When Columbus resident Tom Downs, 61, visited Vietnam this fall, more than 40 years after serving there with the U.S. Army, he took with him a granddaughter seeking knowledge and understanding of a conflict that occurred decades before her birth.
They came back with a plastic bag containing more than 100 dog tags. The military identification pieces, left over from the Vietnam War in the 1970s, are commonly sold as souvenirs for about a dollar apiece.
Traveling with his wife, Sharon, and granddaughter, Courtney Fish, the trio spent hours during their two-week October visit sifting through the piles, doing their best to find authentic ones to bring back to the States, where the arduous task of reuniting the tags with their original owners — or their family members — begins.
Many of the dog tags they find are fake, or so damaged that they are unreadable. The Downses do not do much of the research on the dog tags themselves, instead handing them off to a pair of friends from out of state. But they well understand the importance of helping veterans and their families find a sense of closure to what many of them found to be a dark and senseless period of time.
Downs didn’t wait for the draft papers to show up in his mailbox in December 1969. His birthday, Nov. 27, was assigned a low draft-number — 47 — and he knew he was bound for Vietnam. Better to enter as an enlistee, he thought.
So one cold Saturday afternoon, the 19-year-old signed up on his own, just two days before the draft papers showed up in his mailbox. And by July 1970, Downs was in the midst of the Vietnam conflict.
He returned to Bartholomew County in July 1971. And like so many soldiers who served during that time, Downs found the adjustment home nearly as trying as his time spent overseas.
“We left as kids and missed out on growing up,” he said. “You just don’t belong with any of the people you knew before.”
The sense of isolation became debilitating. His first marriage ended in divorce shortly after his return, and he turned to drugs, alcohol and prescription anti-depressants to cope. He was gripped with anger and bitterness toward anything at all related to his time spent in Vietnam, including their people.
Although he said he turned his life to God in 1980s and recovered from his addictions after hitting rock bottom, Downs said he still felt a hardness of heart toward Vietnam and its people that nothing seemed to be able to soften.
“I didn’t hate them (the Vietnamese) anymore,” Downs said. “But I sure didn’t want to see them, either. It seemed that nothing good came out of that experience, and I didn’t want to relive it.”
In 1999, Sharon Downs heard from a co-worker about an organization that took Vietnam veterans back to Vietnam on healing trips, during which the veterans could revisit battle sites and do some charitable visits with the country’s poor.
Tom Downs eventually agreed to go, but as the trip — which would take place 30 years to the day that he arrived in Vietnam as a 19-year-old soldier — drew closer, Downs’ anxiety took hold and he nearly backed out.
“But when the plane touched down, I knew I was in the right place at the right time,” Downs said.
What he found was a populace as desperately in need of solace and healing as he had once been.
Downs said he is awe at the conditions many of the Vietnamese live under but was inspired by their warmth, kindness and readiness to share with one another what little they have. The cold ambivalence he once felt warmed to respect, affection and finally love.
“It (the trip) didn’t close any doors for me,” Downs said. “It opened them.”
The experience was so profound that Downs returned with the group two more times before deciding that God was calling him to strike out on his own and devote more of his travel time to mission work, as opposed to the sightseeing the group often did.
After each trip, Downs returned with pictures and videos of the people he met, and his enthusiasm was infectious.
“I began to the feel a tug that I needed to experience it with him,” Sharon Downs said.
The pair returned together in 2005, and several times since, distributing to children in and around Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) the toys and candy they collect year-round from family, friends and fellow congregants at Northview Assembly of God.
With each return trip, he was struck anew at how welcoming the people he encountered were and was touched that they seemed to remember him year after year. He recalled one woman who is crippled and gets by begging for money on the street in Ho Chi Minh City. He has seen her on almost every return trip, and each time she smiles at him, nodding and tapping the side of her head — she remembers.
“She has nothing, and yet she’s smiling,” Downs said. “It lights up your whole day.”
While Downs was reconciling his mixed emotions, his granddaughter, 17-year-old Courtney, was feeling a strong pull to the country that forever altered the course of his life.
The Columbus East High School senior was just 5 the first time Downs journeyed back to Vietnam. Sharon Downs said the little girl cried as her grandfather’s plane took off and peppered him with questions when he returned.
As she grew, her childhood fascination with the faraway place cemented to a young woman’s desire to see more of the world around her. And as Downs revealed ever-more-detailed accounts of his time spent there as a soldier, Courtney felt called to see Vietnam for herself.
“I wanted to walk where he walked, and see the things he saw,” Courtney said.
So this year, Courtney accompanied her grandfather on his ninth mission trip to Vietnam. In addition to accompanying her grandparents on their charitable visits, she also visited battle sites from the conflict and took a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong.
“Having her there meant more to me than life itself,” Downs said.
While he once wanted to forget the experiences from half a world and a lifetime away, Downs said he now feels that understanding is better than forgetting.
“You hear so many stories about violence and torture on both sides,” Downs said. “But I want Courtney to realize that the Vietnamese are people just like us. They didn’t cause the war. And we were just boys told to go do a job.”