For Phil Mulligan, Vietnam remains a land of surprises.
Five decades ago, the shocks came from artillery shells during the Tet Offensive. Last month, astonishment came from wounds healed, cities reborn and the passing of old resentments.
In January, 74-year-old Mulligan took his fourth tour of Vietnam. It was nothing like the first three in the late 1960s.
“It surprised me how much things have changed,” Mulligan said. “It was kind of like a pilgrimage to a country that defeated us.
“It’s sort of like we won, too,” he said. “We went there to defeat communism – we didn’t win the war. But we won the peace.
“What really struck me is how modern and cosmopolitan Hanoi is, much more than I expected.”
Mulligan and his wife, Toi, saw it firsthand from his Hanoi hotel room, which also overlooked the lake where Navy Lt. John McCain landed after being shot down in August 1967.
Mulligan had been stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. Trained to input target coordinates for American warplanes, he and his comrades “got the shock of our lives” when Viet Cong forces made the first of several attacks on the base as part of the Tet Offensive early in 1968.
Almost defenseless, they rode out the attack until relieved, but like many Americans, Mulligan grew skeptical about chances for victory against the spread of communism.
“I thought the south would fall eventually,” Mulligan said.
The United States spent billions of dollars on the war, but “we weren’t particularly interested in learning the culture or the language,” said Mulligan, who also couldn’t fathom why the United States didn’t force a corrupt South Vietnamese government to “shape up.”
Two more tours brought more danger but also joy, as Mulligan met his future wife at the air base’s USO facility.
After his last Vietnam tour, Mulligan and his wife and son spent the next dozen years at Air Force bases around the world. Mulligan honed his sense of history on the job as he worked writing scholarly histories for a variety of units.
Retiring as a master sergeant in 1986, the New England native and his family had never set foot in Spokane but settled in the Inland Northwest because of its affordability.
While Phil drove buses for the Spokane Transit Authority, his wife helped found the Spokane Buddhist Temple and ran a flower shop.
Through it all, Mulligan saw the war – all wars – through a unique prism. His parents met in Trinidad, where his American father worked on a naval base in the former British colony during World War II.
Long after retirement, Mulligan still felt “sour grapes at how the war ended,” but bitterness gave way to curiosity after his wife and son toured Southeast Asia two years ago.
“She showed me how things had changed,” Mulligan said.
He didn’t visit the former South Vietnam, where unexploded mines and buildings pockmarked by bullets are juxtaposed with skyscrapers in the former Saigon – renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
“I was struck by how much people are the same everywhere … people like to go live their own lives,” Mulligan said.
And the Americans are back, with fast-food chains and tourist dollars. Mulligan had visited Beijing in 2003, but didn’t expect Hanoi to be on the same track.
“I realized that I didn’t know what to expect, but I realized that any communist government, anywhere, had to stay ahead of its people and had better allow some measure of a capitalist economy,” Mulligan said.
“It’s like we won the war, too.”
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