Former medic returns to Vietnam on a different mission

Tuesday, September 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BROKEN ARROW, Okla. (AP) -- Jungle snipers and the constant threat of danger consumed the days of soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.

Dennis Hodo's tour of duty in Vietnam as a medic proved trying as he attempted to save wounded soldiers and friends. That is the Vietnam Hodo remembers well.

Now the Broken Arrow resident has embarked on a return journey to Vietnam, a country that has witnessed many changes since those war years.

For Hodo, this trip has been in the making for almost 30 years, though he did not realize it until later.

Hodo grew up and completed high school in Doniphan, Mo., a small town in the far southeast corner of the state. In 1969, during the escalation of the Vietnam War, Hodo felt it was his duty to enlist.

He joined the Army and left for Vietnam in late 1969.

He served his country and fellow soldiers as a medic, surviving ambushes and enemy attacks.

Hodo's final 30 days were spent working in a base camp clinic in Qui Nhon.

"There was this orphanage in town, and mostly it was Amer-Asian kids and nobody would take care of them," he said.

"Most of the mothers were prostitutes and all the fathers were gone, so they (mothers) took them wherever they could."

The orphanage was run by the Catholic church, and when the children were sick, the nuns would bring them to the base for treatment.

Toward the end of November 1970, Hodo saw one particular 4-year-old orphan whom he found challenging.

"She was real sick, had a high fever and stuff, and I had to give her shots," he said. "She started crying quite a bit, and since she was the last one I took care of that day, I started trying to cheer her up."

Hodo improvised with a lemon that he used as a ball.

"She started playing a little bit, and then after a while, she even started cheering up," he said.

The nun who brought the orphans, Sister Mary Xuan Mai, could speak some English. She began to tease Hodo about being the child's father, which of course wasn't possible.

One of his fellow comrades gave his Polaroid camera to the nun who took photos of Hodo and the child, who by then was sitting on his lap.

Hodo sent some of the photos to his mother along with a letter describing the incident. He saw the child named Kim one more time before leaving Vietnam.

After arriving stateside, Hodo placed his photos, letters and other mementos from the war in a box, where they remained for many years.

Hodo returned from the war determined to make something of his life. He attended the University of Missouri where he received a degree in engineering. He worked in several cities as a civil engineer before opening his own company, DLH Engineering, in Owasso.

While his professional life flourished, Hodo's personal life was not as fortunate. Memories of the Vietnam War made relationships difficult. Hodo met Cindy White in 1993. The couple were married in 1995, but not before Hodo's future bride began helping him confront his past.

"She was teaching middle school, and she encouraged me to come and talk to her class about the Vietnam War," he said.

The couple explored the box of mementos from the past. White made copies and framed many of Hodo's photos from Vietnam. She even encouraged him to write a book about the war, The Bamboo Bridge, geared toward middle school students.

While re-examining his past, Hodo came across photos of Kim and the letter he had sent his mother. He wondered if the little girl had survived the fall of Saigon in 1975, and what had become of her.

"She was going to be the last person that was going to get any care in that society because she was half American; I just never figured she would even survive," Hodo said.

When relations opened between Vietnam and the United States in the mid 1990s, Hodo began searching for the orphan he knew only as Kim.

"I always wondered if she was OK or if she was alive, you couldn't forget that -- a little bitty kid," Hodo said.

In 1996, he began searching the Internet for Catholic orphanages in Vietnam. Hodo located an office in Thailand for the Vietnamese orphanages.

"I scanned in that picture of Kim and I together, and told them when it was and what her name was and all the information that I had," he said.

Three to four months later, a Catholic priest e-mailed Hodo. The priest had been to the orphanage near Qui Nhon and knew the nuns who ran it.

The priest gave Hodo a telephone number. The person he contacted was Xuan Mai, the same nun who had taken the picture.

"I thought that was amazing; I sat down and picked up the phone and called Sister Mary right there at that same place years later," Hodo said.

Once connected, communicating proved difficult. While the nun spoke some English, many pertinent details became clouded.

Through his wife, Hodo met Lisa Vu of Broken Arrow, whose sister, Samantha, began interpreting correspondence and telephone conversations.

"It turned out that the Kim that she (Xuan Mai) was talking about wasn't the same Kim," Hodo said.

The Vu sisters asked Hodo to visit with their father, Hieu Vu, who was preparing to visit Vietnam in 1998.

Hodo related the story and gave Hieu the photos.

"He made a special trip up to Qui Nhon," Hodo said. "He went up and visited with Sister Mary and took the pictures."

Through this one-on-one meeting, Xuan Mai realized who Hodo was looking for. Kim had in fact survived the communist takeover, and was now living 20 miles to the north. Her married name was Ha, and she had four children.

"We continued to write letters, and we sent money to Sister Mary who puts it in her bank account and gives it to Kim when she needs things," Hodo said.

Xuan Mai and Ha encouraged him to come and visit.

"When you go to Vietnam, you either go all alone or you go on a battlefield tour, and I don't care about a battlefield tour; I've been there," Hodo said.

He started looking around for someone to accompany him to Vietnam -- someone who was from there and knew the language.

Hodo first asked Lisa Vu's husband, Ted, to go, all expenses paid. He declined the offer, but she knew another possibility.

In 1978 at the age of 12, Vinh Nguyen of Broken Arrow arrived in the U.S. with his brothers after a six-month boat trek. His parents followed a few years later, but his oldest sister remained in Vietnam.

Nguyen had always wanted to return to visit Vietnam. He had even discussed the possibility with a cousin, but Nguyen lacked the finances.

"My cousin called one Sunday and wanted me to buy a ticket, and I said no, I can't go," Nguyen said.

"Later that same day Lisa asked if I wanted to go to Vietnam -- it all happened in one day."

Nguyen knew this opportunity was something he couldn't pass up.

The pair spent the months after their initial meeting preparing for the trip, and have since become good friends. Nguyen said returning to Vietnam is not simply about visiting family, but something more.

"I considered Dennis a great guy with a big heart, so to me, I'm just glad to help my friend," Nguyen said.

"I like to help people -- period. That's my heart, that's my goal."

Nguyen, a data analyst at St. Francis Hospital, saved up vacation time and will remain in Vietnam for two weeks after Hodo returns.

While Hodo had no apprehension about traveling to Vietnam, Nguyen had some reservations.

A U.S. citizen, Nguyen said he may experience some problems with the authorities because of his Vietnamese heritage.

Hodo asked Xuan Mai and Ha if there were any items they needed.

The list was simple -- Crest Toothpaste, Pert Shampoo, and American candy.

For Hodo, this trip means the end of a journey that started with a 20-year-old soldier's chance encounter with a child he had never known.

"I spent 30 years wondering how she's doing and thinking I'd like to see her again some day, and now I am."