Humanity in the midst of chaos
Doug Young wasn’t directly involved in a firefight during the Vietnam war, but his memory of a tribal girl who lived in a village nearby the brutality of an infamous North Vietnam campaign has left him with lingering questions.
Young was drafted into the Army in 1968 at age 23. He spent his first six months in Vietnam at Ankha, then was sent to Pleiku for another six months.
Assigned to an engineer battalion, Young’s duties included radio communication and watching out for anything that might be a danger to his squad as they laid culverts along a dirt highway.
The men were working outside a Montagnard village. Montagnards were tribal people indigenous to Indochina.
A group of children came out of the bamboo wall surrounding the village. Most were boys, but among them was a young girl, shy and clearly fearful. She hung back behind the boys, keeping a safe distance between herself and the soldiers.
As he sat on the back of a truck with a camera, Young tried to get the girl to come closer to him, but she would not. When he tried to approach her, she ran away.
He thought of something to break the ice and reach beyond her fear of the big soldier with a gun. He folded a piece of paper into a bird with bending wings so the bird could “fly,” then gave it to one of the boys to give to her.
Her reaction was overwhelming.
“She was so overtaken with delight, she jumped up and down,” Young said. “She screamed and laughed. She ran around in circles and rolled on the ground.”
She even jumped up and down with the boy who’d handed her the bird.
Young wondered if the girl had ever been given a gift before.
The next two days, things were quiet outside the village. This might have been a warning that Viet Cong were in the area, so Young kept a close eye out.
The girl came out and walked across the grass to the road, looking at him briefly before returning to the village on both those days. Her eyes showed less fear than she’d shown before, but still she would not come close. Young did get a photo of her.
“We left that day and finished our work on Route 509 shortly after Thanksgiving,” he said. “We returned to Pleiku and never saw that red dirt road again. If February of 1968, during the Tet Offensive, I could see fierce nighttime battles being fought near her village.”
The image of the girl returned to him during that time.
“I spent the nights in a steel and sandbag bunker,” Young said. “I prayed for her safety. I wondered if the fear that had possessed her earlier had returned. I am sure it must have. I still wonder about that little girl. I wonder if she survived the war, and, if she did, does she still remember the paper bird and the young soldier who gave it to her? I hope she does, because I will always remember her long walk alone through the grass to tell me ‘Thank you.’”
When Young returned to the United States in 1968, he was assigned to a post in New Jersey.
After his discharge, he did inspections and surveying for the village of Arlington Heights, Illinois. He retired in 2004 and returned to Kansas a year ago.
Last modified Nov. 8, 2017