combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2003

I Went to Vietnam with My Dad
The Story of a California Boy, His Mom and Dad, and Their Family-Far-Away in Vietnam

March 2000: California

Sean Little picks up his Razor and scooters out of the garage in search of his neighborhood buddies. It's a typical Southern California morning, early Spring, not long before the Easter break. The 7-year old Little attends Rielly elementary school, where he's been doing well in the First grade and has learned to read. It's a good thing. His dad is making him write The Book.

Montagnard Family-Far-Away
Bahnar Montagnard Family-Far-Away

In two weeks, Sean Little will be on an airplane, destination Vietnam. He's been waiting for this moment for some time now. His teachers know about the trip, and are excited for him. His grandparents have sent Saint Christopher medals to keep him safe. His bags are packed, stowed away in the garage, filled with medicines and cereal and peanut butter and Spaghetti O's. And lots of candy treats.

"It's a long plane ride," he explains to his pal, Kyle, "but we get to see lots of movies."

Sean's dad is Mike Little, age 53 and gray-haired. His mom, Marion, is quite a bit younger. They have tried to think of everything for Sean's safety and well being during the long journey, to the point of packing his own food. Although they have been to Vietnam a number of times, this will be the first time they take their only son. It scares the parents somewhat, but not enough to second guess their decision.

"We have always wanted to bring Sean along," explains Mike Little, "I'm afraid his family-far-away would be so disappointed if we didn't this time. They might tell me to turn around, go back and get him!"

Marion Little oversees everything. She knows her husband well and understands the importance of this trip. For him and for the family-far-away. And she also realizes that it may change her son forever, or, at the very least, leave him with the memory of a lifetime. Or possibly, that it just might be the beginning of a relationship for Sean that took shape 32 years ago for her husband. Mike was a 21-year old soldier then, 1968 Vietnam. He went over alone, but came back a father.

1968: Vietnam

The Military Police were assigned a number of roles in the Vietnam War, but the unit Mike Little joined was one he'd never heard of before: the Roadrunners. His new military family was B Company, 504th MP Battalion, stationed in Pleiku, the Central Highlands, South Vietnam.

Vietnam MP Roadrunner patch

The Roadrunner mission was simple. Run the roads. That meant patrolling the key roads in the Highlands in armor-plated gun jeeps, helping to keep the roads open for the endless military truck convoys. Little liked the job, "We had a certain freedom out on the road, and we conducted ourselves with a lot of swagger. It was dangerous, but at least we weren't on foot." Roadrunners wore a custom patch that depicted the famous Warner Brothers cartoon character.

Everyday, the Roadrunners stationed a patrol near the Ayun River to direct traffic over the temporary, one-lane bridge. The original bridge had been blown up. This checkpoint was often a gathering point for the Roadrunner patrols, a place to share C-rations or take a break. It was also a place for the local children to wait and hope, that the American soldiers would give away their leftover food. They often did.

These children were called Montagnards, the indigenous people living in the remote, mountainous Highlands. "Before the War, I had never heard of the Montagnards," Little says, "I would look at them wearing their loin cloths and think there was no way to communicate." The Yards (a respectful slang term) were highly respected by the Americans as loyal and fierce fighters. For the Roadrunners, they knew the Yards had a good reputation, but had little contact outside of the food handout.

Highway 19 had a reputation for danger from as far back as the French war, but it was here, at Checkpoint 95 on the Ayun River, that the family began. It's where Little befriended the children who waited all day for food. It was completely unexpected and unplanned. It just happened. And it just happened to change his life forever.

During the remaining four months left in his tour, Little pursued the new relationship every day, made easier when he was promoted to Roadrunner 1, in charge over all the patrols. He explains, "It was like I subconsciously quit the war, and replaced it with my adopted family ... the kids became the main reason I got out of bed each morning."

Montagnard child dressed-up
All dressed-up as a child MP in
1967, Pruh is still part of the
family-far-away in their village.

The children waiting for food became Little's kids. The war around them, the death and destruction, didn't stop; however, they found ways to work around it. "When I think back, I was really naïve, and just lucky we didn't get somebody killed for being our friends."

They shared as much as they could. Evening swims in the Ayun River, C-ration meals, jeep rides, even target shooting with M-16's. Little tried desperately to learn the language of the Bahnar, the Montagnard tribal dialect spoken by the kids. The Roadrunners built a house for one very poor family, whose father had died of starvation. But what really brought them closer were the visits to the American camp in Pleiku, on the many nights spent together, experiencing miracles never dreamed of.

"The kids had never seen Pleiku before, and of course they were amazed by it. We thought of it as a pit, but the kids said it was beautiful!"

Hot food, knives and forks, hot water showers, beds, electric lights, toilets ... all of these experiences were new and wonderful, but one miracle stood out from the rest: television. "We only got a few shows over there, but it didn't matter to the kids," Little smiles with the memory, "they didn't want to go home in the morning."

Little began a clothing drive, writing his parents to send clothes for his kids. Soon, other Roadrunners followed suit, and box after box of used clothing found their way into the village. "We had the best dressed Yards in Vietnam! To make it fair, the village chief handled the distribution."

Then, August finally came, and it was time for Little to go home. 365 days of counting was about over. Mixed emotions pulled at him. He had survived the year without a scratch, losing 30 pounds, but something unforeseen had happened to him. He'd become the father to a band of small children, who could not understand why he was leaving them.

Roadrunners taking a break
A typical Roadrunner patrol
section taking a break in the
Mang Yang Pass during 1968.

They had given Little silver bracelets and beaded necklaces. But they had given him much more, his humanity. "For me during that time with the kids, I was the best person I could be," Little admits, "and I missed them as soon as I left." Wars have a way of bringing out the best and the worst of human beings.

Among the souvenirs he brought home, Little still has the brown helmet cover on which he wrote the names of each child. Their ages ranged from 3 to 10, old enough to be away from mother, young enough to be out of the rice fields. Mostly boys, but a few girls. Kenh and Prot, 7-year old boys, were Little's favorite sons, but there were others like Kil and Kun, Piet and Her, Djuk and Djanh, Grok and Blup. The girls were shy and never spent the night at camp, but their smiles were radiant. They had names like Bler, Ben, and Koch.

Little stayed in contact by mail after he returned home. Roadrunners took his letters and pictures to the village and read his words to the children. He continued to send boxes of clothing. Out of the Army, he tried to land a job with a civilian aid or religious group operating in Vietnam, but no one wanted an untrained veteran. Finally, by the end of 1968, there were no more Roadrunners left to carry on for him.

"They lived in the jungle, and there was no way to stay in touch," says Little, "but they lived on inside me." When the North defeated the South in 1975, Little believed the door had been slammed for good. Silence.

1994: Miracle in the Highlands

From the end of the War until 1994, the Central Highlands remained off limits to visiting Americans. The area was still considered sensitive because of unrest between the Montagnards and the ever-increasing Vietnamese population. In 1986, and again in 1992, hundreds of Montagnards, part of a resistance group living in Cambodia, were resettled in the United States.

Then, with the end of the Embargo, the Highlands were opened to the outside world. When Little learned that Pleiku and surrounding areas had become accessible, he immediately called his old Roadrunner buddy, Joe Devenney of New York, and they set off in March to find the children.

Using 26-year old photographs, the two men witnessed the miracle together, "An elderly Vietnamese man who lived near the Ayun River during the War recognized the kids in the picture, then pointed to the jungle." Little began to run but Devenney held him back. They still had to find the village. Two days later, the reunion finally took place in the crowded hut of one of Little's children.

The brothers, Kenh and Kun, were there, as was their sister Koch. Prot was the last one to hug Little, and was soon singing the songs they had learned together a quarter century earlier. To Little's astonishment, they had remembered everything, and had nourished the same fond memories.

It was sad to learn that some of the children had already died. Kil and Djanh and Blup had passed on. But those that remained were all married, with families of their own now. Little showed them pictures of his family in America, of his wife and baby boy, Sean, who was less than two years old.

The reunion lasted a few short hours, but like he had done in 1968, Little promised to come back again. On the plane ride home, he mused, "I've found them, but what do I do now?" It was a question he had no answer. For the time being, just finding each other would have to be enough.

1995 to 1999: Discovery and Loss

Sometimes one gets more than he asks for. Had his Montagnard family stayed in the past, Little's memories would have remained intact, undisturbed and incapable of tragedy. No longer was there a dream of one day finding them; that had already happened. The family, no matter how distant, was alive and eager to regain their father.

Little and his wife vowed to do whatever it took to be a positive influence in the lives of their family-far-away. "We quickly learned that basic survival, food for the family, was the main concern ... so we started to save for it." Medicine was also a critical need, as was transportation.

Marion Little explains it this way, "Every time we needed money for our family-far-away, it seemed to show up at our doorstep." Faith was important. The last thing they wanted was to accidentally offend someone or cause misunderstandings. They set about to learn as much as possible about the family's culture and way of life.

Collect phone calls became a monthly occurrence, as the families on both sides of the world learned more and more about each other. Two uncles, Yong and Mo, entered the picture and were instrumental in creating clear communication. They had both worked for the American military and missionary efforts during the War and spoke fluent English.

Then, in 1995, Little's son, Prot, passed away from unknown causes, possibly cancer. But there aren't any doctors in the jungle. Prot was survived by his wife and five children. Little recalls, "When I took the call and got the news, it hit home how lucky I was to have seen Prot the previous year ... at least I had the chance to express my love to him."

The Littles returned to Vietnam in 1996, and grieved at Prot's gravesite. It wasn't realistic, but Little felt, "If I hadn't found him, Prot would have never died."

A second call came in 1997. Another son, Kenh, had died in his sleep. Like Prot, he was in his mid-thirties at the time, and also left a wife and seven children. To Little, it was devastating, having lost two sons so soon after finding them again. Sean was 5-years old at the time, and saw his dad cry at the kitchen table.

Again, the Littles went back to Vietnam to pay respects. It was 1998, and without intervention from Ambassador Pete Peterson, the visit would not have happened. "Evidently, we did something wrong during the 1996 trip and we got banned from entering the country," Little says, "probably from a misunderstanding."

By now, the Littles were well known in the Province, as was their special relationship with the Montagnards. Their movements, particularly in the villages, were closely monitored, but that didn't bother them at all, "It's better that the police know everything we do, so as not to cast suspicion on the family ... afterall, they have to live there after we leave."

April 2000: Sean's Big Adventure

It's 1:30 in the morning, Saturday, April 15th. The EVA flight out of Los Angeles will take 17 hours to reach Ho Chi Minh City. Sean and his parents sleep for the first few hours, miss a meal and a movie, then find ways to occupy themselves on the seemingly endless journey.

"They don't speak English here!" exclaims Sean, after spending his first day in Vietnam. Everyone at the hotel has been so nice to him, pinching his cheeks whenever possible. The young waiters hover around the little boy, attending to his needs.

The City is noisy and so crowded with motorbikes. Red banners are everywhere, as the country prepares for the 25-year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. It doesn't make much of an impression on Sean. He loves going to the market and buying T-shirts. More ladies pinch his cheeks. Little and his wife stay close by, but it is obvious that their son is a welcome oddity. Everyone smiles when they see the boy. Many guess that he is American.

A few days later, Sean is in the Highland town of Pleiku, climbing into a rented van, complete with guide and driver. The guide is a friend of Little, named Siu Cham. The excitement is expressed on everyone's face. It would take an hour to reach the village where the family-far-away is waiting. Little helps the driver put the heavy duffel bags into the van, filled with gifts for the family.

Sean with Montagnard brothers
Sean with Montagnard brothers

When the van comes into view, the Montagnard villagers converge to welcome their parents and brother Sean. Everyone receives a hug. Over 100 men, women and children joyously greet the Littles as if it had been only yesterday since saying goodbye. Language is not a problem, as the uncles are present to help translate.

"I told the family which boys would act as Sean's bodyguards in the village," Little says, "that way we won't have to worry about him." Immediately, the proud, teenage bodyguards rush to their charge, and it is apparent that Sean will never be out of their sight. They would care for him each day spent in the village.

Marion sighs, "Love at first sight, just the way we dreamed it would be." Sean is the same age that Kenh and Prot were when Little first met them in 1968. He wishes that Sean could have met them before they passed.

Sean riding on an elephant
Sean riding on an elephant in
Plei Lao village, between
Pleiku and Buon Me Thuot.

When you ask Sean about his trip to Vietnam, he might tell you about riding the elephant, going to Easter Mass with 10,000 Montagnards at nighttime, or maybe about running away from the big bugs. But most likely, he'll talk about swimming in the Ayun River with all the kids, or playing soccer with the boys, or riding on the back of a motorbike for the first time.

Little tells his wife, "Sean must carry on after I'm gone." This visit is the first step, and they hope there will be many more in the years ahead. It's also the Little's plan to retire in the Highlands, perhaps splitting their time between Vietnam and California.

April 26th comes too soon, and the families prepare to part. "It's like a dream," whispers one of his sons. Little uses a wet rag to wipe at his tears, as each family member says goodbye to him. Marion is doing the same thing. Sean takes his last ride on the motorbike, with bodyguard, Kui, driving. He brakes down and cries in the van, when he is alone with his parents, realizing he wasn't coming back in the morning.

Sean with Montagnard brother
Sean with Djuk,
his Montagnard brother

Upon returning home to Mission Viejo (or re-entry as Little puts it), the rolls of film are taken in for developing. That's the most important thing, even before unpacking and reading the mail. It is the best way to cure a sad heart, seeing the smiles again in pictures. Little has three sets made, one for his son and one for the family-far-away. Sean has a special photo album.

"I told Sean that his dad would drive him crazy about The Book," Marion says, "and I was right." Little and his son go right to work on finishing the story of the trip. They add lots of pictures and a few drawings.

"I wrote The Book because dad made me," Sean admits, "but it was kind of fun anyways." He plans on giving a copy to his First Grade teacher, Mrs. Hepner, because she taught him how to read. He also hopes that The Book gets published, because "I want to buy rice for my family-far-away."

The Book has a title: I WENT TO VIETNAM WITH DADDY (and Mommy too). Little had it bound in a red cover, much like the dirt in the Highlands. Sean takes it with him to church on Sundays. Every page is a fresh memory. His family-far-away isn't so far afterall.

by Michael C. Little
... who is a sales manager with The Minute Maid Company, is project director of Operation Rice Lift for the Pleiku MP Association, and is author of a history of Roadrunners that appeared in Vietnam, and OF Montagnard-related articles published in the San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Houston Chronicle.