Peter Herzog returned to Vietnam 43 years after he was stationed there to help him heal from wartime trauma.
But when he spent two weeks traveling in 2011 to some of the places he’d fought in when he was 23, Herzog discovered something new — the beautiful faces of others who also survived the Vietnam War.
When he landed in Saigon, one of the first places Herzog visited was a war museum.
“I started sweating and I had to get out of there,” Herzog said, noting that the anti-American sentiment was so prevalent, he was overcome with emotion.
It took him right back to 1969 when he returned home to the U.S. and was spit on by some of the people who found out he was a veteran. So he kept that part of his life hidden. He got married and had children, attended Eastern Montana College to earn a business degree and worked as an accountant in the Northwest. He waited until he retired to go back to Vietnam to face some of his demons.
There have been long nights when nightmares about the war kept him awake, triggered by a certain smell or a sound. Like other war veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Herzog said he buried his pain in work. He let his wife, Carol, do most of the parenting. But things are changing for him.
“I didn’t buy my Vietnam hat until three weeks ago because I was so ashamed,” Herzog said. “One of the things I felt was that we betrayed the South Vietnamese because we promised we would send them aid. I feel personally responsible for those people, but now I realize that it wasn’t me but our leaders who did not follow through.”
Herzog’s trip allowed him to meet some former South Vietnamese soldiers and to talk with them about their life through a Vietnamese interpreter. One South Vietnamese man chatted with Herzog and made him understand that he harbored no ill will.
Some of his photographs from that experience are on display at Q’s Art Shop and Gallery 1511 Sixth Ave. N. Herzog hopes to present a larger exhibit later this year, possibly at the new veteran’s center or at Montana State University Billings.
“What keeps me going is photography,” Herzog said. “I’ll go out in the morning to shoot and the next thing you know, it’s afternoon.”
After moving back to Billings three months ago, Herzog has joined a veterans group that meets weekly to talk about their life experiences. The group includes other Vietnam veterans and veterans of the war in Iraq.
“The biggest thing for me was finding out I wasn’t alone. There are other guys like me,” Herzog said.
Herzog visited a Buddhist Temple and photographed an elderly woman saying prayers. He captured a sense of tranquility and beauty in that quiet moment.
Herzog also visited a church-run orphanage in Kontum where 25 children, mostly girls, lived. Their families had no money to provide for the children so they gave them up.
One photo of a young girl, about 9 years old, still haunts him because of the sorrow in her eyes. He gave the orphanage all of the money he could spare, $200, and trusted that the money would go directly to those children.
Herzog’s visit provided some closure for him and a chance to find beauty in a land that he saw in his youth as so ugly. And in his final days in Vietnam, Herzog returned to the war museum and could even find humor in some of the anti-American propaganda, including one display where a burning draft card was described as bubble gum.