Refugee returns to Vietnam |

Refugee returns to Vietnam

Dennis Webb
Special to the Daily/Kara K. PearsonA family photo, circa 1968, sits in front of Rose Kates and her twin boys, Alex, left, and Marcus, on Friday. Kates grew up during the Vietnam War with her father, a colonel and helicopter pilot for South Vietnam. In the photograph, Rose, third from right, at 6 years old, poses with her parents, brothers and sisters.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Rose Kates sits in her comfortable south Glenwood Springs home with her twin sons, 13-year-olds Marcus and Alex, and thinks back to when she was exactly their age, and life was so very different.It was just last week, 30 years ago, when her family faced a terrible choice. They were South Vietnamese, and South Vietnam was crumbling around them. Rose, her five siblings and their mom got a chance to evacuate, but it meant leaving behind their father, a South Vietnamese officer, and not knowing whether they would ever see him again.”We knew that the end was near, but my father could not leave. … We got shoved into an airplane, a C-130, and we left. It was really sad. It was chaos already,” she said.”I was like, ‘Dad, I want to stay, I want to die here. …’ He said, ‘You are young,'” she said. “Our culture – everything is about the future. The parents, you can die, but as long as your children have the future, that’s all that matters,” she said.The family fled on April 27, 1975. On April 30, the day South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese, their father was able to make his escape. Col. Trieu Q. Vu, who now goes by the Americanized first name of Taylor, was a helicopter pilot and managed to fly his aircraft to freedom. He knew it might be his only way of getting out.Those final days and hours, “He ate and he slept right next to his helicopter. He did not leave his helicopter for any reason,” Rose said.It would be months before his children and his wife, La Thi Khong, would find out that he was alive and well. “That was a hard time on my mom, but she made it,” Rose said.For Rose’s parents, those harrowing days echoed similar ones in the early 1950s, when Vietnam split into two nations. A daughter had died of natural causes just before they had to evacuate where they lived, and they gave her a makeshift burial. When they were able to return to try to bury her properly, they couldn’t find her remains because the graveyard had been damaged during the civil strife.’No choice but to kill’

Earlier this year, Rose and her parents joined other relatives in returning to Vietnam for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War. It was Rose’s parents’ first visit to North Vietnam since 1954.For Rose, the trip also was a chance to show her two sons the place she’d left behind in such a frantic state so long ago. In addition, it was an opportunity to show how good their lives are by comparison.”We are lucky. I am full of gratitude since I came back,” Rose said.Her family always had been nervous about returning to Vietnam because her father had fought the North Vietnamese. A half-sister of his who stayed behind was reprimanded by the communist government because of her relationship to him. She didn’t receive the retirement benefits promised her, and her children weren’t allowed to go to college, Rose said.Upon his return to Vietnam, however, Rose’s father ran into few problems. About the worst that happened was that someone official who had lost a relative in the war wouldn’t let her family pass by until they paid a $20 bribe.Her father also met the husband of her mom’s sister, who had served as a colonel in the North Vietnamese navy. The two men shook hands in mutual respect. “He told my dad, ‘I heard of you and your flying tactics and never having gotten shot down.'”The men’s respect probably came in part from the difficult circumstances soldiers on both sides faced in the war. “They had no choice but to kill each other. It’s either kill or be killed, which was really sad,” Rose said.”We all should just get along,” she added. “War kills, it doesn’t help.”Though you would never guess it from her upbeat, vivacious disposition, Rose saw her fair share of the impacts of Vietnam’s armed conflict as a child. Whereas children in the United States watch their parents go to work each day, Rose’s father went off to war, ferrying troops to battle and returning to his family each evening.”My mother would be getting up in the morning and burning incense and just worrying that he would get home at night,” Rose said.

Once Rose went to visit him in his helicopter. As she sat with him, she became hungry and he directed her to where he had some lunch she could eat. When she left to get it, a soldier sat down where she had been sitting, and was killed by gunfire.”Had I not gotten up to get the lunch box I would have been dead,” she said. “For the longest time I felt guilt. Being a mother now, I felt guilty that I took a son’s life, but I really didn’t.”Rose also saw people pushed off flying helicopters – she believes by the CIA – as a way of trying to scare other civilians into divulging information. “Both sides were bad, and neither side would have any feeling for the civilian,” Rose said.Lost country, gained lifeWhen Rose’s family members escaped, they made their way to California, where they hoped to find a family sponsor. That was difficult because of the family’s size. But eventually a sponsor came along: A Vietnam vet who helped them settle in Orem, Utah. “He was really kind and really nice to us,” she said.The man later divorced, and at one point was homeless. “We’re trying to reach him to thank him. The last we heard he’s in the Salt Lake City area,” Rose said. Rose’s father went to school to become an electrician, and then went to work at a soda ash mine in Green River, Wyo. Rose lives in Glenwood Springs so her sons can be close to their father, Robert Terry Kates, from whom Rose is divorced.Rose’s father is still a staunch anti-communist and won’t fly the Vietnamese flag in his home. “He’s sad, I feel, that we lost the war. But then again he’s very thankful that we’re over here and his children and his grandchildren have the chance to be what we can be,” she said. “I told my dad, ‘Well, we lost a country but we had a good life.'”

Here, educational opportunities are far better, Rose said. Also, Vietnamese have come to rely heavily on the tourism dollars of Viet Kieu – people from Vietnam who have gone on to better lives elsewhere.For Marcus and Alex, their trip to Vietnam gave a glimpse at how far an American dollar goes in a less prosperous economy. Alex relished the chance to buy DVDs for $1 apiece. “The north was a lot poorer than the south,” Marcus said.He said the kids in Vietnam were nice, and would take him and his brother shopping. He found the traffic to be a lot different in Vietnam. “There’s no street lights or speed limits, and they don’t really obey the signs,” he said.Alex said he liked Vietnam, “except the food wasn’t the best.” Some of it was good, but there was a lot of soup with raw meat, he said.People in Vietnam were intrigued by Alex because one of his eyes is green, unlike the dark eyes of the Vietnamese. The twins also stood out because they are taller than Vietnamese their age, thanks to the American diet.Alex said it wasn’t until he visited Vietnam that he realized the impacts of the war there. But his mom said the people are moving on and making the best of their situation. As an example, she said, they have begun using water-filled bomb craters as a place to stock fish.”They’re moving in different directions. I’m waiting for 20 years when the old guard dies so Vietnam can go on and be freer,” she said.Rose is considering retiring in Vietnam. For now, she was happy just to return there, and put some ghosts behind her. One way she did so was by visiting the elaborate temple of her father’s family, which lists ancestors going back 500 years.”I stood in front of it, and I felt a sense of pride and contentedness and connection – that I belonged. Not the guilt that I had lived when so many others didn’t.”Vail, Colorado

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