Correspondent Keith Morrison Reports, Dateline NBC
Part 1 – Day to Remember
It is just a photograph, torn by the decades. But it’s a tiny picture that tells an epic story. It’s an image that held a man captive for more than 30 years — an image of a child he never knew. It’s a journey to find that child, to face the past and to heal it. You’re about to learn how one American has been able to do what an entire nation has not. Keith Morrison reports.
“I THINK THIS is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Rich Luttrell.
His nerves are tight with pent-up emotion and fear. He watches the jungle glide beneath the window of the 747. But all he can see is that picture. What was so powerful about her image that has drawn him here? “Just something about her,” he says. “Her eyes, her features.” Who was she? Why did she look so sad? Why was he so obsessed? “When I look at it,” he says, “it almost hypnotized me.” Just as it has ever since that day in the jungle half way around the world.
“It was the one moment and the one act in combat that has been a burden for me for 33 something years,” says Rich. Which is where we have to begin — 1967, when 17-year-old Richard Luttrell thought he saw a way out of the poverty-stricken housing projects in Illinois where he grew up. He joined the Army.
"I was like, man, this is really neat, man,” he says, “two new pairs of boots, a new pair of shoes and these new clothes.” Had he ever had that many clothes before? “Not at one time,” he says. He was poor. But more than that, he was patriotic. He wanted to go. He joined the 101st Airborne’s First Brigade, and like so many other young men, trained for “I THINK THIS is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Rich Luttrell. His nerves are tight with pent-up emotion and fear. He watches the jungle glide beneath the window of the 747. But all he can see is that picture. What was so powerful about her image that has drawn him here? “Just something about her,” he says. “Her eyes, her features.” Who was she? Why did she look so sad? Why was he so obsessed? “When I look at it,” he says, “it almost hypnotized me.” Just as it has ever since that day in the jungle half way around the world. “It was the one moment and the one act in combat that has been a burden for me for 33 something years,” says Rich. Which is where we have to begin — 1967, when 17-year-old Richard Luttrell thought he saw a way out of the poverty-stricken housing projects in Illinois where he grew up. He joined the Army. "I was like, man, this is really neat, man,” he says, “two new pairs of boots, a new pair of shoes and these new clothes.” Had he ever had that many clothes before? “Not at one time,” he says. He was poor. But more than that, he was patriotic. He wanted to go. He joined the 101st Airborne’s First Brigade, and like so many other young men, trained for war in Vietnam.
“The day I got to my unit, the chopper came down in the jungle,” says Rich. “And I saw the members of my platoon standing around — my age. And these were some tough-looking guys — just their eyes. And I can remember thinking ‘My God, what have I got myself into?’” He had been trained like the rest of them, to fight the enemy on their terms, to fight like guerillas — night ambushes, search and destroy. But he was just barely 18. So this puny kid from the projects found himself in a world for which no amount of training could adequately prepare - the Vietnam jungle. It is hot or wet, or both. No roof, no bed, no rest, no break from the fear. He was just a scrawny kid with a backpack almost as big as he was who learned that the first rule is, you keep going and going and going. “There were times I can remember contouring a mountain, really trying to choke the tears back, like ‘God, please stop, I can’t go no more,’” he says. “And we’d do that from daylight until dark. And I thought, ‘What am I going to do if we get in a firefight? I can’t move. I’m so tired. What do I do in a firefight?’ And I never was prepared for that.”
And then came the day that changed everything. It was hot, as always, like wearing a coat in a steam room. He had no idea his enemy was just feet away in the jungle. “Out of the corner of my right eye I see movement,” says Rich. “I could see an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldier leaning over with an AK 47, squatting.”
It was the first time he’d ever seen a North Vietnamese soldier. “In my whole life,” says Rich, “never seen one.”
He was barely 18. Suddenly flooded with fear, his body seemed to freeze. He couldn’t let it. "I had to react,” says Rich. “I had to do something. It was my decision.”
He was in the enemy’s gunsight. Death was a heartbeat away. He turned and looked the enemy soldier full in the face. “It seemed like we stared at each other for a long time,” he says. And then, like it was all in slow motion, he pulled the trigger. “And I just started firing, full automatic. And he went down,” he says. “It turned into a pretty heavy firefight. And I wasn’t smart enough to hit the ground. And somebody tackled me, and took me to the ground.” Did he realize that particular North Vietnamese soldier could have killed him before he even saw him? “Absolutely, absolutely,” he says. “And I’ve wondered even today. I go through my mind and I wonder why didn’t he fire?” But that is not what played on Rich, haunted him, year after year after year. Not the gunfight, nor the killing. There would be a lot of that.
RICH LUTTRELL, the naive 18-year-old from the projects, had finally met his enemy and survived. That Vietnamese soldier could have killed him. Instead it was the other way around. “The adrenaline rush is over and you’re all soaking wet and you feel like your legs won’t hold you,” says Rich. “And it hits you - I just took a life.”
“Dateline” wouldn’t be reporting this story, there might not be a story to tell, if they hadn’t made eye contact, and if Rich hadn’t been a green kid in shock after his first kill, horrified that his buddies went and picked souvenirs from the body. Someone reached down and pulled out the dead man’s wallet. A piece of paper fell out. Rich picked it up. It was a photograph.
“I saw this picture sticking out, partially out,” recalls Rich. “It looked like the face of a little girl with some long hair or something. And I pulled it out and it was real tiny. And it was a picture of a soldier and a little girl. It was not much bigger than a postage stamp.” Who were they? The dead man? Was he her father?
“I can remember holding the photo,” he says, “and actually squatting and getting close to the soldier and actually looking in his face and looking at the photo, and looking at his face.”
They seemed so serious, so sad somehow. Like the picture was taken just before they said goodbye - before that little girl’s father went off to be shot by Rich Luttrell.
“It hit me really hard,” says Rich. Not for long, mind you. Within minutes they moved out again. Rich stuffed the tiny picture in his wallet. What possessed him to take the photograph? “I don’t know,” he says. “I thought about it a million times. The first part of the photo I seen was the young girl and there was a sadness about it.”
But not for a moment should you believe that Rich was a reluctant soldier, disinclined to engage the enemy. If he was going to survive, he’d have to learn how to kill without grieving. And he did. In this awful place he got tough fast. Rich was the man they sent to clear underground tunnels. He became skilled at hand-to-hand combat. He watched friends die. He killed his enemies and prayed that he might live. “I can remember being on a hill one night and mortar rounds just pounding in the dark,” he says, “and hearing guys screaming and getting blown out of holes, and pulling my rucksack over my head and thinking, ‘God, don’t let one hit me.’ Everybody around you is getting hit, you know. I mean, how lucky can you be? Can you go six months more? Probably not.” He had just 20 days left when, under fire, he set out to recover a fallen comrade. And the bullet ripped into his back — the wound that sent him home. “I can remember when I got on the helicopter,” he says, “all of a sudden this tremendous guilt hit me, like, where are you going? What are you doing? What are you leaving these guys for?”
Rich came home to a case full of medals and married his home-town sweetheart, Carole. The 1960s gave way to the 1970s; he learned pretty fast not to talk about the war. The times were changing. Rich got a life — two daughters, a good career eventually at the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Rich tried to put Vietnam behind him, to concentrate on the future with his wife Carole. “He really didn’t talk about Vietnam for years,” says Carole. “It just was something he kept very personal and very hidden.” But there was no hiding from the little girl whose picture he still carried around in his wallet. “I really formed a bond,” says Rich. “And especially to the little girl in the photograph.” It was so odd, so strange. All the horrors Rich had seen in battle and it was this little face that kept coming back to haunt him. The picture that weighed far less than an ounce, weighed on his mind something awful.
“At Christmas time lots of times, when my younger daughters would say ‘Mom, what can I get Dad for Christmas?’” says Rich. “And on several occasions I would get new wallets. We all know that process of we’re taking our credit cards out and everything and I’d pull that picture out and there it is again. Here’s a young daughter doesn’t have a father thanks to me.” If he hadn’t kept it, maybe he never would have had that emotion. “I agree absolutely,” says Rich. “And over the years, I can honestly say there’s been times over the years that I thought I wish I’d never taken that picture.” It haunted him. Carole tried to be understanding. She was always supportive, but it wasn’t always easy. “The only thing I could ever say was, ‘Why don’t you just get rid of it?’” says Carole. “You know? Let it go. And get it out of your life and you can forget it and go on.” "And I said, well I know I just can’t,” Rich says. “I can’t destroy it. I just can’t get rid of it. To me, it has to be done in some special way and I don’t know what that is. It has to be done with some respect and honor I said, because he was a brave soldier.”
It was 1989, more than 20 years after his return from Vietnam, that it all suddenly became clear. Rich and Carole were on vacation. They decided to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. And that’s when Rich knew what he could do with that tiny tattered photograph. “I said, ‘You know that picture?’” Rich recalls. “I said, ‘I’m going to leave it at the wall.’ And her face lit up. I could just see, this was something good.” Sitting in their hotel, he decided to do it right. “I sat down on the bed with just a scratch pad that was in the hotel room,” he says. “I started thinking, I thought, if there was any way possible that you could talk to that soldier, what would you say, you know? In just a couple of minutes, I scribbled out a little note.” In it, he said those few little things he’d always wanted to say. He wrote:
“Dear sir, for 22 years, I’ve carried your picture in my wallet. I was only 18 years old that day we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Forgive me for taking your life. So many times over the years, I’ve stared at your picture and your daughter, I suspect. Each time, my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt. Forgive me sir.”
When Rich reads the words even now, it does something to him. The next day, Rich placed the photo and the letter at the foot of the memorial under the names of 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam. “It was a final salute to him, you know,” says Rich. “He died fighting for what he believed in. And it was a way to honor and respect him.” By then he was not an enemy at all. “He wasn’t an enemy,” says Rich. “He was a friend. And it was like saying good-bye to a friend. And at that moment, it was like I had just finished a firefight and dropped my rucksack and got to rest. That load I was carrying was gone. It was gone.” It all lifted off. “Just felt great,” he says. “I felt free, felt relieved. I felt free.” How could he know the real power of that tiny picture, of the little girl with pigtails, now no longer young?
IT WAS GONE. The photo was gone. The guilt was gone. There at that magnificent wall in Washington, the burden had lifted. And back home in Illinois, it was almost like Rich and Carole got to start all over again. “So many times I’d heard her say, ‘You know every time you pull that out, it just upsets you for days,’” he says. “‘You’re in a state of depression. And I wish you’d get rid of it.’ And I did in 1989.” Or so he thought. Every day, hundreds of people say goodbye to bits and pieces of the war and leave them along the granite walls of the memorial. And every single thing, sacred or profane, is collected and boxed up by park rangers — including Rich’s photo. Which just happened to land at the top of one of those boxes, which just happened to land face up, which just happened to be seen by another Vietnam Veteran who knew right away, this was something different. “I thought, what is this?” says Duery Felton, who is curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial collection. “So I reached down and picked it up.”
He has seen just about everything at the Memorial. But a picture of an enemy soldier? “I looked down and saw this uniform, this green uniform which I immediately recognized,” Felton. “I really did a double take.” He doesn’t often see a thing like that at the Wall. “Well, I haven’t seen it in about 30-odd years, that green uniform,” says Duery. “The question that came to my mind was, ‘Who was the little girl with him?’ Was it his daughter? Was it his niece?” And he read Rich’s letter of apology. “As a young man in Vietnam,” says Duery. “I had to help carry bodies of comrades. Body bags and ponchos. I read that letter and it was about taking a life. It’s very difficult to do that. That decision has to be made in a matter of seconds. And you have to live with those decisions the rest of your life. So it was somewhat comforting, if that’s the proper term, to know that someone else has been through that, and they set it down on paper.”
Felton used Rich’s letter and photo during exhibits about the Wall, teaching a new generation about wars, and what fighting in them did to people. Now the photo that had haunted Rich for so many years was mesmerizing another Vietnam veteran. What was it about that image that was so powerful that he’d hang on to it and couldn’t let go? “I think it resonated some place in my psyche,” says Duery. “And just had a profound impact upon me.” Of course Rich knew none of this back in Rochester, Illinois. He was getting on with his life. He’d watched his daughters grow up and have children of their own. Now, he was marveling at his two small granddaughters. He’d managed to put that other little girl out of his mind. But now she had captivated Duery Felton. And when a publishing company asked him to help produce a book about the Wall, he knew she had to be in it. “That haunted me for years and years as to who the little girl was,” says Duery.
The book in which Rich’s photo, and letter, appeared was “Offerings at the Wall,” a simple and haunting illustration of memory and respect. And one day, “Offerings at the Wall” turned up at the office of Illinois state representative Ron Stephens. “I’m paging through it,” says Stephens. “I turn to a particular page and a photo that I had never seen in my life, all of a sudden it just hit me so hard. I knew that soldier. I knew that picture.” Knew it? How could he? He’d never even seen the photo before. But he had heard about it from his good friend, Rich Luttrell. “I literally slid down the wall and was squatting in the back of the room holding this picture and I knew that it was Rich’s picture,” says Stephens.” I knew the story of how he had left it at the wall. I knew it oh so well. We’d talked about it so many times.”
It was 1996, seven years after Rich thought he’d said his final goodbye to the photo. “I got in my car and drove over to Rich’s office,” says Stephens.
Rich says, “He just showed up out of the clear blue at 10 o’clock one morning in my office.” Ron Stephens recalls, “I interrupted a meeting he was in with someone else. I said, “You got a minute?’ He said ‘Sure.’ I laid the book on his desk. I said, ‘Have you seen this?’ He said ‘No.’ And I said ‘Rich, turn to page 53.’”
“And I turned to page 53 and there was the picture of the picture I had left at the wall and the note I’d wrote to the soldier,” says Rich. “I just instantly just started to, I mean, I just lost it, emotionally. I just broke into tears.” It was as if she were staring right at him, refusing to go away. As if she was accusing him of trying to abandon her. “For me, that moment was, it was almost a nightmare,” he says. “It was like, you know, little girl, what do you want from me? You know, what do you want from me?” Now the obsession returned full force. He knew he had to get the picture back. So he contacted Duery Felton, who’d become so attached to the photo himself he personally flew from Washington, D.C., to Illinois to hand-deliver it back to Rich. Anyone who didn’t understand might have found it rather strange. That two middle-aged men, who didn’t know each other, had never met, would hold on and weep real tears for a small girl neither knew.
So Rich took the photo and it all came back in a stinging rush like a wound reopened. Rich knew he had to find a way to make it heal completely. “I was talking to my wife one evening and I said, ‘You know I don’t know if it’s something mystic or fate,’” says Rich. “But I said, somehow I have to return this picture. And she said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to find that little girl. I’m going to find that family of that soldier.’” Maybe, if he could find out where she lived and if he could put that picture in an envelope and mail it away out of his life. But how? He didn’t know her name or where she lived. He had no idea what she might look like now. Carole tried, best as she could, to tell him it was a nice idea that was simply impossible. “You can’t speak the language,” says Carole. “You know absolutely no one in Vietnam. I mean, you’re always seeing where people are trying to find a missing person. You can’t find people in the states. How would you ever find somebody from 30 years ago, who is 30 years older in a totally different foreign country that hasn’t been America-friendly in the past?” Those were all perfectly good, logical reasons to set aside his plan. And all perfectly lost on someone so consumed. “If he has decided he is going to do it, he is going to do it,” she says. “So you know, I didn’t badger him and say, you can’t do it. Just give up. Forget it. It ain’t happening. It’s not worth the effort. I’m tired of hearing it.” Carole admits she did get tired of hearing it. It was an obsession. It was as hard on her as much as on him. How much did she want that to go away? “I don’t know that I wanted it to go away,” she says. “I wanted him to find peace with it.”
THE PHOTOGRAPH of the soldier and the little girl had been doing its quiet work for years. But now it had inspired what seemed an impossible mission.
“I said that little girl won’t leave me alone,” says Rich. “I said well, if that’s the way she wants it. I guess I’m just going to have to find her.” He didn’t know her name, where she lived, what she looked like, exactly how old she was, or even if she was still alive. But he did know he had to find her. He thought it might help if he spread the word that he was looking. So he called a newspaperman in St. Louis. “I did an interview with a fellow at the St. Louis Post Dispatch,” he says. “And the story made the front page of the Post Dispatch.” The plan kept forming as he went. He folded up that article and stuck it in a letter to the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington, D.C. “I explained to him that I wanted some assistance from him in helping locate the little girl in the photo and finding the family of the soldier,” he says. “He told me he would forward it to Hanoi. And he said something to the effect of, maybe we’ll get lucky.” It was a needle in a haystack. It’s a big country. “Million to one, million to one,” says Rich.
Actually, there are nearly 80 million people in Vietnam. Even Rich had his doubts. “I really didn’t expect anything positive to come out of it,” he says. “How? I mean, deep down I really didn’t. But I knew it was something I had to do, I said I got to give it a shot.” And so a copy of the photograph made its way all the way around the world again to the capitol of Vietnam, to Hanoi. There, an enterprising newspaper editor recognized a good story when he saw one and published the photograph along with an appeal: “Does anyone know these people?”
If the article failed to hit its mark, well it was a shot in the dark anyway. But there’s another way newspapers make their way around in a time-honored tradition — as wrapping paper. It just so happened that a man in Hanoi decided to send his mother a care package. He happened to wrap that package in the newspaper that contained Rich’s photo. Even so, this story could have, should have, really, ended there. But for whatever reason — just bizarre coincidence probably — the photo made the journey unscathed and to exactly the right place. It traveled to a rural village, far from the city, where that old woman unwrapped her son’s parcel from Hanoi. And something on the wrinkled wrapping paper caught her eye. That man in the picture was someone she knew. So she took that paper to a tiny hamlet down the road and told a brother and sister there — this is your father.
It was wildly improbable, as if the picture itself refused to be denied. Against all conceivable odds, it found its mark. Thousands of miles away, Rich was settling in for a long wait. But just weeks later, a letter arrived in his mailbox from the Vietnamese ambassador. “It said that an individual named Nguyen Van Hue had written him a letter saying that he believed that the soldier was his father and that little girl in the photograph was his sister,” says Rich. Thirty three years after he first set eyes on her, he finally knew. She was alive. She’d been there all the time. And in the most bizarre and improbable way, he had found her. She had a name — Lan. She had children herself. “It just didn’t seem possible,” says Rich. “It seemed surreal. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. And of course, all that emotion again, and you know, now it’s real.” But did he think they’d hate him? “I thought there was a possibility of that,” he says. And then he began to worry that Lan and her brother might get the wrong idea about his participation in the war. “I was very open, very honest,” he says, “because in their letter, they mentioned ‘your’ guilt and ‘your’ regret and it was important for me to extend to them the difference between guilt and regret. I do carry some guilt because of that action. But I have no regret as a soldier, and participation in that war. And it was important for me to make sure they understood that.”
What did he expect back? After all, he had killed their father. “I wasn’t sure,” says Rich. “I wasn’t sure what to expect back, you know, whether they would have a lot of animosity toward me and a lot of anger. I didn’t know what to expect. I really didn’t.” How would she feel, that little fatherless girl? Had he been her monster all these years? How would his own daughter have felt about an enemy who had taken so much? He didn’t have long to wonder before, one day, there was another letter. This time, it was from that little girl he’d stared at so long — the girl in the picture, now all grown up. He rushed it to a translator.
It read: “Dear Mr. Richard, the child that you have taken care of, or through the picture, for over 30 years, she becomes adult now, and she had spent so much sufferance in her childhood by the missing of her father. I hope you will bring the joy and happiness to my family.” Joy? Happiness? “It is amazing,” says Rich. “It is amazing to me.” Could it be that after all, she did forgive him? Just as that news was sinking in, the whole thing seemed to blow apart. After an internal investigation, the Vietnamese government concluded that Lan’s father could not be the soldier in the photograph, because military records showed her father didn’t die where and when Rich thought he remembered killing the soldier. And then three other families chimed in, telling Rich that was their father. The man in the photo belonged to them instead.
How could Rich know for sure? It was so difficult for the Vietnamese to keep accurate records. Something like three million Vietnamese died during the war. Even now, there are 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs. But then there was another letter that seemed to put all the uncertainty to rest for Rich. It was from a comrade who’d known Lan’s father since they were little boys together and had fought alongside him. He said he was certain he was the man in the photo.
“That was just an extra piece of information that made me feel more positive about it,” says Rich. And once that whole confusing business had been settled and he’d traded more letters with the family, it finally dawned on him. All along he’d thought that somehow he wanted to return the photo - maybe mail it to her. Now finally he understood. He would have to go back to Vietnam himself. He would have to carry the photo.
“If I have the opportunity to provide closure to a Vietnamese family,” says Rich, “shouldn’t I do that? Is that something I should do? Yes it is. Absolutely, it’s something I should do. It’s just the right thing to do.” But how could he face Vietnam and his own closet full of horrors? And how would he face the girl?
“How do you tell a little girl — hi, my name’s Rich Luttrell, I killed your father in Vietnam?” asks Rich. “You know, how do you do that. How can that be an easy thing to do? Even the decision to do it.” Can it be an easy thing for her to say, it’s OK Rich. You were doing your duty? Could Rich himself look into the face of the man who killed your father in combat, or your mother or your brother? “I don’t know,” says Rich. “That’s a question I’m not sure anyone can answer. I’m really not.”
So what will happen when he meets the family? “There’s a risk there, there really is,” he says. “There’s a risk there. I don’t know how they’re going to react.”
“THIS IS NOT easy,” says Richard Luttrell. “It’s really hard for me.” Here he is, in the early spring of a new millennium, preparing to face his own past. He feels swept along, as if the story he started is now controlling him. “The whole thing’s bigger than I am,” he says. “It’s hard for me to understand it sometimes myself. But I know what I’m doing is the right thing, it’s the right thing to do.”
Years ago, he swore that he would never go back to that place. He had seen too much killing, too many horrors. All that suffering reflected in that one small image.
But now, here he was — going. “Dateline” had offered to take Rich to the place where it all began 33 years ago, when he first picked up that picture, so tiny he could easily have missed it. It would have been in some local photo shop, where the soldier and his little girl had their picture taken, so that he might remember her, and she him, when he went off to war. Like a live thing, it had made its way from a dead man to a dusty trail in Vietnam, to an American GI, a war memorial, to a book, to a wallet, to a bag, on its way home. “This is the flight I’ve been looking for,” says Rich.
He and Carole board the plane. There’s no turning back now. When he’s anxious, he writes it down. He has always been like that.
“For me, this trip will mark the beginning of the end,” he says. “The end to the photo and the soldier and his daughter which has haunted me for all these years.”
There was nothing more haunting than her face, which he knows can’t be the same. But neither is he. And neither is Vietnam. For Rich, Vietnam is both familiar and strange. Above all, it is nerve-wracking.
The day before the meeting, Rich is almost beyond nervous. “I’d almost rather face combat again than face this girl,” he says. It is a cloudy Wednesday morning in Hanoi. Rain is threatening as Rich boards a van for the two and a half hour drive to Lan’s village. They drive through a world still utterly different, past markets crowded with faces amazed to see this entourage and this white-haired man. The village draws closer. In the van Rich fidgets, edgy. And then suddenly, he and Carole are here, walking. Here is where that somber, serious soldier lived and had his children. It is the place to which he never returned.
Rich is nervous. And then, just around a stone wall, he sees a woman. And he is sure. “I’ve already seen her,” says Rich. “I know who she is.”
He takes a moment, to compose himself, then walks toward her. And here they are. They had never laid eyes on each other before. For a few seconds, they don’t know what to say. They are intimate strangers. He recites a sentence he has learned in Vietnamese. “Today,” he says, “I return the photo of you and your father, which I have kept for 33 years. Please forgive me.” Finally, it all comes pouring out — this terrible, painful release. It is as if right now at this moment she is finally able to give in to grief, and cry for the father she never really knew.
She hugs him and cries. She clutches Rich as if he were her father himself, finally coming home from the war. Her brother tells us that both of them believe that their father’s spirit lives on in Rich. They expect we’ll think it’s just superstition. And, perhaps, they say, it is. But for them, today is the day their father’s spirit has come back to them. The whole village has turned out to see the photo returned. It is really an extended family, the village, and they all grieve for the lost soldier. They know what this means to Lan, to all the people the photo has touched. How do you return such a powerful thing as that picture? Once Rich had wondered about formality, ceremony. But not now. “Tell her this is the photo I took from her father’s wallet the day I shot and killed him and that I’m returning it,” he says.
She is 40-years-old, and it’s the first time she has held the photo of herself and her father in her hands. She buries her face in his image. It is the closest she has been to him since she was 6-years-old and he went off to war. It is as if the burden of it all is transferred over as the tiny photo changes hands. Now, it is Rich who comforts Lan. It is the only photo of the soldier Nguyen Trong Ngoan that his children will ever have. Lan and her brother Hue place the photo on an altar to their dead parents. Rich joins the prayer.
“Their father was a very brave man and he died a brave man and a courageous warrior,” says Rich. “And he did not suffer. I’m so sorry.” Lan and Rich hug and cry. It is clear now. She forgives him. And in the hours that follow, Rich almost becomes a member of the family and a main attraction. Rich meets one of the soldier’s old comrades. Soon these former enemies are trading war stories as if they’d fought together in this tiny corner of the world, where gravestones memorialize the North Vietnamese soldiers who never came home. But perhaps more remarkable is this. Something in him, just now, has changed — 33 years after he pulled the trigger in the jungle that hot, confusing day. He forgives himself.
Rich walks off, saying “It’s hard.” As hard as it was for Rich to come here, it is almost more difficult to leave. Rich and Lan hug goodbye. Back in the van, Rich breaks down. Thirty-three years ago, Richard Luttrell came to this country to make war. Today he returned and made peace. He left behind the photo and his demons, too. And the ghost of that sad little girl is finally gone, replaced by a woman who survived her father’s death and forgave the man who killed him. The picture that brought Rich and Lan together may now help keep them together. Rich says he plans to stay in contact with Lan and her family. He also hopes the story of how he’s faced his past may somehow help other veterans to face theirs. Many veterans are returning to Vietnam to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the war.
It’s strange, how life can treat a person. It has not been an easy year for Rich Luttrell. Not long after he came back from Vietnam, he had a stroke. Mild, but ascare just the same. And then a brother died. And his mother fell ill. Life doesn’t always make Hollywood endings. But still, he has that moment that replays over and over in his mind. It was, he has often said, as if one part of his brain wouldn’t let the war end. “For 30 years,” says Rich, “I fought that, just reliving that and reliving that.”
Going back to Vietnam with that photo, that was like fighting the last fight. And now? “It really has given me a great deal of comfort,” he says. “Because it was eating at me, and it’s not there no more. I just don’t carry that guilt anymore.”
Almost a year later, he still carries that final moment like a talisman—that one moment when his whole life turned. "When I took her hands,” he says, “just the sense of the feel of her hands and I embraced her. It was just like I put my rucksack down and I rested everything was all right.” It’s still difficult for Rich to grasp—how a man could take a life and gain a family. How all that suffering for all those years, could simply and suddenly disappear. He could not disguise, before going to Vietnam, the amount of anxiety he felt about the place—the amount of grief about that photograph, guilt—all those feelings that were so clearly there. What happened to those feelings? “Once I seen her they were just gone,” says Rich. “I mean, she just put them at peace.”
They still exchange letters, Rich and the soldier’s children. Hue, the soldier’s son, wrote to Rich: “during the time you visited our family, all the people of my village recognized that you were so kind, so good. As you left Vietnam, I dreamed my father came back home.” For a whole generation, a corner of his heart was cold and sad. Now, it’s not. “It’s joy,” says Rich. “It’s not sadness. I mean, it’s joy.”