WICHITA FALLS, Texas — When Carl "Gus" Gustafson left Vietnam in 1968, wounded so badly doctors doubted he'd ever walk again, the thought of going back seemed remote.
With time and determination, Gustafson beat the odds. He walked, married the love of his life, made a career and raised a family. Still, there were unseen wounds he and 10 other Vietnam veterans set out to salve when they recently returned to the country that changed their lives forever.
Each year the VFW-administered Robert Charles Kahle Fund provides Purple Heart recipients all-expense paid trips back to their battlefields. Everyone in Gustafson's group saw each sight with different eyes.
"His (Kahle's) hope was that some guys might heal, seek closure from their experiences," said Gustafson, who was a 19-year-old lance corporal with the 1st Battalion 9th Marines the day his platoon was ambushed by Vietcong during the Tet Offensive. "He never served in the military so it's pretty amazing he'd want to do that."
Like any other traveler, Gustafson tells parts of his story in snapshots. Pictures of Hoa Lo Prison, known to the thousands of men imprisoned and tortured there as the Hanoi Hilton. The tomb of Ho Chi Minh — known to American troops as "Uncle Ho" — architect of the North Vietnamese invasion of the South. The beautiful Stilt House where he laid those plans.
"We went to Khe Sanh, where I was wounded," Gustafson said quietly. The former Marine tends to talk more about the near misses of that day rather than the nearly 20 wounds he received. "It was my Waterloo."
As they traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, the vets saw evidence of a nation attempting to reconcile its wartime past with its struggle to build a future. Monuments of shattered metal overlooked utility poles burdened by nests of hastily installed cables.
"They say 73 percent of the people alive in Vietnam now weren't alive when Saigon fell in 1975. But you can talk to lots of people in the U.S. now who don't know anything about the Vietnam war," Gustafson explained.
"We were never ill-treated while we were there. A lot of people there still think 'Marine No. 1.' A few gave us dirty looks. We know people we met who were 60 or older could have been on either side of the conflict."
Unlike his return in the late '60s — like many soldiers he was advised to wear civilian clothing — when Gustafson arrived in Wichita Falls Jan. 19 he was treated to a hero's welcome. Along with scores of fellow veterans and members of the Patriot Guard, Karen, his wife of 42 years, their daughter Shannon Turnbo and son Mattheu, himself a retired Air Force officer with three tours in Iraq and the Middle East, were waiting with open arms.
"If I could go back to Vietnam, go back to my time there and change it, I wouldn't. Had I not been shot, had I not experienced all the things I did I wouldn't have had the life I had," he said, locking eyes with Karen from across his desk.
"There are some wounds that never heal but there were things that made me stronger."
Information from: Wichita Falls Times Record News, http://www.timesrecordnews.com