Uncle Ho's 'nephew's' trip

Uncle Ho's 'nephew's' trip

Tony May holds up Vietnamese currency in the form of a new 10,000-dong bill containing Ho Chi Minh's mustachioed goatee.

The Phoenix resident then strokes his own short gray beard and mustache.

"See, there's a family resemblance — maybe he's my Uncle Ho," he says.

With that, the Army veteran lets loose an infectious chuckle. Never mind he barely survived a bullet wound some 40 years ago in South Vietnam, courtesy of Uncle Ho's Viet Cong army.

The good-natured May, 61, returned home from a 10-day trip to Vietnam at the end of March. The former Army corporal was among 10 veterans, all wounded during the Vietnam War, selected randomly in a national drawing by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to return to the land where they were wounded.

Their journey back in time was paid for by the Charles Kahle Fund, a trust dedicated to providing special opportunities for wounded veterans. The trip took them to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the Mekong Delta, Hue, Hoi An, Marble Mountain, China Beach and the DMZ (demilitarized zone).

"I didn't go back to Vietnam for closure," May says. "I wanted to go back because I was curious. I also like the Vietnamese.

"I never fired a shot in anger when I was there the first time," he adds. "When they were shooting at me, I shot back. That was the deal. Of course, self-protection had a lot to do with it."

Nor did he return to collect souvenirs. After all, he still carries one from his 1968 trip: a 7.62 mm bullet from an AK-47 rifle still lodged against his spinal column high in his neck.

Drafted in the summer of 1967, May arrived in South Vietnam in February 1968. He joined Bravo Company, part of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

It was in the mountainous Que Son Valley halfway between Da Nang and Chu Lai on Sept. 16, 1968, that the VC attacked his unit's camp. A bullet slammed into the right side of May's head, traveling in a downward trajectory. It ripped down the side of his head, cutting the jugular vein before lodging in his neck.

Although he was saved by medics in the field and the hospital staff back in Da Nang, he barely survived. For months, his meals were served through a tube threaded down through his nasal cavity to his stomach. Nerve damage made it impossible to swallow. The wound would leave him deaf in his right ear and with a permanent stiff neck. It was, he says with a chuckle, a pain in the neck.

"Yeah, I got hit pretty good but I've never had PTSD," he says, referring to post traumatic stress disorder. "And I had no flashbacks, no bad dreams, when I returned."

As he expected, there have been changes in Vietnam since what the Vietnamese call the "American War."

"One big difference is there are a lot of red flags with yellow stars on it," he quips of the Communist takeover of what was South Vietnam.

"Of course, when I was there, it was a combat area," he says. "This time, almost to a person, they like Americans. Some of that has to do with the fact we have money. But they do like us."

For the former teacher, the high point was visiting a school in Ho Chi Minh City where students smiled and waved. He hopes to return to teach part-time.

"Before I went back, I didn't believe they would like Americans," he says. "I believe that now."

But he found Ho Chi Minh City with its roughly 7 million inhabitants a bit too hectic.

"There must be 300 million motorbikes there," he says. "Try crossing the street now and you put your life in your hands, I kid you not."

He figures he left his hand imprint on the fender of one motorbike flying out of an alley at full throttle.

"Country, one of the guys who was with me, told me, 'I thought you were going to be an ornament there for a minute,'" he says. But the former ground-pounder spent most of his time getting his civilian boots back on the ground.

"You know what? I spent a lot of time laughing," he says.

"I went to Khe Sanh where they have this museum that's basically a stack of American rucksacks and boots," he says of a horrific battle site in 1968. "I was thinking, 'And these are your trophies?' "

While visiting Marble Mountain near Da Nang, he was accosted by a woman wanting to sell him a statue.

"I told her that I liked the one of the full-figured woman, then asked her, "Could you give me the top half of it?,' " he says. "She cracked up."

The Vietnamese got a kick out of his Uncle Ho imitation.

"They told me all I had to do was shave my forehead back a little and we would be identical twins," he says, then adds, "They have a great sense of humor. I appreciate that."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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