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VICTORIA, Minn. (WCCO) — In the dining room of their Victoria home, Steve and Donna Leighton sort through the pictures and patches of a time many would just as soon forget.
“The reception we had when we came home was pretty disgusting. You just never really had any closure,” Steve Leighton, a Vietnam veteran, recalled.
For over a decade, American troops battled through the jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam in the name of fighting communist backed North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
Steve Leighton was there from 1966 to 1967, where he served as an American Advisor to a unit of South Vietnamese Rangers. The 42nd Ranger Batallion, or “Biet Dong Quan,” were the best fighters South Vietnam had. Steve was just 19 and served as a radio operator to help the Rangers coordinate American air support.
“Five days before he left for Vietnam … we had a couple dates and I said goodbye for a year,” Donna Leighton recalled.
He’d spend the war in the mud of the Mekong Delta in a place called Bac Lieu.
“I swear I walked every square inch of that Delta,” Steve Leighton remembered.
The young, cigarette puffing advisor would eat, sleep, tromp and trudge alongside his South Vietnamese soldiers. He ate what they ate, slept where they slept. The American was one in the same among his South Vietnamese troops.
“I mean, they really are brothers (to me) and they become family and that’s the way I felt with my Vietnamese counterparts,” Steve Leighton recalled with emotion.
But after a year, his war tour was up and orders sent him home. He said he will never forget the feeling of being on that Boeing 707, full of battle-hardened soldiers in a plane that was deathly silent.
“It was probably — I’m going to guess — maybe 45 minutes after takeoff, when the pilot came on and said … ‘we’ve now cleared Vietnamese airspace,'” said Steve Leighton as he choked back tears, knowing he’d survived the war.
At that point, the Leightons resumed their lives. They got married, had children and built careers. But strangely, his war never really went away.
“I’ve been very, very blessed in my career and my family and this country … and I can only imagine what kind of life (those Vietnamese) guys have had … if they’re still alive,” he said.
“I could tell that was like a life changing experience for him and very sad,” she added.READ MORE: Minnesota Budget Update Reflects $7.7 Billion Surplus
Like so many Vietnam veterans, the memories of losing close friends and the war’s horrors haunted Steve Leighton for decades. He lived his life always wondering what happened to the South Vietnamese troops he’d fought alongside. So after 40 years, he decided there was only one path to peace. He would have to go back to that hell in hopes of finding some long lost buddies.
“If I were to find one of my two closest partners … I just can’t even describe what that would mean to me,” he said.
A few days later at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the couple checked in for a trip they never thought he’d take. After 40 years he was headed back to Vietnam — Ho Chi Minh City.
He knew the trip was going to be a long shot, but he had to try. Somewhere in Vietnamese streets crowded by rickshaws and motorbikes, along floating Mekong marketplaces, or in remote Delta hamlets, he talked with anybody who looked old enough to have served during the war.
He inquired about two men in particular: Capt. Long and Lt. Tai. They were the two Vietnamese Rangers he was closest to.
“I’m already starting to get a little emotional about the trip,” Steve Leighton admitted feeling.
When the Leightons finally arrived at the hotel in Bac Lieu, deep in the Delta, he couldn’t help but note the date: “Oct. 23, 2007 — exactly 40 years to the day after I left this town for the first time!”
So much had changed there. The dirt roads around the village are now paved and lined with housing and businesses. Gone is any presence of the American bases.
Within 20 minutes of arriving in Bac Lieu, he started getting some clues. In the hotel lobby, seated around a pile of pictures, a former South Vietnamese Ranger rambled in. His name was Che, a former sergeant in the Ranger unit.
As it turned out, he had some knowledge of what eventually happened to Captain Long. Through an interpretor, Che said, “It’s believed that he is probably alive and living in the United States.”
As for Maj. Kiet, the Ranger Batallion Commander, he was killed in battle several months after Steve Leighton left Vietnam in 1967. The Major’s RTO had stepped on a landmine, killing both he and Major Kiet, and seriously wounding another American Advisor. Capt. Long replaced Kiet as the new Batallion Commander. He was later named the Province Chief, and escaped the country sometime after the fall of Vietnam in 1975.
Sergeant Che didn’t know much about Leighton’s other friend, Lt. Tai, the 4th Company Commander. After the Communists took control of the South, many ranking officers were either killed or sent to long stays in “re-education” camps.
After four decades of wondering and thousands of miles of travel, Steve Leighton still didn’t have the reunion he desperately seeked. But this time he left Vietnam on his terms.
He said he feels a deep sense of hope and happiness for the Vietnamese people and is now more committed than ever to resuming his search for old friends back in America.MORE NEWS: Minnesota Weather: Tuesday Morning Snow Showers Make For Tough Commute
“I really did have a sense of closure,” Steve Leighton says. “Everything has changed, the world has moved on and the only thing I have left of that place is memories.”