John Donovan and the Ghosts of War
One night at our hotel last spring, Donovan and I walk out onto a patio overlooking the My Tho River. After a few shots of banana wine, he’s feeling talkative. “Listen to that,” he says, pointing out to the water, where even at this late hour, numerous boat engines can be heard. “The river has a life of its own. If you stand here long enough, and just study the river traffic, you’ll learn a lot about Vietnamese culture. The river has for centuries been the primary source of life here. They rely on it for fishing, for irrigating farmland, for transportation, for moving goods. Some people spend their entire lives on the water—literally. They live on a boat and come ashore only once or twice a week.”
Donovan points to a rowboat 30 feet away, where a man onboard holds a fishing net in one hand, a flashlight in the other. A young boy is seated next to him. “Look there,” Donovan says. “He’s shining the light on the water to attract fish. This is how this guy feeds his family. He probably learned from his father, and now he’s teaching his son.”
It’s clear that Donovan has a deep fondness for Vietnamese culture—“among the hardest-working people you’ll ever meet,” he says. He enjoyed interacting with locals during his tour here, but wasn’t sure he’d ever come back. After receiving the Bronze Star in Boston, he tried not to think about it. Easier that way, he says: “Vietnam veterans weren’t very popular in the 1970s. We laid low.”
Like millions of others, Donovan tried to move on. He eventually made his concerned parents happy and moved home, where he found work teaching disadvantaged children in Roxbury, and later on Cape Cod. That gave him much-needed purpose, he recalls. He pursued a master’s degree in special education, got married, and had a couple of children. Donovan eventually moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, where he lives today, and started an organizational consulting firm.
“I obviously had PTSD,” he says, “but it just went unaddressed. I discovered Eastern religion at some point in the ’80s, and that helped me mellow out and find some measure of peace. But, you know, I think there was always something missing.”
Years passed before Donovan realized he had never recovered. He still drank too much, struggled with outbursts of anger, and had a hard time maintaining healthy relationships. He has been married and divorced twice. He’s close with his two adult sons now, but when they were young, he says, “I think I had a short fuse with them.”
In 1999, Donovan’s consulting firm was hired for a job in Malaysia. Just four years earlier, the U.S. had reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam, reopening its embassy and for the first time making it safe for Vietnam veterans to go back. Donovan went without much of an itinerary.
For a week and a half, he traveled alone through Vietnam. He flew into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and took a ferry ride south toward My Tho, his old stomping grounds. On the boat ride, he struck up a conversation with a Vietnamese woman, and although she spoke little English, she invited him to spend a few days with her family. He took her up on the offer. “They reintroduced me to the culture and helped me fall back in love with the place,” he says.
Two things stood out on that trip, he says: “First, I was struck by how little the agricultural sections of the country had advanced over the years. People here are very poor. And second, I was amazed by the kindness I received. The last time I had been here, I carried a gun. And the war didn’t exactly end well for these people. The poor farmers in the south really suffered disproportionately.” And yet: “They treated me like family. No questions asked. I sensed no animosity.”
Donovan tells me he sometimes feels more welcome in Vietnam than he does in the United States. “The Vietnamese are a very gracious and forgiving people,” he says. “Spending time with them and helping out has been sort of a healing experience for me.”
In the darkness that night at the hotel, a seemingly endless line of ships moves along the vast river. A tanker loaded with fresh-cut timber steams by. A fishing trawler passes in the other direction. Donovan points to a wooden sampan motoring near the riverbank. “Some of these boats are more than 50 years old,” he says. “Some of these are literally the same sampans that were on the water when I was leading patrols through here.”
The river was much quieter at night back then. A U.S.-imposed curfew barred anyone from being out on the water after nightfall, a rule that was rarely broken. “If anyone was caught out here,” Donovan says, “we had been given the authority to shoot them.”
That didn’t mean they had to shoot.
Two months after Donovan watched his crewmates gun down the old man and the child, he was leading a river patrol when he spotted a group of farmers standing several hundred feet from the bank in an area designated as a free-fire zone—anyone caught there could be shot, no questions asked. What were they doing? It looked like one might have been holding a gun. Or was it a farm tool? “Let’s shoot,” Donovan heard one of his crew members say as they neared the bank. Donovan batted him back and stepped ashore carrying an M16. This time, he was in charge. As he walked toward the field, the men must have seen him. They took off in the other direction.
Donovan wishes he could have frozen time in that moment to stop and think. Instead, instincts and training took over. He dropped to one knee, sighted, and then pulled the trigger. One of the men dropped to the ground. “Nice shot, boss!” his sailors shouted.
Donovan wasn’t smiling. Immediately—and for decades since—he second-guessed himself. The body was too far from shore to safely check on the remains. Was he a Vietcong fighter with a gun? Or was he a poor farmer holding a hoe—so desperate to provide for his family that he was turning soil in an area where he might be shot? “I’ll never know,” Donovan says. “Was he married? Did he have a wife or kids waiting at home? Those are questions I’ll carry to my grave.”
The morning after our late-night conversation at the hotel, Donovan and I travel out to the countryside, where the charity he works with, the Loving House Project, is dedicating several homes that have been built for impoverished families.
We drive a van through the rolling farmland, then get out and ride a ferry across a small river before hopping on the backs of motorbikes and riding a couple of miles along a bumpy dirt road—past rice paddies, fish farms, and fields of dragon fruit trees. This place doesn’t get many visitors.
A crowd of villagers—including several local dignitaries—awaits us outside a small brick house. “It’s so good to see you all,” Donovan says, towering above everyone. “So this is the house?”
It doesn’t look like much by Western standards, but the home—complete with flushing toilets, electricity, tile floors, and a roof—is a major upgrade for the family about to receive it. Others in this area live in thatch huts with leaky roofs and dirt floors. Over the past eight years, Donovan’s fundraising efforts have helped build more than 50 houses just like this. Starting this year, the charity is also giving each family a pair of goats, which can be bred and milked to help bring in money between harvests.
“I never get tired of doing these dedications,” Donovan tells me. “The house is going to a young couple who work the farmland here. These are people who work hard, but they don’t earn enough to meet basic needs. This house is a big deal—it’s this family’s ticket out of poverty.”
During his year in combat, Donovan was enamored by the Vietnamese work ethic. In a country that had been ravaged by war, people often took risks to provide for their families. After that first patrol—that bloody night on the water only days into his tour—Donovan made two commitments: Protect the men who served under him, and do everything in his power to prevent civilian casualties.
As a patrol commander, he ordered his men to speed away rather than shoot into a village when his boat took fire from enemies along the bank. When one of his crew threatened to slash the throat of a suspected Vietcong prisoner in a heated moment, Donovan helped defuse the situation. He knew he couldn’t spare everyone—death is inevitable in war—but maybe he could begin to repair his soul. Nearly five decades later, he hasn’t stopped trying.
At the dedication ceremony that morning, Donovan greets the young couple that will soon move into the house. The man shakes his hand and tells him, in Vietnamese, “Thank you for this house.” Donovan smiles.
“Thank you for allowing us to do this,” Donovan says. “This means very much to me.”
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