Wandering Souls

Journeys With the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam


By Wayne Karlin

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On March 19, 1969, First Lieutenant Homer R. Steedly, Jr., shot and killed a North Vietnamese soldier, Dam, when they met on a jungle trail. Steedly took a diary — filled with beautiful line drawings — from the body of the dead soldier, which he subsequently sent to his mother for safekeeping. Thirty-five years later, Steedly rediscovers the forgotten dairy and begins to confront his suppressed memories of the war that defined his life, deciding to return to Viet Nam and meet the family of the man he killed to seek their forgiveness.

Fellow veteran and award-winning author Wayne Karlin accompanied Steedly on his remarkable journey. In Wandering Souls he recounts Homer’s movement towards a recovery that could only come about through a confrontation with the ghosts of his past — and the need of Dam’s family to bring their child’s “wandering soul” to his own peace.

Wandering Souls limns the terrible price of war on soldiers and their loved ones, and reveals that we heal not by forgetting war’s hard lessons, but by remembering its costs.


Lost Armies
The Extras
The Wished-For Country
Marble Mountain
Rumors and Stones: A Journey
War Movies: Scenes and Out-takes
Free Fire Zone: Short Fiction by Vietnam Veterans,
with Basil T. Paquet and Larry Rottmann
The Other Side of Heaven: Postwar Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers, with Le Minh Khue and Truong Vu
Truyen Ngan My Duong Dai (Contemporary American Short Stories), with Ho Anh Thai
Love After War: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam, with Ho Anh Thai

To all the wandering souls, dead and living, from the Viet Nam War.

An Encounter in Pleiku
On March 19, 1969, First Lieutenant Homer Steedly Jr. turned a bend in a trail in Pleiku Province and came face-to-face with a North Vietnamese soldier, his weapon slung over his shoulder.
Homer stared in astonishment. "At first it was almost surreal. I mean, we're all in green fatigues, muddy and sweaty, and really looking like guys in the field. Here this guy comes around the corner, and he's got on a light khaki uniform, a clean light khaki pith helmet. You've seen the red Pleiku mud. You can't stay clean up there. You're tinted red. Your uniforms are red, your fingers are red, it's just—it gets everywhere. And here's this guy that's walking down the trail perfectly clean. Perfectly—not a wrinkle anywhere. I mean, not a hair out of place. I must be hallucinating, the heat's gotten to me."1
The soldier he was confronting was a twenty-five-year-old medic named Hoang Ngoc Dam, from the village of Thai Giang in Thai Binh Province—a fact the lieutenant would not discover for over three decades. There was no time then for more than a quick glimpse of each other. As soon as Dam saw Homer, he snatched his weapon off his shoulder and began to bring it around. Later, Homer would recall how he shouted, "Chieu Hoi," the phrase he thought meant "surrender."2 "But he continued to draw down on me," Homer says, "and then he started pulling his weapon off his shoulder. My weapon was already down at my waist, so it was ready to fire. I hollered at him, and he didn't stop. He tried to get that weapon down, and just before he got it level on me, I fired. In my total abject fear of that moment, I just cut loose and killed him instantly. I could look in his eyes, we were so close together. We were probably thirty feet apart, and then later I looked at him, and he was so young."3
For a time he stared at the body, dazed. He noticed more details. Not only was the young man's uniform starched, but the SKS rifle clutched in his hands still had the greasy cosmoline used as an antirust agent congealing on its bayonet hinge. Someone new to the war, Homer concluded, probably an officer; in his description of the incident in a letter home, he called the dead man a major. He was wrong on both counts. Dam, whose rank was sergeant, had already been in the war for over five years by that time; he had survived the Tet Offensive and many other major battles.
Homer bent down and went through the dead man's pockets, drawing out a notebook with a colorful picture on the front cover of a man and woman in what he took to be traditional or ancient Vietnamese dress, and on the back cover, a daily and monthly calendar grid, labeled with the English word "schedule"; a smaller black notebook; and a number of loose papers—letters, ID cards, and some sort of certificates. The spine and corners of the first notebook had been neatly reinforced with black tape.
Thirty-six years later, when I first touched that notebook, I was struck by the care Dam had taken in binding it up. He was a soldier in an army where nothing could be thrown away, nothing wasted. I thought of what the appearance of that book must have meant to Homer as he looked through it on that dark trail. Raised on small, hardscrabble farms, Homer knew the precious-ness of things that could not be replaced. The way he had shot Dam was unusual: a gunfighter duel in a war in which more often than not the enemy remained faceless to the Americans, only sudden flashes of fire from the jungle, targets to be annihilated. That invisibility was frustrating to the GIs, but at least it allowed them the comfort of dehumanizing the enemy, making him into ghost, demon, target. Now to see not only the face of the man he'd killed, but also the carefully re-bound covers, the force of will that the meticulous writing and drawings inside the book revealed, confronted Homer with a mirrored and valuable humanity. He tried not to think about it. There had been no time to think, anyway. His enemy had been armed and ready to shoot him. Homer had simply been quicker. It was what could be, and was, called a good kill.
Homer sent the documents to the rear area, where he knew they'd be assessed and then burned. But later that evening he changed his mind. He contacted a friend in S-2, intelligence, and asked him to bring everything back. Homer couldn't bear to have the documents, the last evidence of the life he had taken, be destroyed.

Eyes Like a Mean Animal's
Had he and I but met
by some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
I shot him dead because—
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although
He thought he'd list, perhaps,
Off-hand-like—just as I—
Was out of work—had sold his traps—
No other reason why. Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.
—"THE MAN HE KILLED" by Thomas Hardy
Ican't think of Homer and Dam's fatal meeting without being reminded of that Thomas Hardy poem—and of Tim O'Brien's update and personalization of it in "The Man I Killed," a story chapter in The Things They Carried.4 Homer's need to clutch some grief to himself by hanging onto Hoang Ngoc Dam's documents can be seen in the thoughts and actions of Tim—a character subversively created and named after himself by O'Brien—who has, like Homer and the persona in Hardy's poem, just killed an enemy soldier and cannot stop staring at the body. The description of the dead man's face is repeated, over and over, so that we understand Tim's inability to tear his eyes away, his shock and horror at what he's done. As he stares at the corpse, he creates a life story for the dead Viet Cong soldier spun from the man's frail, unsoldierly physique and the objects pulled from his body, including a photo of a young woman next to a motorcycle. He imagines the young Vietnamese as someone who loved mathematics, had gone to the university in Saigon, had fallen in love and married, had been reluctant to go to the war, but finally had—mainly because he feared disgracing his family and his village. Like Homer, who at first imagined Dam as a young officer like himself, Tim—a former university student who'd been reluctant to be drafted and had only gone to war because he feared being ostracized by his family and community—has projected his own life onto the life of the man he has killed. He has killed himself, and he refuses to stop staring at the mirror of his own corpse, to stop grieving for the loss of his own common humanity.
Later in the novel, in "Good Form,"5 O'Brien the writer (as much a fictional character as Tim the soldier) describes the origins of "The Man I Killed," explaining that as a soldier, he could never bring himself to look at the faces of the (enemy) dead, and as a result he has been left with feelings of "faceless responsibility" and "faceless grief." But, he writes, he wants to tell his readers "why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." He is enabled by writing the story, permitting himself that wrench to the side that fiction allows, to create a young Tim who does what O'Brien did not, could not, do during the war: look into the face of the dead and see himself and mourn.6 To re-form his own face in the mirror, he has to discover his features in the glimpsed and shadowed face of the enemy.7
The same need exists as well for the Vietnamese who were once our enemies. In 2007 Mike Archer, a marine veteran of the siege of Khe Sanh, read an article I'd written about Homer and Dam and asked me for some contacts in Viet Nam to help him investigate what had happened to the remains of one of his friends. Archer had written a memoir, A Patch of Ground, in which he described the death of a high school friend, Tom Mahoney, who had also gone into the marines. He was just nineteen, and photos of him reveal a heartbreakingly young face. Mahoney was ambushed and killed during the withdrawal from Hill 881, at the end of the siege. His body was dragged to the front of their position by the People's Army of Viet Nam (PAVN) troops who had killed him in order to lure other marines into an ambush when they tried to recover the body. His friends did try just that, but finally had to call in an air strike, and as a result, Mahoney's remains were never found—they were either dragged off by the North Vietnamese or obliterated.
Years later, while an American and Vietnamese MIA recovery team was searching for clues about the disposition of the body, they found in the Hanoi archives an after-action report from the five-man squad that had ambushed Mahoney. It describes the action and Mahoney: "The five-person team . . . waited for the enemy all night long. At 1400 on the following day (6 July 1968) we saw one American walking outside the entrance of the outpost. He wore a cement-colored uniform. His face was red and his eyes were blue like a mean animal [emphasis added]. He was looking towards Mr. Luong's team. The sounds of AK weapons roared immediately and the American fell. Mr. Luong and Mr. Long jumped out of their positions and dragged the American's body down. They placed the body in front of them to create an ambush for the other Americans coming out of their bunkers."8 To the PAVN soldiers, it was easier to kill someone seen not only as an invader of their country, but also as a mean animal. Inhuman. Meat for bait.
Mahoney was shot in the chest. In 2005 I sat in a room in Hue, across the river from the Citadel, that crucible on which American and PAVN and NLF and ARVN troops—all the acronyms of the war—had slaughtered each other, and the inhabitants of the town, during the 1968 Tet Offensive. It was a battle in which Mahoney had fought. The poet Lam Thi My Da had been there then also, on the other side. She did not know of Thomas Mahoney, but after we met and had the inevitable cups of green tea, she told me she wanted to read one of her poems, "Khuon mat an kin" ("The Face Beneath"),9 which was dedicated to "the American soldiers who died in the war in Viet Nam":
I want to be a small deer
Running under the sky through green grass
Don't make me go into the thick jungle
Or I will become a fierce wolf
Who can foresee the tricks and snares of life?
is disguised by sweet tongues
I was an unwitting deer
Wandering far from my field of fresh grass
My face was the face of a wolf
In deep caves, in shadows, dark and still
Then a call startled me awake
And I remembered that once my eyes
Had been clear, the eyes of a deer
At the end of the road I fell down
When a bullet struck my blood-filled chest
If you look under the wolf's skin
You'll find the red heart of an innocent deer
A year later, when I read Mike's description of Tom Mahoney and saw his photo, then read the PAVN document describing his eyes "blue like a mean animal," the poem sprang into my mind with a shock of recognition and grief. My Da's poem could have been the lost voice of Thomas Mahoney, a poem coming out of the poet's recognition of how war transforms our perceptions of ourselves and of each other, out of her need to rediscover her own innocent heart by seeing beneath the skin of the wolf.
In 1993, when I first met Vietnamese writers who had been on the other side of the war, I sat across a breakfast table and looked into the eyes of a woman who had once been in the Youth Volunteers Brigade of the PAVN, one of the teenage girls who worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trails, repairing craters after our bombings, defusing or exploding unexploded bombs, and even burying the dead. The times, and some of the places, we had been in the war had overlapped, and looking at her face, I knew that if I had seen her there when I was flying as a helicopter gunner, I would have killed her. She had been a target and threat to me, the ghost under the canopy of leaves, and I had been monstrous and mechanical to her, the sky elementally reconfigured into noise and terror. Now we could suddenly see each other's faces. We had been translated to each other; we sat at that small table where we could look into the eyes of all we had not known or had ignored or hated and feared, and see instead reflection and revelation. See what Homer had seen when he once again retrieved that diary from the man he'd killed, after it sat in thirty-six years of darkness, and opened its pages to reveal the precise drawings of a young man who had wanted to be a healer.
It was an instant when everything came together, not just because of where we had been in the war, but because we had both become writers after it; we understood that the moment, when our stories had wrapped together had embodied the latent power of stories to save our own hearts by allowing us into the narratives of other human beings. As Tim had done in imagination. As Homer would try to do in life. The journey I eventually made to Viet Nam to help him return the documents to Dam's family included plans I'd had to interview some of the Vietnamese writers I knew, veterans of the other side of the war. Their stories, from their lives and their art, and the stories of others, friends, other writers and veterans, or traveling companions met along the way, wove into and helped to illuminate the entwinement of Homer's and Dam's stories, as I came to feel they needed to do in this book.
"What stories can do," O'Brien writes, "is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again."10
It was what Homer Steedly decided he needed to do. By refusing to let go of the notebooks he'd taken from Dam's body, Homer somehow understood, though he could not put it into words or coherent thoughts until years later, that he was hanging onto a grief that was the price of remaining human. He needed to find and mourn what had been cut out of his heart. He needed to find Dam's story and his own.


If we pull back now from Homer and Dam, back from the terminal nexus of their meeting, we can see certain parallels emerge between them, in the places they came from and the lives they led and hoped to lead, all of which drew them to that moment when they faced each other in the jungle. Both were from small villages on midland plains; both grew up poor and worked the land: Homer, at times, behind a mule, Dam wading the paddies driving a water buffalo. Both were oldest brothers, willingly taking on the mantle of the responsible sibling, the surrogate parent. Both had parents who taught them codes of courage, custom, duty, and industry that had sustained and defined their ancestors, and both came from a tradition in which education and military service were equally sacrosanct.
The Hoang family today is certain that there was and is a spiritual connection between Dam and Homer. Even with all that has happened since, I don't know if I believe that. But each did carry in his blood the history of the hard lands from which he came; it was the tide that carried them toward each other. Bamberg, South Carolina, has always given its sons to the nation's wars, though usually the sons have been eager enough to give themselves, and the definition of what their nation was sometimes shifted. The town sits astride a highway and (former) railroad junction in the marshy scrub pine, loblolly pine, and palmetto country of the South Carolina midlands. Its first inhabitants, the Edisto tribe of the Muskogian Nation,1 knew it as a cypress swamp, and the occasional alligator still lumbers about near town, as if pulled by a dim ancestral memory of that ancient slough. The country is blessed with an indolent beauty best appreciated by those, like Homer, who know its secret deli cacies: the sway and sigh of the pines, the lush hang of Spanish moss draped on the huge spreads of live oaks hundreds of years old, the brush of a breeze silvering the marsh grass, shivering the dew-jeweled filigrees of spiderwebs, touching the skin and nostrils with the fecundity of the country. The swamps the Edistos knew were still extant when Homer Steedly was growing up; as they did for the Edistos, they still allowed boys to hone skills they would need as men: "I spent most of my childhood in the country, surrounded by woods and cypress swamps, most notably Lemon Swamp," Homer recalls. "I spent all my free time in these woods and swamps hunting, fishing, and just exploring. I became quite accomplished at stalking deer and even observed bobcat and fox on several occasions. I learned how to move si lently through the woods and keep downwind of those I sought to locate. I ran most of the time barefoot in cut off blue jeans with no shirt, or only a t-shirt. Often while running through the swamps and woods I would step on snakes, but they never bit me. Moving quietly and learning to search the environment for shapes and movements while hunting were my strong points in jungle warfare, as was my skill with a rifle."2
The first settlers in this region were the usual rural Southern mix of English, Scots-Irish, and Huguenots, but there were also many Swiss and Germans—and Africans, a population of slaves the more wealthy of the emigrants brought with them when they moved south of the Edisto River. One of the descendants of those Germans, Major William Seaborn Bamberg, gave his name to the town. His grandfather, John George Bamberg, came from Germany and fought in the Revolutionary War.
But if Germany lay back in Bamberg's white history, the topography and history of the American South formed the town more powerfully, and its sons grew up the way the Edisto Indians' sons had, as expert hunters and gatherers, whether in swamp, forest, river, field, or trade, and with the need of a war to initiate and mark their comings of age. Homer's call sign in Viet Nam would be Swampfox, after the Revolutionary War hero and guerrilla fighter Francis Marion, another swamp-raised boy. When Fort Sumter was fired upon, most of the eli gible white male population—the town only had 250 people then—immediately signed up to fight for the Confederacy. Capt. Isaac S. Bamberg formed a company called, unsurprisingly, the Bamberg Guards. Another Bamberg, the wonderfully named Seaborn, became a major, and his brother, Francis M. Bamberg, enlisted as a private and eventually retired as a general.
Among the other Bamberg men who enlisted at the beginning of the war was a Private Richard J. Steedly.
The Lemon Swamp today is somewhat diminished but still sprawls, dense and lush, for miles outside of Bamberg. The tight dirt trail we've followed off Hunter's Chapel Road takes us to a small clearing. If we go in further, Homer says, we'll come across breastworks set up here when a portion of Sherman's army came through on its drive south, attempting to cross the Salkehatchee River. The Union soldiers were held at bay for two days at Bamberg, at the Battle of the Rivers Bridge.3 As we approach the clearing, the shrill chorus of the cicadas stops. There is no breeze, and the air is heavy and heated. Behind a ragged screen of pines, a few weathered gravestones, some tilted over, sentinel what once must have been a small clearing. It is the graveyard of the Hunter's Chapel Baptist Church, the building moved years ago to an area less plagued by the mosquitoes and no-see-ums that cloud around us, the latter going for the corners of our eyes. There are apparently other guardians here as well. Once, Homer tells me, he and his wife visited the graves, and when they came back down the trail, they found a small mound of rocks with some turkey vulture feathers stuck in them—a notification to them, Homer says, that this was still holy ground. Other people still visit here as well; in a slightly clearer area is a small chain-link fence enclosure, with six gravesites in it. Homer unwraps the cord holding the gate shut, and we go inside. There are two small metal markers—the original gravestones are gone—and we squat down and read them: Emily Elizabeth Steedly, 26 March 1841 to 20 September 1897. Capt. Richard Joseph Steedly, CSA, 18 February 1831 to 3 November 1902. In front of the markers, a small Confederate flag has been stuck into the earth.
Homer's great-great-grandfather's military career foreshadowed the direction of Homer's own. Captain Dick (the family always called him by that name) rose through the ranks from private to become commander of Company G of the South Carolina Volunteers. He was wounded at the battle of Spotsylvania, but came home to marry Emily Elizabeth Edwards, who came from Orangeburg County. The two lived in the Hunter's Chapel community, at the edge of the swamp near where they are now buried.
Each male in the Steedly family subsequently would be given the first or middle name Richard, in honor of Captain Dick. A photograph of Homer when he was a lieutenant in Viet Nam—his head cocked to the side, thin-faced, serious, the pipe he had decided to smoke to make himself look older and wiser dangling from his mouth—could be a daguerreotype of his own ancestor or any of a hundred other Confederate soldiers, posing perhaps a little more stiffly, their collars buttoned high, their hands on the handles of the Bowie knives or pistols in their belts, looking grim, competent, and deadly. These are the typical rural southern troops, always disproportionately represented in the American military: the equivalent of the sturdy, patriotic peasantry from the hardscrabble farmlands of Thai Binh, Nam Dinh, and Nghe An in northern Viet Nam, or Quang Tri and Quang Ngai in the South. They were tough country boys who went to be slaughtered or redeemed in what they and their progeny—Homer once correcting a Yankee teacher in his high school about the name—would only call The War of Northern Aggression. They were kids like Homer, who learned how to use a rifle and stalk the woods and swamps from the time they could walk, and they were followed by other generations of warriors, whenever the reunited country gave them the chance to kill and die for it. World War I cost the tiny town twenty men killed in action, and when Homer's father went to fight in World War II, another twenty from the town were lost, as if this figure had become the accepted tithe to the god of war or the needs of the nation.


On Sale
Sep 29, 2009
Page Count
376 pages
Bold Type Books

Wayne Karlin

About the Author

Wayne Karlin is the author of numerous books, including Lost Armies, The Wished-For Country, and Rumors and Stones. In 2005, he received an Excellence in the Arts Award from the Vietnam Veterans of America. Karlin lives in Maryland, where he teaches at the College of Southern Maryland.

Learn more about this author