The Vietnam War was painful. American soldiers who followed orders and pulled their triggers may have escaped Charlie’s bullets and booby traps, but they couldn’t avoid the psychological ambush their countrymen inflicted on their scared souls stateside. When they returned home, there were no parades, no hero’s welcomes, not even a thank-you. To some, home no longer felt like home.

This is the story of one courageous Vietnam veteran. Ed Turner, known to his friends as E.T., was a heavyweight club fighter who became a gunner on a gunship called Spooky. Gunship duty was extremely dangerous. The planes were slow and low-flying, with little armor. The left cargo-bay door remained open as three Gatling guns fired 300 rounds per second into every square meter of a football field-size target before the enemy had any hope of escaping.

The gunship earned its nickname, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” because of its red tracers and thunderous roar that resembled fire spewing out of a dragon’s mouth. Ed manned the deafening guns, which often jammed. It was sweltering hot, and he was constantly exposed to Charlie’s shooters below.

He was also exposed to the horrible effects of Agent Orange. The US instituted a massive herbicidal program that ran from 1961 through 1971. The aim was two-fold, one to destroy the cover provided by the jungle-like forest, and another to deny food to the enemy.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancer, multiple myeloma, type II diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne (a skin disorder) and peripheral neuropathy (a nerve disorder) as side effects of Agent Orange. Agent Orange crippled Ed years later.

Upon his honorable discharge, he earned an engineering degree from the University of Maryland, utilizing his G.I. Bill benefits. He returned to Asia in a self-imposed exile, never again to live in the United States.

I have had the privilege of knowing a number of American soldiers like Ed whom, after completing their tours in Vietnam, felt disillusioned and settled in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. They deeply love the land of their birth, and many still serve our nation representing American manufacturers in their adopted countries. They have been indispensable in generating billions of dollars of American exports.

I hired Ed to run the engineering department of my company in Manila. We traveled together to Vietnam in 1991, just 16 years after the fall of Saigon. It was his first time back and my first trip there.

Before the US embargo was lifted, Vietnam was anticipated to be the next “Asian Tiger.” It was believed that there would be massive foreign investment, especially from the United States, with thousands of Americans rushing to visit this storied land once the embargo ended.

The forthcoming planeloads of tourists and businessmen needed hotels and resorts. With this in mind, the senior management of Saigon Tourist, a Vietnamese state-owned company, made a trip to the Philippines to study its tourist infrastructure. Saigon Tourist had exclusive rights over many sectors of Vietnam’s tourist and transportation industry.

At the top of thei r shopping l i s t whi le in the Philippines was finding a company to set up manufacturing in Saigon to produce products for their hospitality industry. The Philippine government arranged for them to tour our factory in Manila.

At the invitation of the Managing Director of Saigon Tourist, Ed and I found ourselves on a plane about to land in Saigon. As the wheels touched down, I could see that Ed was uncomfortable. He was dreadfully worried that they would somehow know his role in the war and he would be whisked away, never to be seen again. He trembled as he handed the immigration officer his passport. It was an incredible relief when we cleared customs and found our driver awaiting us. This was going to be an emotional few days.

The person sitting across the negotiating table had been a colonel in the North Vietnamese army during the war. With the embargo still in effect, we were the first Americans he had ever received, though he had killed Americans not many years before. On our side of the table, there was no way of knowing the number of Vietnamese who had lost their lives to Spooky as Ed feverishly worked her guns.

It was a remarkable situation.

During a break in our negotiations, Ed and I had our driver take us to the US Embassy compound. It was eerily overgrown. The windows were smashed out, and lush tropical foliage grew into the building like some long-ago abandoned castle.

We stood at the gate where throngs of humanity had pressed against the Embassy walls while children wailed and mothers screamed. We gazed across the courtyard where the Tet Offensive had raged in 1968. We looked up to the roof where the lucky few had boarded the last helicopter out on April 30, 1975, in operation “Frequent Wind.”

We were in a trance. The next thing I remember was being shoved into the car by our frightened driver, who was now shouting hysterically. I don’t know if he was scared for us or scared for himself. As we sped away, I looked over at the man of steel. The tough guy lost his composure and tears came streaming down his face. Seeing him cry made me cry also.

The terms offered by the colonel to set up a factory in Saigon would have created one of the most lopsided, ridiculous deals I have ever come across. Their thinking at the time was that foreign investors would pay anything to ante up for the impending Vietnam gold rush, which never occurred.

Chairman Mao and the Long Marchers had to die of f before China could boom. The Nor th Vietnamese military elite, who still run Vietnam today, will likewise need to pass on before this beautiful country breaks its shackles and fulfills its dream. The good news is that they are well into their eighties and won’t be around much longer.

There are many stories to tell about Ed, such as working the “curry trail” in South Asia. In Mumbai and New Delhi, Indians would gather to gawk at the big man. We laughed hyster ical ly as we signed a document in a Pakistan hotel stating “I am a derelict for drinking alcohol” before being served a beer.

In Sri Lanka we had a meeting at the Colombo World Trade Center on October 14, 1997, one day before the Tamil Tigers exploded a truck bomb at its entrance. The desk and chairs we’d occupied were blown to smithereens. There is no way we would have survived

Last week I spoke to E.T. for the last time. He was lying in bed at his home in Santa Rosa, Laguna, about 40 miles south of Manila. His wife had frantically called me to convince him to go to the hospital. E.T. took the phone and in his distinctive growl intoned, “Don’t listen to her; I am doing just fine.”

E.T. took his final breath an hour later. I cannot say if it was 30 years of hard living, Agent Orange, or his self-imposed exile that finally got him.

I do know this: Ed fought for America until the day he died. Ed’s design and engineering work over the past 30 years produced overseas contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for American exporters, creating thousands of good-paying jobs for American workers.

So please spare a final thought for a giant man with an ego as big as Texas, the toughness of a cornered grizzly bear and a heart of pure gold. When we last spoke, he had one last request: to die peacefully at home in his adopted country.

  1. Eupher says:

    Compelling account of one man who made a difference. We all wish for such an impact.

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