In Vietnam, my team was sent to the local orphanage to spend Christmas Eve with the orphans and the too few Nuns who worked around the clock to look after them. We didn’t know what to expect – we had just come in out of the bush and we weren’t in much of a mood to go spend the day with some kids. As we walked through the gate we were met by a Nun who explained a little about the orphanage and that we were welcome to move about and “enjoy the children.” Only a Nun could say something like that. If I was going to enjoy a child, it would be my own 2-year-old daughter whose little hug I got the day I left for this country and remember to this very day.
We were met by an ocean of little faces, all smiling and yelling. Quickly, each member of the team, who had just the day before been in a life and death struggle to survive, was overwhelmed and surrounded by groups of little kids, each one excited about us being there. Looking at the faces, it became apparent that many weren’t here because they survived something that their parents didn’t. Over 90% of the faces were obviously half white or half black. They were the product of encounters with the soldiers sent here to free their country of the communists and now were outcasts because of their mixed parentage.
None of us brought enough chocolate or candy to go around but gave out what we could and each of us wished we could do more. These beautiful little children deserved better. The team stayed together in a group, more out of instinct than necessity, as we slowly walked about.
I felt something touching the bandage on my arm. I drew my arm back as I looked down and took a step back. It was a little boy about 6 years old and I had startled him with my reaction. I smiled at him, assuring him it was OK, and he immediately reached out and grabbed my hand. I picked him up and gave him a hug. He put his little arms around my neck and held on for the rest of the day. He cautiously reached down and gently touched the bandage on my arm and in very broken English asked if it hurt. I assured him it didn’t and I could feel him relax in my arms.
Sometime later, I became aware of what I must look like to the guys I had only yesterday led in combat. After all I was a tough ass Ranger, a Canadian and, frankly, a bit hardcore about the job we did. It was then that I noticed that each team member was also holding a child. In fact, The Chief, a big native from Beaver Island Michigan, was holding a child in each arm and they were both hugging him at the same time. I had never seen so many children in the need of basic love.
We spent the day with them, just giving them some attention. Each of the guys had relaxed and were enjoying the children. Maybe that Nun knew more about us than we did. It was starting to get dark and we needed to get back to our base. I would announce to the team that it was time to go and get the response, “…Hey, Canuck, just another couple of minutes …OK?” “Sure… just a couple more minutes,” … you know, just because the team had asked.
Finally, we had to put the kids we were holding down. The one who had spent the day with me knew what was happening and held on tighter. I hugged him back and slowly, carefully pulled his arms from around my neck. We knew we would not see each other ever again. I smiled at him and put my hand on his head. I gently squeezed his shoulder and he looked at me with tears in his eyes. I stood up with this damn lump in my throat and turned away.
Our walk back to base was quiet. Occasionally someone would swipe his sleeve over his eyes but otherwise we just kept walking and looking straight ahead. The silence was finally broken when someone asked, “Hey… Canuck, when’s our next mission?”
“Day after tomorrow,” I said, swiping my sleeve across my face and looking straight ahead.
I still wonder whatever became of those outcast children.
Capt Keith A. Cunningham (Ret’d)