Henry "Hank" Thomas was a 24-year-old U.S. Army medical corpsman when a Communist ambush in the central highlands of former South Vietnam sent a bullet smashing into the bones of his right hand.
On Tuesday, Thomas used that hand, whole once more after reconstructive surgery and a generation of healing, to bury some of his bitterness left from the Vietnam War: In Hanoi, he clasped hands with an old enemy in the home of a Vietnamese woman who lost her husband in the conflict."So now we become friends," North Vietnam Army veteran Nguyen Gia Duc told Thomas, now 53. Duc said that he, too, had served near the highlands town of Play Cu in 1966, the year the black American was wounded.
Thomas, of Stone Mountain, Ga., and 18 other Americans are visiting the Vietnamese capital on a citizen exchange program called Friendship Force. They came hoping to make friends and build bonds with a nation of people the United States once tried to bomb into submission.
But for Thomas, the process of reconciling with the past has more to do with his heartbreak and frustration at the racist treatment he says black troops like him received from many of their white fellows.
"I felt that once I was at war, I had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt: `I am an American. I have done the ultimate. I've left blood on the battlefield,' " he said.
The unity that reigned among Americans when they were in combat vanished after they returned to their camps, Thomas said. Black and white soldiers generally parted ways, and rampant dis-crim-ination corroded camaraderie until relations between the two groups became deadly, he said.
Thomas, a civil rights activist before he joined the army, realized that he was in Vietnam fighting to defend freedoms for other people that he didn't have at home.
Now he is finally coming full circle, some 20 years after the war, in exorcising his anger and hurt, he said. His 14-day trip as part of the Atlanta-based Friendship Force is playing a part, he said.
Thomas and his wife now own and manage two McDonald's restaurants in Atlanta. Nguyen Gia Duc, who fought in the North Vietnamese 3rd Division, works for the Hanoi Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.
The two met in the sparsely furnished parlor of Nguyen Thi Kim Lien, a Hanoi resident who lost her husband in the war. Lien received her guests with a placid smile and tiny cups of green tea.
Lien's hospitality typified the friendliness of the people Thomas said he has encountered since arriving in Hanoi on Monday.
"The next time your government tells you who to hate, ask questions," he said.