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‘We’re like two peas in a pod’

Vietnamese and American Veterans reconnect

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017 10:02 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017 10:12 a.m. CDT
Caption
(David Dolmage/Daily News)
Vinh Nguyen, President of the Vietnamese American Community in Iowa accepts the gift of an ARVN Ranger's helmet during the monthly meeting of the Vietnam Veterans Alliance Friday night in Newton.
Caption
(David Dolmage/Daily News)
Tom McKinney listens during the dinner presentation at the monthly meeting of the Vietnam Veterans Alliance on Friday night in Newton.
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(David Dolmage/Daily News)
Steve Bookout applauds during a meeting of the Vietnam Veterans Alliance on Friday night in Newton.

Steve Bookout and Tom McKinney worked side by side at Maytag for more than 25 years without realizing it wasn’t the first time they’d worked together. After graduating from Newton High School in 1966, both men served in Vietnam, with Bookout flying Huey helicopters for the Army, and McKinney patrolling the rivers with the Navy. They learned early on when they got back to Newton not to talk about the war, and both men never mentioned it until running into each other at a retirement party.

“We were two peas in a pod, but you just didn’t acknowledge that you were a Vietnam vet back then,” Bookout said. “In 25 years we’d never talked about it.”

On Friday at the monthly meeting of the Jasper County Vietnam Veterans Alliance, Bookout and McKinney had a chance to connect with some other Vietnam veterans from the Army of the Vietnam Republic. These men, part of a community of Vietnamese expats living in the Des Moines area had reached out to Bookout, and it wasn’t long before they discovered they had a common bond.

“They’re vets just like us, and they live in Iowa now just like we do,” Bookout said. “Even though we don’t speak each other’s language there’s a common bond there.”

After a chance meeting with one of the Vietnamese veterans, Bookout said it wasn’t long before the veteran community started to gel together. Last winter, Bookout and McKinney accepted an invitation from Vinh Nguyen, the president of the Vietnamese American Community in Iowa to attend the group’s annual Tet celebration. Welcomed with open arms, they discovered their common bond broke the language barrier between the two groups.

“I feel like they’re family now. It’s a mutual understanding,” Bookout said.

Night after night while serving in Vietnam, Bookout’s Huey would be loaded up with ARVN Rangers, an elite fighting force, and they’d head across the jungle, flying low across the treetops.

“I used to fly these guys every single night, I was a big target up there, and they’d tell me where to fly,” Bookout said.

Connecting with Vietnam veterans is an important part of the Vietnamese American community’s outreach efforts Nguyen said, estimating there about 50 Vietnamese combat veterans living in the Des Moines metro area. There’s no way for Vietnamese Americans to possibly repay the service of veterans, but Nguyen said it’s important to let know how grateful they are.

“We know what you endured in Vietnam and when you got back, you’ll always hold a special place in our hearts for what you’ve done,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen thanked the assembled veterans, telling them that without their help South Vietnam would’ve never been able to hold out against communism for 21 years.

“On behalf of the community, I just want to say thank you, a lot more people on this earth enjoy their freedom because of you,” Nguyen said.

The feeling is mutual, and Bookout reminded everyone that every Vietnamese veteran spent a minimum of three years in prison, with some imprisoned for 14 years after the fall of Saigon. Many of these veterans held out against the communists as long as they could, fighting until the last round was spent. Together again after all of these years, both groups are grateful for one another.

“We are behind you to support the work that you do,” Nguyen said.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com

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