A Journey of Reconciliation: Burton’s Return to Vietnam


It is 55 years ago now that Larry Burton from Columbia returned from his service in the Vietnam War.
It is a little more than six months ago now that the former sergeant of the 101st Airborne paratroopers returned to Vietnam to meet the people who were fighting against his unit on the side of the Vietcong.
Decades went by, but in Larry’s memories it’s just a minute.
For Burton, the decision to return to Vietnam was a deeply personal one, born out of a desire to lay to rest the ghosts of his past and to forge connections where there was once only division. Decades had passed since he last walked the trails of Vietnam, yet the memories of war remained vivid in his mind, like a shadow that refused to fade.
“I was in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969,” Burton said, his eyes reflecting a mix of apprehension and resolve. Burton grew up on a farm and still remembers the times when he had to milk cows by hand at the family’s farm at Snake Creek. From this rural environment he was given the choice to join the military and to go overseas–or go to jail.
Since his return home, he has spent years supporting other veterans.
“We’re all brothers,” Burton says, “and the first thing I ask when I cross paths with another Vietnam veteran is if he gets any disability or is qualified for anything.” He feels sad that many thousands have passed away from Agent Orange, suicides or other war related reasons.
One of the biggest disappointments in his life was his return home in 1969.
“When I came back to this country I had no idea what was going on. The bad way we were treated, they blamed the soldier–the prisoners who had refused to go were treated better,” Burton remembers vividly. “When I was back I didn’t want to talk with anyone about it.” As Burton says, “they called us names and nobody wanted to have to do something with a Vietnam veteran.”
54 years later, Burton’s journey back to Vietnam was more than just a physical voyage; it was a journey of the soul. With each step he took on the soil that had borne witness to so much suffering, he found himself inching closer to a sense of peace – a peace that could only come from confronting the demons of his past.
“The Greatest Generations Foundation is an organization that sends veterans back to the battlefields,” Burton explains. “We had a meeting in Fort Benning, Georgia five years ago, where our Company Commander Mike Tarpley told us about the chance to go to visit Vietnam again with them.”
But then Covid-19 came, and so the plans were delayed.
“It finally came around to middle of October last year that we could go for two weeks, ten days of it in Vietnam. It was the trip of a lifetime. The Greatest Generations paid for everything. I had to fly to Dallas. We all met there and flew all the way to Vietnam.”
Eight surviving men who were able to take the voyage from Tiger Bravo, 2nd Bn. 506 Airborne Infantry 101st Airborne went back to Vietnam to follow their time in duty, retracing the exact steps due to notes taken by their former commander, Rick St. John, author of the book “Tiger Bravo’s War.”
“I knew that we would cross paths with the people we fought against,” the former sergeant remembers, “and I didn’t know how to feel about that. We were sent to their country fighting and they lost more than a million soldiers.”
“We stayed in a five-star hotel,” Burton said, comparing the hospitality to his first trip. “I’ve never seen a five-star hotel in my life.”
Burton was more than impressed by the busy traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, now a city with 9 million inhabitants with an impressive skyline.
“When I was there in October I never talked to a Vietnamese person who called it Ho Chi Minh City,” Burton said. “It’s always Saigon, and everybody has scooters.”
Beside the visit of the metropolis, the more important part of the voyage for the veterans was returning to their old battleground.
“St. John had the coordinates; now it’s a rubber plantation there,” the former sergeant explains, “and at some places we really could make out how the battle went down there.”
A bridge, destroyed in the war to keep the enemy from crossing a river, was still there – still not repaired. As Tiger Bravo was walking through a piece of history, a group of Vietnamese also taking part in a reunion made their way over.
“We met with handshakes,” Burton remembers with tears in his eyes.
He also remembers every second of his first time in the jungle.
“They had 150 miles of tunnels there, and they still keep some of them as a museum.”
As Burton bid farewell to Vietnam once more, he left behind not only memories of war, but also a legacy of reconciliation. His voyage serves as a powerful reminder that, even in the face of adversity, forgiveness and healing are possible–if only we have the courage to seek them.
The Greatest Generations Foundation is an organization aimed at providing an opportunity to uphold the legacy of the nation’s veterans. A select few have been able to take trips such as that of Tiger Bravo’s. Burton and others of last October’s voyage encourage anyone who qualifies to take the opportunity.
By Mig Feuser

Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Click here to Subscribe.
Click here to donate.