John Wast picked up a helmet from a fallen North Vietnamese Army soldier as a souvenir. A local agency that helps fund development in Vietnam helped him find the family of the soldier so the helmet could be returned.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
John Wast kept the bullet-scarred pith helmet for more than 40 years.
Damaged and dented, it served as a reminder of his time as an Army Green Beret sergeant in Vietnam, where he picked up the helmet of a North Vietnamese soldier while inspecting the enemy dead after the three-day Battle of Duc Lap in August, 1968.
Separated by decades and a continent from the war, Mr. Wast would on occasion show the helmet to visitors.
He’d take it from his office, turn it over, and display a simple drawing hidden beneath the brim — a dove in feathered flight.
“They never seemed to think it was as poignant as I did, which is understandable, but the dove was the deal. The dove means the same thing everywhere,” Mr. Wast said.
One soldier, dead on a battlefield. His sketch is a lasting sign of peace.
Another soldier — Mr. Wast — is a survivor. The dead man’s helmet he brought home is the only souvenir of the year that changed his life.
An uncanny coincidence has made it possible for the helmet to be returned to Vietnam, to the family of Bui Duc Hung — the fallen enemy soldier who etched the bird, a palm tree, and his name on its underside.
Mr. Wast, who lives in Toledo, handed over the helmet to the nonprofit Development of Vietnam Endeavors, or DOVE Fund, after learning of the local charity.
DOVE members will give it to Bui Duc Hung’s relatives when they travel this month to Vietnam.
The DOVE Fund is dedicated to aiding the war-torn country. It shares its name with the symbol scratched into the soldier’s helmet that will be returned.
“It’s extraordinary,” said Daniel Gregg, a fund trustee from Ann Arbor who is making the trip to Vietnam. “One of the things as a former soldier that I realized when I went back to Vietnam is how the world is smaller.”
“We want the same things for everybody; the war divided us and made us somehow believe we were all after different things,” he said.
The fund, founded in 2000 by veterans, Rotarians, and others, has raised more than $2.3 million for schools, medical clinics, and other projects in Vietnam.
More than a dozen representatives will pay their own way to Vietnam and spend three weeks visiting country.
Many contingent members depart this week. Among the scheduled stops is a village in the Phu Tho province where the group will deliver the helmet to the soldier’s extended family.
“It’s a beautiful opportunity to learn about each other more, Americans and Vietnamese, and share something that is very personal for them and very personal for us as well,” said John Abbey of Perrysburg, a DOVE Fund trustee who will travel to Vietnam.
Do Nguyen of Holland, a founding member of the group who came to the United States from Vietnam in 1974, helped find Bui Duc Hung’s relatives.
He used his connections to get in touch with a colonel in Vietnam who helped locate the man’s family.
The soldier’s wife and daughter are dead, but extended members of his family agreed to meet and accept the helmet.
Mr. Nguyen has spoken with family members, and he said they view the visit as a “gesture of peace.”
Vietnamese culture places importance on belongings of the deceased, and such items are treated with the same reverence as a body, he said.
They likely will have a ceremony to present the helmet and give participants an opportunity to share their thoughts.
DOVE Fund members also plan to support a project or memorial of some kind in the village to commemorate the event.
The travelers know little about the man who drew a dove on his helmet.
But Mr. Nguyen, like others, is amazed by the circumstances.
“I think when we saw … the dove inscribed in the helmet, it just didn’t seem like this was happenstance,” Fred Grimm of Holland, another Vietnam veteran and DOVE Fund founding member, said.
This trip is his 13th visit to Vietnam with the group.
“I can relate to the soldier,” he said. “You’re fearful for your life. It’s just a different situation for a young soldier, and I’m sure he had the same feelings I did.”
Mr. Wast will not make the trip, citing his dislike of travel.
He’s pleased to have helped with the helmet’s return, but said he’s not searching for closure by revisiting Vietnam.
“I got closure when the wheels lifted off on the way home,” he said of the plane ride home after his war service.
Mr. Wast, 67, spent most of his career in sales and retired several years ago from a biopharmaceutical company.
He said he learned half of what he knows from spending 1968 in Vietnam.
Vietnam shifted his perspective. It’s where he grew up, and it prepared him for losses that came later in life.
“I needed to find out I wasn’t the only one on the planet, and that everything wasn’t set up for me,” he said.
He served with the 5th Special Forces Group, and was assigned to the II Corps Mobile Strike Force, known as “Mike Force,” based in Pleiku in the Central Highlands.
He was a platoon leader and in charge of communications for the company, serving as the only American with Australian officers and indigenous Montagnard troops.
After a medic was injured, he took on those duties too.
Their job was to respond quickly to back up any special forces camps in trouble, a duty that brought him to the Battle of Duc Lap when the North Vietnamese Army attacked.
The battle started the night before they boarded a helicopter and dropped into a rice paddy outside the camp. They were driven back, set up on a hill about a kilometer away, and watched the North Vietnamese overrun half of the camp, taking one of the camp’s two hills.
His company eventually made it into the camp to help hold it. Other reinforcements arrived and took back the rest of the camp in a close-quarter fight.
Later, Mr. Wast was among those who walked the hill, examining bodies of North Vietnamese soldiers, gathering weapons, and looking for intelligence.
He saw the helmet, tied it to his rucksack, and brought it with him when he left Vietnam.
“It was always in safekeeping. It wasn’t ever mine,” he said.