at 954-806-7086.
Thanks for your comments on your return to the Kim Long Orphanage. It must have been an amazing visit after all these years and it was good that your daughter was able to go with you. I often wonder what happened to the leper colony my unit supported outside of Phu Loi that I was able to visit in 1967 . Also thanks for a great Website that is the source of some outstanding information on our war.
I did three tours of Vietnam between 1968 and 1970 as a Navy Seabee. One of the most rewarding things we did was replacing the roof of an orphanage. This one was just outside of Chu Lai. The kids were amazing and wanted to help. That was one of the good times.
TYPO. That should be 1968 to1971
Loved reading this. The photos are incredible. What a journey.
What an up lifting story. Thank you for sharing it.
WOW, very moving. I can see why you wanted to go back.
Thank you Anh Bob Staranowicz for your Service and all you still do for our country and the children.
Thank you for your help with the Orphanages in Viet Nam.
I am so greatfull to have met such a wonderful person with kindnesses/huge heart and so much love for my country and People.
The most extraordinary article and thank you for sharing this.
God Bless you and all of your kindness.
Excellent article–spent many hours in a small orphanage in DaNang–bringing food, medical supplies, and giving inoculations–i was struck by how happy the children were–always singing!1
Please contact me about your efforts. Bobstar101@gmail.com
A bit lengthy but well written! I am sure the orphanage is doing a great service!
We had an orphanage across from the 1200 compound at Tan Son Nhut. During TET 68, the VC blew it up and then attempted to penetrate our compound. They were beaten back. I often wondered why the VC would destroy that orphanage?? What harm were those little kids causing?? None that I could ever think about. Excellent article article and well written.
I can associate with this article for I’ve made around 30 returns trips back to Vietnam. I’ve visited friends there, orphanages, churches, climbed a mountains, hiked the trails and eaten with former enemy soldiers and even their ambassador. It’s one beautiful country and I planned on returning last month but the virus came. I’ve taken thousands of pics and videos
One of the finest articles I have read on this post. Thank you for sharing this . I often wonder how the children survived all this.
Tried blocking these emotions out. Can’t explain.
Thanks Chick for your kind words.