A trip of healing
Veterans Return to Vietnam offers hope for vets looking for closure
While people throughout the St. Louis metro area, and the country, take time out on Friday to honor those who have risked their lives to protect the country, one man is working to raise money to help those same veterans deal with the life-long mental and emotional scars caused by their service.
Mike Snider, a Vietnam-era veteran who served in the Air National Guard but did not see combat, is now fighting to raise close to $11,000 by Nov. 28 in order to help two local veterans who did serve in Vietnam return to the country to face the demons that conflict has left them with for decades.
The planned globe-spanning trip for healing and redemption started three years ago when Snider reconnected with an old high school friend who has been battling post-traumatic stress disorder and depression since returning from the war.
“We started talking every night on Facebook, and slowly he started opening up to me about his struggles and it just shook me to my core what he was going through,” said Snider, noting that his friend could not sleep for more than 45 minutes without being woken up by demons. “Those demons are the men he saw die in front of him and beside him.”
Snider started looking for possible therapies that could help his friend, recommending one after another after another.
“After about the fourth or fifth one, I asked him if he ever checked them out and he said no,” recalls Snider. “He said every therapy he had been through had led him to the brink of suicide and he did not trust himself anymore. He said the only thing he wanted to do was to go back to Vietnam.”
Snider was shocked. Why would anyone want to go back the place that had caused him so much pain and strife over the years?
“He said he just wants to go back to get forgiveness,” said Snider. “That is something that almost every Vietnam vet says. They tell me they feel like they destroyed the country and the people of Vietnam hate them. But nothing could be further than the truth. The country is growing by leaps and bounds and the people love Americans, especially American veterans who were there during the war.”
So Snider formed a nonprofit called Veterans Return to Vietnam and started looking into other organizations that were trying to help vets by letting them go back to Vietnam.
A long journey
“I found an organization in New York called Soldier’s Heart,” said Snider. “It is co-founded by Ed Tick who is a physiologist who has been working with Vietnam vets for over 40 years. He has been taking vets back to Vietnam for 16 years. I partnered with him and told my friend that if going back to Vietnam is what you want to do then I will raise all the money for you to go back because you have already paid more than you should.”
A scheduling conflict prevented Snider’s friend from going last year, but Snider was able to go on the two-week trip to see what it was all about.
“It was amazing,” said Snider, explaining that each trip is tailored specifically to the veterans who are participating in it. “We go as close as we can to the very spot each veteran had their biggest battles and we have a ceremony for them and ask them to share with us and let us help carry the burden of what they experienced physically, mentally and emotionally. We burn incense and when we leave, we leave that incense standing in the ground in a circle in remembrance for them.”
The organizers of each trip also find opportunities for the veterans to give back to the people of Vietnam – helping to build schools, pay for medical care and provide support in a variety of other ways. Organizers also arrange meetings with former Viet Cong fighters and leaders, giving the former adversaries a chance to find healing together.
“They do not hold anger, they do not hold grudges,” said Snider. “Last year we went to the Mekong Delta and stayed on an island compound owned by a husband and wife who were both former Viet Cong.
“She had joined the Viet Cong when she was 11. When she was 13 she was captured and tortured and beaten,” he explained. “The husband had tried to stay out of the war, forming a school on this island. The Americans bombed the school and he said any country that would bomb a school and kill children he had to fight against.”
The two met and married in the jungle, where they also had their first child.
“He lived three days,” said Snider. “He was born without arms and legs. They thought it was their karma but it turns out it was the effects of Agent Orange.”
When the veterans visited the couple last year they brought funding to help rebuild the school which had been bombed decades ago.
“We had a groundbreaking ceremony and we are going back this year to have a dedication ceremony,” said Snider, noting that interactions like that one offered a path to healing that no therapy could compare to.
“Ed Tick has told me that the most amazing thing is that after the veterans have been in the country for just two to three nights their nightmares totally disappear and when they go home the nightmares don’t come back,” said Snider. “They left their soul in Vietnam all those years ago and we take them back and help them reclaim their soul.”
“What is the value of a human life?”
But the two-week trip is not cheap, and Snider has been working all year on fundraising to help pay for four people, two St. Charles veterans, a local psychiatrist, and himself, to make the trip on Nov. 28.
“It costs about $6,000 per person,” he said, noting he has raised some of the money through mouse races and donations. “Everything I have raised has gone to pay for airfare, trip insurance, visas, TSA pre-checks, and the deposit for Soldiers Heart. That leaves $11,200 that I don’t know where it is coming from.”
He said the large price tag per person had made fundraising hard.
“I have had a lot of people ask ‘Why would you spend so much money just to send one man back?” he said. “What really abhors me is that 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Over 65 percent of them are over 50 years old, so a great many of them are Vietnam veterans.
“What is the value of a human life?” he said. “What is the value of giving peace to someone who fought and saw men die beside him and have been suffering for many years?”
Snider said donations as small as $5 could help because every dollar donated adds up in the long run.
Donors can make donations, and read some heart-wrenching accounts from veterans, through his website at veteransreturntovietnam.com.
“I want everyone to have the opportunity to go if I can get the funding and we can pay for it,” added Snider.