As the world tried to make sense of the gruesome killings of 16 civilians by a U.S. army staff sergeant in Afghanistan, hundreds of Vietnamese and foreigners, including former American servicemen, gathered to commemorate another, larger massacre that took place 44 years ago.
Every March, American veterans of the Vietnam War travel to Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province to participate in ceremonies marking the My Lai massacre, one of the ugliest episodes of the armed conflict that pitted the U.S.-backed South Vietnam against the communist North. (North and South Vietnam reunited in 1976, a year after Washington declared an end to the Vietnam War).
The My Lai (pronounced ‘me lie’) massacre took place on March 16, 1968 after a platoon of American soldiers went on a ‘search and destroy’ mission against the South Vietnamese guerrillas in Quang Ngai, a known stronghold of the fighters also known as Viet Cong.
Finding no combatants in one hamlet called My Lai, the U.S. troops gunned down unarmed civilians, raped women and tortured villagers, including children and babies, according to official accounts of the massacre. A total of 504 people were known to have died in the carnage, which was the subject of a cover-up and did not become public knowledge until a journalist broke the story a year later. A subsequent inquiry found the platoon leader guilty and was sentenced with life imprisonment.
Thanh Nien newspaper reports that U.S. veterans have over the years returned to Vietnam as part of their own healing process. One of them, Mike Boehm, first visited the place of the massacre in 2002, with 11 other former servicemen, to build a primary school for the villagers.
“At that time he realized he still had unresolved issues from the war, and the two-month stay led to a life-long commitment to humanitarian work in Vietnam,” writes the influential newspaper. He has since helped poor women improve their livelihood through loans he has extended.
Because of his work in a province he first came to know as a battlefield, Boehm has been named an honorary member of the Quang Ngai Women’s Association. The only male so honored, he is affectionately called “Mike the woman.”
For Boehm, his annual pilgrimage is a way of helping himself, and others, come to grips with a painful chapter in their lives.