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Maps don't just tell of the destination, but also of the journey

September 22, 2022 | 05:16 am PT
Marc Knapper U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam
My father, Marine Colonel Roger E. Knapper, was based south of Da Nang during the war. Each day, he would unfold a map of Da Nang to brief his fellow Marines.

At the end of the briefing, he would gaze at it, holding it steadily in his hand, before folding it back up and returning it to his back pocket.

Nearly 40 years later, in 2004, my father sat nervously next to me and my young son Alex in the back of our rented van, holding the same map, as he returned to Da Nang for the first time since the end of the war. Leading his son and grandson to a clearing that had formerly been where he was stationed, he peered from behind this same map, now weathered with age, to take in his surroundings — he was at peace.

My father's dream had always been to return to Vietnam, a beautiful country, and see it at peace and thriving. After quietly reciting a prayer, my father steadily gazed at the map one last time, folded it up, and instead of returning it to his back pocket, he handed it to me. It was a symbol of closure for him, but also a gesture, shared between father and son, to honor his long journey from war to peace between our two countries.

When my dad visited in 2004, he met with a group of Vietnamese veterans, and they reminisced about the war and combat in a way that only veterans can. Not with anger or hard feelings, but instead with hope for even better relations in the future.

My family history reflects the arc of the U.S. - Vietnam relationship. Four generations of my family have called Vietnam home. My grandmother lived in Saigon in the 1960s, my father was based in Da Nang and Hue in the late 1960s, and in 2004, I arrived for the first time as the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy with my wife and son. As a family we have seen rapidly growing cities and lush countryside from the rivers of the south to the mountains of the north.

Any one of us with a relative who fought in war, or was impacted by it, desires to see Vietnam at peace.

Field workers use a heating process to remove dioxin from contaminated soil at Da Nang Airport in central Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Vietnams Ministry of National Defense

Field workers use a heating process to remove dioxin from contaminated soil at Da Nang Airport in central Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Vietnam's Ministry of National Defense

Unfortunately, my father and grandmother were not able to see me become the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, but if I could, I would tell them that this country is indeed a beautiful, thriving, independent, and peaceful nation. They would also be proud of the high-level commitments between the U.S. and Vietnam to fight climate change and ensure mutual prosperity and security, especially as our two nations celebrate 10 years of comprehensive partnership in the coming year.

As addressing war legacies is the cornerstone of the bilateral relationship, we look forward to assisting Vietnam in developing more robust and efficient personnel accounting through the Vietnam Wartime Accounting Initiative to help find and identify Vietnamese lost during the war. As the son of a service member, I believe every family deserves to experience the closure of having their loved one returned to them.

My father and I were impressed by the treasures of the Mekong Delta when we visited in 2006, from the Ben Tre coconuts and Mekong River fish to the industrious rice farmers. I understand the importance of preserving the "rice basket of Vietnam" amidst a changing climate. This past June, USAID and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) signed their first bilateral partnership agreement, which focuses on climate change cooperation in the Mekong Delta with up to $50 million.

We also recently hosted U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s second visit to Vietnam this year for high-level meetings as a show of U.S. commitment as a steadfast partner in Vietnam’s transition to clean energy in the run up to COP27.

The United States has been a consistent partner in investing in the next generation through developing human capital and giving youth the tools to compete in the global market. One such example is the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), which through seminars, regional workshops, and exchange programs has given thousands of young Vietnamese professional and networking skills to make Vietnam a more prosperous country.

Last month, Alex and I gazed across the creases of my father’s old map and reflected about our time in Da Nang with my father. That map now sits in my office, and when I peer at it, just as my father did now almost 60 years ago, I am respectful of our past, grateful for our present, and optimistic of the direction we are headed in together: toward a bright, strategic, and resilient future.

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