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Doug Young sat in the St. Peter & St. Paul Episcopal Church’s temporary house of worship, a Mission shopping center, as he listened to his pastor when he realized he had an unfinished personal mission.
It was February 2004, when his pastor spoke about how God guides individuals into helping others. He reached out and wrote “VM,” military lingo for Vietnam, on a sheet of paper.
He turned to his wife, Cindy, and saw tears running down her face.
“We just knew, without knowing how, that we were going out there,” he said.
The couple, both U.S. Army Vietnam veterans, Doug an infantry officer and Cindy a nurse, had traveled back to Vietnam a few years before, ultimately falling in love with the country where they had initially met serving in the Army.
“The country is beautiful and the people are fabulous,” Doug said who is a photojournalist for the Progress Times.
But their return to the country they once fought has transformed them from tourists to part-time residents as the couple taught English to Vietnamese students and even serving as selfless American parents to students who have continued their education in the United States.
For many, the idea of an American Vietnam soldier returning to Vietnam is a strange thought, but to live and work there is beyond perplexing.
“To veterans it’s extremely weird,” Doug said. “Their view of Vietnam is so negative. It’s 40 years of thinking they can’t get past.”
Cindy, 64, admits in her first trip back, she was nervous.
“It’s frozen in time,” she said of old memories of Vietnam. “You still remember the helicopter sounds, the sound of guns, gosh, the smells.”
All that dissipated when they made their initial return in 2002 to be welcomed by the people and to find that war spots they once knew appeared to almost be erased. The idea of the war wasn’t really in the minds of several of the people they encountered.
“We have moved on past that and it’s difficult for people to accept,” Cindy said.
‘Like flesh and blood’
After revisiting Vietnam for medical aid missions and vacations, the couple returned to teach English in 2004 in the city of Huey.
Their jobs had them working with students on pronunciation and conversational skills. The class had the teachers opening their homes to the students often to practice.
“These are the best students in the world,” Doug said. “They are there to learn. They do more by accident than I do on purpose.”
The two have kept in touch with several of their students and the students likewise keep tabs on their thay, teacher.
The pair has even helped some of their students continue their education here. Their student Phan Thuy Trang, who is featured in a book written by Doug in her cap and gown after receiving her master’s degree, is like a daughter to them.
“She could be my own flesh and blood,” Doug said. “These students are like the daughter’s we never knew we needed.”
Because they’re close and the couple believes in their students’ work ethic, the pair helps fund their education. The students do get money for travel and housing here, but they have to pay their own tuition. Doug, who also works at the University of Texas-Pan American, uses his earnings as a Progress Times photographer to help pay their tuition.
Cindy also uses her medical knowledge in hospitals teaching medical staff. During their time living in Vietnam, Cindy spent two years teaching medical terminology to doctors and working on their English pronunciation.
“They’ve even more eager to gobble it up,” Cindy said.
This summer the pair will travel to Vietnam to watch one of their students get married. At the same time Cindy will teach her students in medical terminology.
Doug and Cindy don’t travel to Vietnam to teach full-time anymore; they only make annual visits to see friends and so Cindy can teach medical courses in English. Without new students to take care of and mentor in the American education system, Doug said he fears he’ll run out of young Vietnamese friends to learn from.
“We’re used to having these kids in our lives big time,” he said.
Same River, Different Water
To explain their journey, Doug, 68, spent over two years writing a book based on photographs he’s taken in Vietnam. The book, “Same River, Different Water: A veterans journey from Vietnam to Việt Nam,” available on Amazon.com, tells the couple’s story about coming back to Vietnam and how the country has changed. Doug said other veterans have seen the book as a healing.
“It kind of comes out that way,” he admitted.
While the couple loves the country, they understand that the American connection is typically the war. Doug said his friends were often transfixed by two veterans living in the modernizing country and was pressed to write a book.
Doug’s book dedicates an entire chapter to dispelling the notion that Vietnamese people hate Americans, especially former military.
Vietnamese people generally no longer think about the war, he said. In fact, their students, too young to really know the war, are a lot like young Americans.
“Our students aren’t any more aware than American kids are,” Cindy said.
Major changes in Vietnam, like the construction of skyscrapers, are eye-opening and allow a soldier to physically face the change.
“This is a great way for you to go back there and see that the war is over,” Doug said. “What you do with that information is up to you.”
Their efforts to teach English and offer their home and unconditional love has nothing to do with guilt as a soldier who carried a gun in Vietnam and whose job was to defend his country and fellow soldiers, Doug said.
“Our destiny is in this place,” he said. “There’s no guilt. There’s a reason why I didn’t die and other guys did. There was something for me to do.”
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.