Giving back the dead

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American Veterans haunted by war souvenirs are working to return the objects to Vietnam

American Vietnam War veteran Larry Hoffman holds a bilt buckle he took from a dead Vietnamese soldier in 1969.

It has been almost 42 years. But the belt buckle weighs heavy on Larry Hoffman's conscience.

In the summer of 1969, an American platoon was ambushed at Go Noi in Da Nang.

During the firefight Hoffman, who served as a medic tried to save a severely injured North Vietnam Army soldier. When the soldier expired, Hoffman took his belt buckle as a souvenir.

"I am sorry that I could not do more for the soldier... he died in my arms, with peace and dignity," said Hoffman. "I have been the care-taker of this buckle for the past 42 years. I am returning it now because it belongs to Vietnam."

Hoffman had taken the buckle to tell the "story" of battles he witnessed in Da Nang while serving in the American general infantry's 2nd battalion.

But he could never get release from it.

"The place and time where I treated this man is a little fuzzy... but it was during a marine operation called "˜Pipestone Canyon,'" he told Thuy Smith founder and president of US-based NGO Thuy Smith International Outreach.

Smith's organization works on bridging the gap and finding common ground for all those affected by the war in Vietnam. Due to his escalating health problem, Hoffman asked Smith to return the buckle on his behalf.

Smith arrived in Da Nang December 28 and has been working with local authorities to fulfill his wish.

"Hoffman wants the buckle to ultimately go back to a family member of the North Vietnam Army soldier, but that does not appear possible," she said.

She is currently reaching out to the Da Nang Veteran's Museum to "return" the buckle to Vietnam in accordance with Hoffman's wish.

Smith, who was born to a Cambodian-Vietnamese mother and American veteran father, said she and the vets wish to pay tribute to former Vietnamese soldiers "as people to people and vet to vet."

"I am proud of Mr. Larry and many American Vietnam Veterans like him, including my Veteran father," she told Thanh Nien Weekly via email. "They have not forgotten Vietnam and want nothing, but the best for Vietnam and its people."

The battle souvenirs do not always make it home.

Ralph a Vietnam War veteran and former marine recently contacted Smith after a disturbing dream. A vision of a dead Vietnamese soldier, whose helmet parts Ralph had taken back to the States appeared and told him he wanted to go back to his homeland.

Ralph and his friends recently held a ceremony in the States to send the man's spirit back to Vietnam, Smith said.

After several weeks of ceremonial worship Ralph and his friends buried the helmet parts on US soil and concluded that the dead man's spirit had returned to Vietnam.

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