CYPRESS, California (NV) — Lee Lagda, 82, an American veteran who fought in Vietnam, will return to Quang Tri more than 50 years after he was stationed there to find a school principal who gave him a special gift.
“At the beginning of 1968, right after Mau Than Tet (the start of the Tet Offensive), my unit, the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 of the United States Navy, was mobilized from Da Nang to the middle of Hue and to the Marine combat base in Quang Tri,” he said.
At that time, Lagda was frustrated watching the innocents becoming the victims of war, he said.
“When I was 5 years old, I had to witness the death of my father in World War II, so I wanted to do something for the innocent Vietnamese children,” he shared.
To do this, he put together a group made up of troops from his battalion and several people from the Medical Civic Action Program (MEDCAP) to travel to Phu Oc village, located about six miles south of his camp and close to two miles north of Hue. Several villages had only one school, and that one school had only one class.
“Every week, on average, we took care of about 100 patients. Most were students and children around that area,” he said.
Around early August 1968, he went to meet with the school principal to announce that he was to return to America.
“Even though I did not have much contact with him, I wanted to thank him for letting us borrow the school and make it into a clinic and for allowing the students to go to health checks during school hours,” Lagda said. He considered it a courtesy to the principal.
Two days later, an unexpected event happened at the naval base.
“I was so surprised when the guard reported that there was someone at the gate wanting to see me,” he remembered. ”I did not expect it to be the principal, with his wife and son who was about 5 years old.”
“You have to remember that this area was very unsafe The Viet Cong had set a lot of landmines along Highway 1, and they exploded like a daily meal. But he was willing to give up time, overcome danger, and took all of his family to come to see me. Everyone dressed up very formally. And, he gifted me a painting.”
It is an oil painting on paper, just a bit larger than an 8-by-10 photo, that depicts activities at a small village market.
“He said he just painted for fun. But to me, this is the most precious gift of my life,” Ladga continued, proudly.
The principal also gave Lagda his full name and address, with the hope that the two would have a chance to see each other again in a better situation.
“Unfortunately, while moving from one base to another, I lost the address book with hundreds of names in there,” he said.
As a soldier, he came to Vietnam thinking that he would help the country, but all he witnessed “was the horrific death of four groups: the American soldiers, the Republic of Vietnam soldiers, the innocents, and the Viet Cong.”
Despite knowing that death is the natural result of war, the war’s impacts left Lagda with unforgettable imprints, and he had never wanted to return to Vietnam. Ever.
Now, in 2018, a half-century after saying goodbye to Vietnam and the principal, he intends to return.
“When the principal brought his family to thank me, he showed me that even in the most miserable and desperate situation, people can still be kind, respectable and civil to each other,” he said. Since the day he returned home, Lagda has never been without the painting.
“I always hang the painting near the place I usually sit in my house,” he said.
His daughter, Jeanette, talked of the painting’s impact on her father.
“I had never seen him cry,” she said. ”The first time he cried was when he told this story. The principal and the painting left my father with a humongous impression.”
This painting symbolizes the most beautiful and noble memory he has about the Vietnam War.
Recently, while Lagda was cleaning, the painting drooped down from the frame. When he pulled it up, he saw the signature of the principal. The signature didn’t have an accent mark and could be read only as “Quan.”
He carefully took the painting out of the frame for the first time in 49 years. On the back of the painting was a drawing of a man’s face.
From this discovery, Lagda was overpowered by the urge to go back to Vietnam, hoping to find the principal.
“Our encounter was very short but I deeply respect it,” Lagda said. “We helped the Vietnamese children because it was the job we could do. I never needed a thank you from anyone. But I was so moved with with the this principal’s courageous attitude.”
In early 2018, he will go to Vietnam with his son to find the principal named “Quan,” even though he doesn’t have his exact address.
“I hope to find him to tell him that he gave me a priceless lesson about human dignity,” Lagda said. “I don’t know if he will recognize me.”
Forty-nine years have passed, but the memories of the principal from a school at a Vietnam village have not faded from the veteran. Hopefully, his trip will have a good ending.