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A Military Brat Makes Peace in Vietnam

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Children are often the forgotten casualties of war, and the line between friends and enemies isn’t always clear.

Vietnam
Donna Musil visits the Dak To airstrip where her father, Ltc. Louis F. Musil (deceased) was based in Vietnam, November, 1967. Photo courtesy of Chris Kyrios.

When I was 16, my father died of cancer. Today, it would be presumed to be related to Agent Orange, the deadly defoliant America dropped on Vietnam during the war, endangering millions — friends and foe alike. When he died, my father and I weren’t on the greatest of terms. He was an authoritative military man, and I was an obstinate teenager. Toss in raging adolescent hormones, 11 moves in 15 years on three continents and the fear of losing a parent, and you can imagine the flames on that metaphorical fire.

Our relationship wasn’t always that way. Lieutenant Colonel Louis “Bud” Musil was a hands-on kind of dad. He was up at 5 a.m. cooking chicken gizzards (for the extra protein) before my swim meets in San Francisco, California. He made sure our cocker spaniel Penny flew across the Atlantic Ocean with us, no matter the cost. And he and my mother dragged our tiny, whining bodies to every temple, museum and monument across Europe and Southeast Asia, including the World War II concentration camp memorial in Dachau when I was 10 — all because Bud Musil was no “ugly American.”

He wanted to make sure we saw the good and the bad in the world; the causes and consequences of war, not just the platitudes. He joined every cross-cultural friendship group he could find. To this day, my heart skips a beat every time I pass an airport, and I detest nationalism. Cultural preservation is one thing, but there’s a very thin line between patriotism and xenophobia.

L: Donna, Dena, and Tisa Musil enjoy the artwork in Paris, circa 1969; M: Major Louis F. “Bud” Musil in Bad Kreuznach, Germany in 1969; R: Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany, circa 1969. Photos courtesy of the Musil family.

When I was 7, my father went to Vietnam for a year. He was a military lawyer assigned to a combat unit with the 173rd Airborne Brigade (AKA the “Sky Soldiers”) during some of the bloodiest battles of the war. He slept on a cot in a tent that also served as their legal office and courtroom. His duties ranged from investigating American war crimes to managing the debts of soldiers struggling to stay alive in the North Vietnamese Army-covered hills of the Central Highlands. In 10 months, he tried 103 courts-martial and reviewed 942 Article 15s, then focused on rehabilitating the convicted, saving many a military career.

Apparently, he did a decent job. In a recommendation for a Bronze Star, an eyewitness claimed Bud Musil’s approach “was marked by a maturity, wisdom, fairness and understanding of human nature in a degree rarely found in individuals of his age and experience.” The eyewitness said he had an “intense interest in judiciously safeguarding both [the] rights of the individual and the interests of the United States government” and was truly a “soldier’s advocate.”

L: Major Bud Musil on board a helicopter in Vietnam, circa 1967; M: 173rd Airborne soldiers pull duty in Dak To, Vietnam, circa 1967; R: Major Bud Musil’s desk in Vietnam, circa 1967. Photos courtesy of the Musil family.

Viewing the War from the Other Side

In January 2019, my husband and I took a trip to north and central Vietnam. I hesitate to call it a vacation. We did a few touristy things: We took an intimate cruise on a junket ship in Halong Bay, we saw a traditional water puppet show in Yen Duc village and we shopped ‘til we dropped amongst the balustrades and bougainvillea of Hoi An. But we also wanted to explore the more tragic and bittersweet aspects of what the Vietnamese call the “American War.”

We weren’t naïve about military conflict. My mother-in-law was a pretty blonde, blue-eyed teenager when the Russians and Mongols invaded Berlin at the end of World War II and raped thousands of pretty blonde, blue-eyed teenagers. My father’s best friend died in Vietnam, and after the war, I watched my dad drink himself to sleep every night with a good book and a better gin and tonic. I had also spent 20 years documenting the emotional and psychological influences of trauma and war on military children and families, so my husband and I knew the consequences of war, one step removed.

What we didn’t know, though, could fill an encyclopedia.

Top L: Halong Bay, Vietnam; Top R: Water puppet show in Yen Duc Village; Bottom L: Lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam; Bottom R: Donna Musil learns to make pottery in Hoi An, Vietnam. Photos courtesy of Donna Musil and Chris Kyrios.

We started at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. I didn’t know much about Ho Chi Minh (the Vietnamese revolutionary and first President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) at the time, but as we toured his austere home and read about his travels to France and his admiration of America’s Founding Fathers, I couldn’t help but note the irony of America backing the South Vietnamese capitalist republic instead of the North Vietnamese communist republic who fought for and won their country’s independence from the French and Japanese, as we did the British.

My husband, meanwhile, was repeatedly waving hello and counting to 10 in English with dozens of young schoolchildren waiting in line at the mausoleum. The guards wouldn’t crack a smile, but the kids and their teachers were delightful.

Top L: Letter from Ho Chi Minh to President Harry S. Truman, 02/28/1946; Top R: Ho Chi Minh; Bottom: Vietnamese schoolchildren laugh and exchange greetings with us, as we wait to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Photo courtesy of Chris Kyrios.

As we entered the mausoleum in a hushed, straight line, I was surprised to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lying there, as if he could wake up any moment and invite you for tea. Maintaining this perception takes a lot of work, apparently. For the last six years of the war, his body was hidden in a cave, and still must be transported to Russia every year for two to three months of maintenance; however, Ho Chi Minh specifically asked to be cremated in his will. He lived a modest life and wanted his ashes buried in three simple urns in the hills of northern, central, and southern Vietnam. Instead, his mummified body lies inside a glass casket, where thousands of visitors and devotees come to pay their respects.

The Hanoi Hilton

Our next stop was Hoa Lo Prison, or the “Hanoi Hilton,” where Senator John McCain was held captive for five years after crashing into downtown Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake during a bombing run. Built by the French, the prison also housed scores of Vietnamese who fought for and eventually won their independence at Dien Bien Phu. As our young guide led us through the dark, dank cells, I recalled similar heartbreaking tales of brutality and brotherhood at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia, U.S., the memorial at Dachau in Germany, and in countless other museums around the world.

I suppose that’s what John McCain was doing when he tried to normalize relations between the United States and Vietnam over two dozen visits following his release. When McCain died in 2018, hundreds of Vietnamese well-wishers left flowers and incense at the monument in Hanoi that marks his capture. I don’t think anyone forgot the cruelty and carnage inherent in every conflict, but I guess they decided to make the best of a bad situation and focus on the future they faced, if not the one for which they had fought.

L: John McCain during a 1973 interview, one month after being released from prison in Vietnam; R: Hao Lo Prison, where John McCain was held as a prisoner of war for five-and-a-half years. (Photo courtesy of Donna Musil)

Dak To: The Bloody Battle

We continued our journey in Pleiku, the capital of the Gia Lai Province, in the heart of Vietnam. Our guide Cham was a Montagnard, one of the indigenous “people of the mountain” of the Central Highlands. His face was weathered, but his smile was kind and his eyes astute, and for 12 hours, he shared what he could through dusty back roads, shrouded waterfalls and rows of rubber trees tourists rarely see. It was magical.

It was also emotionally grueling. Our primary destination was an abandoned airstrip in Dak To, near the Cambodia/Laos border. Ken Burns dedicated an entire episode to the battles of Dak To in his television series, The Vietnam War. My father arrived in October 1967, a month after the NVA leadership decided to lure American forces into the rolling hills and “crush” them, according to Military Operations in the Central Highlands, a memoir I picked up at Hoa Lo Prison. The book was hard to read. I had to keep reminding myself that we were the “enemy” and the dead were my father’s friends and brothers-in-arms. 

L: Major Bud Musil relaxes at his desk in Vietnam, circa 1968 (photo courtesy of the Musil family); R: Donna Musil and guide Cham at the Dak To airstrip, where her father served (photo courtesy of Chris Kyrios).

I stood on that airfield and tried to imagine the fear my father must have felt as bombs exploded around him. I recalled a casual remark he made about dragging bodies off a hill and photographs of mutilated Viet Cong soldiers in one of his legal files. I watched an old woman pick through the rubble at the end of the runway that morning — for what, I couldn’t tell. Our guide told us the runway is used to dry cassava now, a starchy tree root that locals eat. We considered, but couldn’t venture into the hills where the hand-to-hand battles were fought because bombs and booby-traps were still hidden amongst the denuded foliage.

As we drove away, our guide shared his own war stories. He said he was a young man at the height of the conflict, studying at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S. He had received a full scholarship from a Christian organization he met by chance while studying in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Upon his return, after the NVA won the war, he was sent to a “re-education camp” (née prison) for two years, presumably for attending the Western institution. For three of those months, he sat alone in complete darkness. He was lucky; his cellmate and many others were beaten and executed.

My Lai Massacre

Two days later, our other guide, Ken, told us he also spent time in a re-education camp after working as a translator during the war. He was still translating when he took us to the Son My Memorial, honoring the victims of one of the worst civilian casualties of the war. On March 16, 1968, American soldiers massacred over 500 unarmed elderly men, women and children in a small village called My Lai and its surrounding areas.

I had wanted to visit the memorial for years. My father was in Vietnam at that time and the soldier who led the slaughter once ran a popular jewelry store in the town where my mother lives. I watched him eat a hot dog one day, smothered in chili. It was a local delicacy.

Lieutenant William Calley was a diminutive man at 5’4”, who reportedly led a non-descript life after the massacre. But on that particular day, he and his “brothers-in-arms” shot, stabbed, beat, blew up and mutilated 182 women (including 17 pregnant women), 173 children (including 56 babies under 5 months old), 60 villagers over 60 years old, and 89 middle-aged villagers, wiping out generations of families for decades to come.

L: The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper broke the story of My Lai in November 1969; R: Memorial to the victims of the My Lai massacre (photo courtesy of Donna Musil)

The day my husband and I visited the My Lai/Son My Memorial, the museum was empty, save for a class of Korean university students speaking with two of the massacre’s survivors – Pham Thanh Cong and Mrs. Pham Thi Thuan (not related) – about similar atrocities inflicted upon the Vietnamese by the Koreans. We were allowed to observe; then, Cong agreed to speak with me, personally.

He is retired now, but has developed and managed the memorial for many years. Despite the melancholy nature of our conversation, Cong immediately put us at ease. I asked whether he thought war brings out the worst in people or simply gives bad actors an opportunity to do terrible things. Like the students, I wondered how he and his fellow survivors coped emotionally with such trauma and loss.

The hurt they bear is unhealable, he assured me, and he still has nightmares 50 years later. It is a pain that all war victims share, he said. Yet, he is acutely aware that moving forward is the only way for him and his country to forge a better future. They don’t teach Vietnamese children about My Lai in school, he told us, but 40,000 people visit the memorial each year from 80 countries.

Saying Goodbye

Two months after my father’s cancer was discovered on my 16th birthday in 1976, I was riding around Fort Knox on my bicycle, heading nowhere in particular. I decided to stop at the Ireland Army Hospital, an off-white, multistory behemoth that resembled a Soviet housing block. He was in a coma at this point, and my mother and grandmother took turns manning his bedside, holding his emaciated hand.

I didn’t like going to the hospital. I was still angry at my father — for being so controlling, for moving me away from my San Francisco swim team, for dying. But I leaned my bicycle against the building behind a bush and hoped it was there when I returned.

I was surprised when I opened the door to his room and neither my mother nor my grandmother were there. It was just me and my father, alone, while the air conditioner hummed softly in the background.

He looked awful, like one of those concentration camp victims we had seen in Dachau. He couldn’t have weighed more than 85 pounds. I leaned against the bed rail for moment in silence, and then told him I was sorry — for being such a jerk and arguing every night at the dinner table. He breathed out of his mouth in tandem with the air conditioner. I told him I was sorry for sneaking off to parties in the middle of the night and for screaming “I wish you were dead!” when he punished me afterwards, as any good parent would do.

He didn’t answer, of course. He was in a coma. But when I started to cry and asked him to forgive me, I swear he nodded, just a little. I don’t know if he really did or if I just imagined it. They say a person’s hearing is the last thing to go, but who really knows? I hope it’s true.

My father died that night. He was only 42 years old. Like Pham Thanh Cong, I had lost the one man in the world who truly loved and understood me. The Vietnam War had taken both of our fathers, and his mother and sisters. We would never be the same and neither would our countries, but at least I got to say goodbye, which is more than I can say for many.

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