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One Veteran's Journey

Photo essay by   RON DEAN

TRINIDAD RESIDENT RON DEAN WAS A conscientious objector serving in the Marine Corps from 1966-68, the height of the Vietnam War. He spent his two-year tour of duty at a recruit training depot across the street from the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. It was at the hospital, however, that he spent most of his time befriending and counseling the wounded returning from the war.

"Being a CO in the Marines is as close as you can get to a contradiction in terms," he told the Journal in an interview last month when he suggested this photo essay in honor of Veterans' Day, Nov. 11.

Dean, a mechanic by trade and a photographer and pilot by passion, avoided Vietnam during the war. But this spring he travelled there for the first time, spending a month recording on film the place that became such a painful part of American history in the last half of the 20th century.

[photo of street market]

A street market at the end of a slow day after many vendors had left. At the height of the market, the street is open only to foot traffic.

 [photo of person in tunnel]

A few miles north of Ho Chi Minh City are the cobweb-like tunnels known
as Cu Chi tunnels.

[photo of basket boats]Basket boats made of bamboo and semi-sealed
with pitch or tar are powered by small
diesel engines -- or paddles. 

 [photo of water buffalo cart]

Water buffalo are still a big part of the
Vietnamese country life.

 [photo of people riding mopeds]

Saigon today has 6 million people, 200,000
cars and trucks -- and 1 million motobikes.

 [photo of muffler maker]

Mufflers for cars and motorbikes are
manufactured on the sidewalks.

 [photo of family in motorized cart]

A family on its way to market in a two-wheeled cart powered by a
Honda 90 motorbike engine.

[photo of rope vendor]

Ropes, nets, hooks and shiny brass props can be found in this fishing supply shop in Da Nang.

[photo of girl with marble lion]

At Marble Mountain, 30 minutes south of Da Nang, locals chip out a living sculpting marble. Even tiny pieces become beads for jewelry.

[photo of warplane, mother and daughter]

"What does this do, mom?" A young mother is faced with explaining one of the tools of war to the next generation at the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

[photo of temple]

Worshippers at the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh, below, are neither Buddhists nor Catholics, but practice their own distinct religion.

[photo of children at park]

My last vivid memory of Vietname just hours before leaving for the airport.
This is the next generation of children, photographed in the park in Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City --
born not in a time of war, fulll of optimism for the future.

Vietnam War Facts
In August 1964, the United States began air strikes against North Vietnam. Nine years later, a cease fire was called in Paris by the U.S., North Vietnam and South Vietnam but never carried out.

Before the war ended in May 1975, the conflict claimed almost 58,000 American lives 47,000 from hostile action and 11,000 from other causes, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 300,000 were wounded, 75,000 received severe disabilities. Vietnam civilian casualties top one million, while displaced war refugees number 6.5 million.

About 3.1 million men and women served the armed forces within the borders of Southeast Asia. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated on Veterans Day in 1982. Eleven years later, a women's memorial was erected.

Anti-war demonstration peaked in November 1969, when 250,000 marched on Washington. Almost 30,000 conscientious objectors were recorded by Jan. 1, 1969, the U.S. Selective Service reported. A conscientious objector is a person who on the basis of moral or religious principles refuses to bear arms or participate in military service.

[photo of Ron Dean interviewing]RON DEAN GRADUATED FROM HIGH school in Glendale, Calif., in 1963 and at age 18 signed up for the draft as every male in the United States was required to do. There was no such thing as a voluntary Army, the lottery-draft was years away, and the Vietnam War was just beginning to capture the attention of the nation.

"I registered as a conscientious objector because I was raised in a Christian home. It was what I was taught," he said.

He spent the years 1963-66 working, travelling and waiting to hear from his draft board. One night in 1965 he recalls as a turning point in the path he was to take in his military career.

"I was traveling to my uncle's dairy farm in Michigan to work and I was camping along the road," he said. There he met a rough group of bikers Korean War veterans who told him tales of the horrors of war they would carry with them for life, "things they were required to do in the name of their government," Dean said. The result was a conviction to fight for his status as a CO even though he was often taunted and one time beaten by his fellow draftees.

Dean ended up at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego after he was drafted in 1966, part of a platoon of 80-plus recruits, most of whom were shipped out to Vietnam.

"They didn't know what to do with me," Dean said. He was a cook and a baker, but he spent his off-duty time and, increasingly, his on-duty hours "across the street" at the Balboa Naval Hospital, visiting wounded veterans returning from the war. "They were a real mess," Dean said. "Mostly, I just listened to their stories," which earned him the knickname, "the reverend."

After his military service, Dean found his way to Humboldt County to attend Humboldt State University, studying industrial arts, photography and real estate. Today the 54-year-old Westhaven resident works as a mechanic, owns his own airplane and has a part-time business in aerial photography which combines two of his passions.

Like many veterans, Dean said he avoided watching the movies about the Vietnam War for many years. He didn't want to remember. When he finally did, he said from his personal experience the most realistic movie was "Full Metal Jacket," depicting the treatment of recruits in the Marine Corps boot camp.

His trip to Vietnam last spring was the result of an intense curiosity he felt for the places he heard so much about and a job opportunity from a company that rebuilds planes.

Dean said as a veteran he was treated with suspicion by Vietnam government officials, but the people "were very warm-hearted, welcoming."

One painful experience Dean had was a visit to the War Crimes Museum.

"There was a French guillotine. I'm a mechanic and I know machines. This thing was worn out from use."

Dean happened to be there on March 25, the day the U.S. began bombing Yugoslavia and he watched coverage on television with Vietnamese civilians.

"They looked at me and said, `Don't you ever learn?'"

But the biggest revelation Dean had on his month-long journey was that the Vietnamese people today are optimistic about the future.

"The latest generation the kids in the swing are the first in eons to be born into a world of possible peace and freedom from war. They seem eager to put the past to rest and encourage American visitors to do the same.

"It's 1,400 miles of beautiful coastline. Their country has much to offer."

-- reported by Judy Hodgson

Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

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