John Donovan and the Ghosts of War

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War Veteran John Donovan Vietnam

War veteran John Donovan greets locals in Vietnam, where he raises money to build homes for poor families. / Photograph by Stephen Katz

Almost a half century later, a subtle sound or a familiar smell can still take John Donovan back to that grisly night on the water. The sudden coolness of nightfall after a hot summer day. The odor of diesel fuel mingled with sweat. A child wailing in the distance. Some moments, Donovan has come to accept, can’t be forgotten.

On this day, though—with the sun hanging high above the Mekong Delta, as he rides a chartered tour boat along the murky brown waters he once patrolled as a young U.S. naval officer—Donovan chooses to dwell on the lighter moments from his combat tour in Vietnam.

He remembers nights spent drinking with locals in town, broken curfews and one-night stands, spitting-mad commanders and letters of reprimand. “I believe there were some concerns about my discipline,” Donovan says, shouting over the roaring boat engine. “But I think it should be said, I worked just as hard as I partied.” He recalls the time he and a South Vietnamese interpreter disguised themselves in traditional attire and rode a motorbike through enemy territory to meet up with a couple of women a few towns away. Totally worth the risk, he insists to this day.

On the river in My Tho, the lanky 6-foot-4, 72-year-old Milton native attracts stares from other boats. He smiles and waves to each, shouting hello in Vietnamese as they pass. Donovan has been coming back for nearly two decades, mostly for humanitarian purposes. He uses his corporate connections as a business consultant back home in New England to raise money to build houses for poor Vietnamese families. Every year, he travels here to meet the people he’s helped and connect with the communist government officials who allow him to do it.

In a developing country that’s been drawing more tourists of late—to bustling urban scenes such as Ho Chi Minh City, the northern mountains near Sapa, and the eastern seaside attractions around Hô°i An—Donovan spends most of his time here in the rural areas of southern Vietnam, mingling with dirt-poor rice farmers in a section of the country that hasn’t advanced much since 1965. In these parts, running water and electricity are luxuries. “Look at that,” Donovan says as he stands and walks toward the stern. Ahead in the distance, he points to a fork in the river and what appears to be a large statue. As the charter boat motors closer, the monument comes into focus: three soldiers, one holding an RPG, one holding a bazooka, and one holding an AK-47, standing atop a pedestal. Donovan asks the boat captain to pull over. He and the dozen other tourists and ex–military men onboard step onto the bank and gaze up.

The statue, about 25 feet tall and surrounded by knee-high weeds, appears long forgotten. The concrete is cracked and discolored. Plastic bottles and other trash litter the ground. The soldier holding a bazooka is missing part of his face; sunshine streams through. Our interpreter studies a faded plaque at the base of the monument, and then tells us it commemorates a North Vietnamese ambush on U.S. patrol boats here in July 1968 that claimed dozens of lives. “My tour was over by then. Missed it by a few months,” Donovan says, then stares quietly up at the monument for several seconds. “War is war,” he says finally, turning back toward the boat. “Plenty of blood spilled on both sides.”

It’s the kind of reflection I’ve heard recently from many Vietnam vets. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the United States officially entering Vietnam’s brutal civil war—a war we abandoned after 10 long years. For the men who were sent to fight, it’s been a season of soul searching. Some psychological wounds have mended, and increasingly vets are talking openly about the war that divided their generation. Some have taken it a step further and started going back.

A communist official in Vietnam responsible for escorting foreign journalists told me he’s noticed an increase in these sorts of postwar pilgrimages. Some veterans come to close a painful chapter of their lives. Some return to reconnect with their youth. Others, it seems, go just out of curiosity.

Donovan, I would learn, has come to make amends.

 

Nearly 3 million americans served in Vietnam between 1965 and 1975. Thousands returned with missing limbs, and more than 58,000 came home in caskets—or didn’t come home at all. The vast majority who made it back bore no visible scars, but that didn’t mean they weren’t damaged. For Donovan, rock bottom came on a sunny afternoon in the spring of 1969, one year after his return. He was 25 years old. Homeless. Addicted to prescription pills and booze. Shuffling along a crowded sidewalk in San Francisco.

Donovan also struggled with undiagnosed PTSD. His hair was long, his face unshaven, and he couldn’t remember his last shower. One day, he saw a man in a Navy uniform walking toward him and realized it was an officer under whom he’d served. Donovan hoped the man wouldn’t recognize him.

“John, how are you?” the officer asked.

“I’m doing fine,” Donovan lied.

Just three years earlier, having graduated from Holy Cross with a degree in political science, Donovan volunteered to fight in Vietnam. He believed stopping the spread of communism was a cause worth fighting for. He was young and also wanted to see what war was like. “I was going to kill some Vietcong and win medals,” he recalls thinking.

By the end of his yearlong tour, Donovan had gone on more than 200 river patrols and lived through some 50 firefights. He popped amphetamines to stay awake on overnight patrols and drank constantly off-duty to take the edge off. Those habits didn’t translate well to civilian life. The naval officer returned in 1968 disillusioned and addicted. Living with a girlfriend outside San Francisco, a jobless Donovan quickly blew through the $10,000 he was paid after separating from the military.

He’d sleep during the day and drink at night. When friends or family asked what had happened in Vietnam, he avoided giving a complete answer: “We don’t belong over there,” he’d say. Or “It wasn’t what I signed up for.” After a year, his girlfriend kicked him out, and some days later, he bumped into the former naval officer. “That was one of those crystallizing moments,” Donovan says. “I was mortified to be seen that way. The guy gave me his business card and told me to call him if I needed anything, but there was no way I was going to call. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, especially someone in the military. But that incident helped me come to terms with the fact that I needed to do something to get myself together.”

Donovan found work driving a taxi, moved into a motel room, saved up enough to rent a cheap apartment, and finally called his parents. They’d been hounding him for months to come to Boston for a visit. In the two-plus years since returning from Vietnam, he’d been home just once, and it hadn’t been a pleasant experience.

The lone homecoming came a couple of months after he returned from war. The Navy was holding a ceremony in Boston for some of the local Vietnam veterans, and they wanted Donovan there to receive the Bronze Star. “That,” he says, “was the last thing I wanted to do.”

Donovan reluctantly agreed to go, mostly to appease his parents, who’d seemed worried when he didn’t even bother to stop home after a year of combat. He got a haircut, shaved his face, had his dress uniform dry-cleaned, and bought a plane ticket back east. Donovan was one of five veterans honored that night at the Boston Navy Yard. A yellowing newspaper clipping shows Donovan standing off to the side—an uncomfortable look on his face—as an admiral pins a medal on one of the other vets. The flag officer read the award citations out loud: “Lieutenant Donovan distinguished himself by his competent and courageous performance of duty…. As a direct result of his determination and aggressiveness on patrol, Lieutenant Donovan personally accounted for a considerable number of interdicted enemy river crossings…. During his frequent encounters with the enemy, Lieutenant Donovan received enemy fire. His ensuing actions were carried out calmly, correctly, and courageously….”

Donovan couldn’t wait to get out of there, he recalls. “To me, they were using me as propaganda, trying to counter the feeling at the time that American soldiers were guilty of horrible atrocities and that we were all baby killers…. You read these award citations, and the military makes it seem like everyone who served was an infallible war hero.”

The truth, Donovan knew, is rarely so straightforward. He bit his tongue as he watched his parents smiling proudly in the audience and tried his best not to spoil the occasion. He dutifully shook the admiral’s hand and saluted. He didn’t talk much on the ride home. He remembered being back in Vietnam, where one of his officers had a saying: “What happens on the river stays on the river.”

 

The night he rarely talks about—the one that still haunts him—was March 20, 1967. Donovan had arrived in Vietnam only two days earlier. As the sun sank into the horizon, he readied himself to go out on his first river patrol. Later in his tour, the young officer would be responsible for leading the missions. But tonight was to serve as his education.

The riverboat pulled away from the dock at My Tho around nightfall, and the crew of sailors motored along the bank for miles. “All right, men,” the commanding officer instructed, “let’s set up an ambush.”

Donovan’s heart thumped inside his chest. He’d heard horror stories from guys who’d been in-country for a while, of Vietcong fighters attacking boat crews. He hadn’t expected to be this nervous. The crew maneuvered the boat into a narrow cove, tied it to some fishnets and pilings, then shut off the engines. Silence.

Through the darkness, Donovan could see small huts hugging the bank across the river. It was a cloudy night. For two hours, they sat quietly in near-total darkness. Then he heard a ping on the radar, a small blip on a screen moving toward them.

Soon, Donovan could hear paddling. The enemy’s vessel was less than 200 feet away, according to the radar, but it was too dark to see. Once the radar showed it within 150 feet, a crew member fired a parachute flare into the air, illuminating a 20-foot wooden sampan boat and four panicked faces on the water below.

Donovan squinted to see more clearly: Was that a woman and two children onboard? Plus an older man? It looked like a family. What the hell were they doing out there? His thought was interrupted by the deafening roar of twin 50-caliber machine guns that his crew members unleashed in the sampan’s direction. “We just blazed them,” Donovan says. “I couldn’t understand what was happening or do anything about it. I was frozen.”

The old man paddled desperately toward the shore as bullets ripped into the wooden boat. He and the woman jumped out and scrambled up the bank. She carried one of the children in her arms. But where was the other kid? The machine guns continued to fire, trailing them up the bank and into a hut.

When the shooting stopped, Donovan heard a child wailing. None of the sailors spoke. Seconds later, the old man stumbled back out of the hut. He had white hair and looked to be in his seventies. Had he somehow avoided getting hit? Then Donovan noticed the man’s hands: “This is the image I can’t ever shake,” Donovan says. “This old man just stands there, staring out at us with his arms at his stomach, holding onto his intestines as they spill out of him.”

Aboard the patrol boat, Donovan finally choked out a few words: “What are we doing?” The officer in charge turned to him: “They’re Vietcong,” he said. “This is what we do.”

Hours later, after returning to base, the commander filled out an after-action report. He marked down two Vietcong killed during the patrol, one injured. Donovan was shocked, but there was no arguing the point. For the first time in U.S. history, military leaders were measuring success in war not by the territory they controlled, but in lives claimed. The more dead Vietcong reported up the chain, the better.

Donovan couldn’t sleep after that. He lay in his bunk, contemplating what he’d seen. So, he thought, this is Vietnam.

 

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.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2015/11/24/john-donovan-vietnam-war/