A trip back in time: Bangor Air Force veteran returns to Vietnam

Bangor's John Hammes finds closure on trip of a lifetime back the place where he served in Vietnam

LA CROSSE COUNTY, (WKBT) — Memories exist in places people have been.  One Bangor Vietnam veteran returned to the country he fought in more than four decades ago.  His trip helped him find closure and the courage to talk about his service in a controversial war.

“Never spoke too much about Vietnam, but now it’s come back,”  said John Hammes, who lives in Bangor and is a retired Air Force Vietnam veteran. 

Hammes carries memories just as fresh as the days they happened on foreign soil.

“It was like hell. Mortars goin’ around. You could hear the bullets coming past your face, you know.” 

Vietnam is a place where a controversial conflict still haunts the land.  

“The country by the way, is beautiful. It wasn’t like that when I was there,” Hammes said. “It was all tore up with mortars and B-52 bombers, bombing everything.” 

When Hammes returned home, “thank you” was absent from the people who greeted him.  Protests blanketed the U.S. when soldiers returned home.

“One of them threw a rotten tomato at me,” Hammes said.

These experiences were all too common for Vietnam Veterans.

“Went over four times and I come back four times,” Hammes said.

Hammes repaired crippled planes while serving. His knowledge of aircraft has not aged.

“This is an O-A model, because it got three bladed props on it,” said Hammes, as he pointed to aircraft photographs. 

New photos, Hammes took himself, show a country that looks a lot different.

“When I was stationed at Saigon, I went to church there.

“It changed a lot,” Hammes said. “It’s a little excess of 30 million people now.” 

Hammes took a trip back to Vietnam as part of “Central Wisconsin Area Veterans to Vietnam”. The president of Vietnam payed them a visit at their hotel.

“I handshake the president of Vietnam,” Hammes said.

Hammes also remembered the consequences of war. He remembers Agent Orange – the chemical weapon festers in his mind today. The Red Cross estimates 3 million Vietnamese have been affected by dioxin. At least 150,000 children are born with serious birth defects.

“You think the Americans had it with Agent Orange, just think of the Vietnamese, had to deal with it too,” Hammes said.

Hammes said stepping back on Vietnam land brings closure to his service there. It’s easier for him to talk about the war now.

“Well, I start talking more and more to my kids, my grandkids about the Vietnam War,” Hammes said.

Veterans heal with the support of their communities, something Hammes said changed only a decade ago.  “Thank Yous” are illustrated everywhere now. La Crosse’s new Vietnam Memorial at Veteran’s Freedom Park lists all of the Wisconsin names who gave their lives in Vietnam.

“I come down here quite a few times,” Hammes said.

Places have a way of preserving people’s experiences. Hammes’s trip back in time helped him find peace where his feet rest today.

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