Saunders shares Vietnam experience then and now

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The Saunders family stands on the same rock on former Landing Zone Santana that he and two surviving close buddies stood upon in May 1967. From left are Abigail Mack, Elisa Rollins, Denise Saunders, Steve Saunders and Amanda Osborne. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

”What I reveal here has been on my silent screen since 1967, rerunning behind my eyes in virtual reality. I kept it close. Few would understand. Compared to my civilian life, this scene is a stray intrusive oddity, yet it has backlit that life. Each day my mind wanders to it. Once you see war it plays endlessly.” April, 2016

The above quote is the opening paragraph from Vietnam Army veteran Sergeant Stephen Saunders' booklet, Dead Reckoning, an expansion on a chapter taken from his first literary project, Breaking Squelch: A Vietnam Introspective, published in 2005. The booklet was submitted to "O-Dark-Thirty," a literary platform for veterans and members of the military community to share their writing. A re-worked edition later appeared in "Home & Abroad,"  a vet's writing program of Longwood University. 

Service background

Saunders, a Garnavillo resident, landed in Vietnam at the age of 18 to fight in a war that has continued to haunt him. The retired Iowa lawyer and his wife, Denise, and their three daughters, Elisa, Amanda, and Abigail, recently returned to Vietnam to revisit the area that shaped his young life. 

Saunders shared his experience with a full-house of program attendees, many who were Vietnam war veterans, at the Guttenberg Public Library. "I  enlisted in the Army paratroopers right out of high school. When I landed in Vietnam, I went directly to the bush. I experienced a lot of trauma associated with infantry combat in Vietnam, then forgot about it. Twenty-five years after my return to the States, episodes started to flashback. I felt an intense desire to find my Army buddies. I needed to reconnect and contact the families of those who were killed. Other than my family, the men I served with are one of the most important aspects of my adult life. No matter what, we had each other's back," he said.  

Battlefield tours 

He continued, "I never had any desire to go back to Vietnam, but my daughters suggested the trip. We went together as a family. It was a joy. I am so glad we did it." 

"I gave my daughter Amanda a couple of my wartime maps that plotted areas where severe action occurred — some maps that showed the areas where I served. She did some investigative research online to find a reputable company that would help us with our touring agenda," he said, "We selected "Battlefield Tours," a non-profit organization run by five ex-servicemen. 

Saunders explained, "The outfit took care of everything we needed.  My daughter showed them on the map the areas we wanted to visit.  The tour guides were able to get us to the general area; after that I was able to visually see the landmarks we were searching for." They ranged into rustic locales of the Central Highlands that few tourists visit.

Then and now

Arriving in Taipei, Taiwan, after a 16-hour flight, the group of 16, including ten veterans, boarded another aircraft and flew into Hanoi, Vietnam's capital. 

"The economy in Vietnam is starting to thrive. After 1975 when the North Vietnamese won the war, economic activity stagnated. People starved, thousands affiliated with the South Vietnamese government or armed forces were enslaved in 're-education' gulags. In the 1990s, after Vietnam opened up to the West and permitted some free enterprise, lifestyles began to improve," he commented.

Saunders was surprised at what he saw. "Vietnam has changed so much. There is no longer the same level of poverty. The children are well-fed and much healthier. They no longer have the distended abdomens that plagued their little bodies so many years ago. People's teeth were white and their smiles were beautiful; chewing betel nuts is no longer a common practice.   Mud-walled and thatched-roofed dwellings have been updated with cement walls and tile roofs," he commented.

Vacation highlights  

The Saunderses, who love to rock-n-roll dance, had an opportunity early one morning along the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake, in downtown Hanoi to kick up their heels. "We were enjoying a stroll through the park at 5 a.m.  There were people everywhere practicing Tai-Chi, choral groups singing, people out running and exercising and a rock and roll band was performing. Never passing up an opportunity to dance, we be-bopped,"  he commented with a smile.

A huge Hanoi mausolem displays Ho Chi Minh's corpse. Saunders reported, "There is no talking permitted during the viewing, but I whispered to a friend; 'I never thought that 50 years after my war, I would stand in line to see a dead Stalinist killer,'" he exclaimed.  

Many scenes reminiscent of his time spent in Vietnam during the war remain.  "The countryside dirt roads and trails are all the same. Manure piles that were omnipresent during wartime have now been replaced by garbage piles of plastic bags that litter the sides of the road," he said. 


Saunders gathered photos from his days in Vietnam during the war to take along on his trip. With the assistance of the tour guides, he and his family were able to find many of the backdrop locations where the treasured photos were originally taken with his platoon  buddies. 

The group visited a Catholic orphanage, ate lunch in the jungle, and shopped in open markets observing produce displayed with little regard to health and safety standards. Hotel accommodations were luxurious and meals were first rate. 

Saunders noted, "There were mopeds and motorbikes everywhere in the cities, especially Hanoi and Saigon. They are used like U-Haul trucks — nothing seems too big to be carried on them, including livestock, furniture and the whole family." Cell phones abound. 

The following is the final paragraph from Reflections, his 2016 essay that Saunders shared with the library audience.  

"In 1967, as I left the 'bush' for the last time, whopping chopper blades drowned my elated shout of “Airborne!” They lifted me upward, homeward, away from my rifle platoon forever.  As the Huey slowly rose, my right arm went up in salute to those left behind, to those gone before, to all that we had been and done, to our teenage savvy of a world of suffering, injustice, evil and love—and to all that we had risked and endured that none can say. I was buoyant; the moment seemed as an ascent to heaven.  But it was to be a low height. I would be anchored there always. The shooting stopped, but there was no cease-fire. I hold that salute. My body left that doomful place, but my youth and its unbroken heart never boarded that helicopter."

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