Bill Larsen couldn't believe the Vietnam he found the second time he landed in country.
Larsen had lived with post-traumatic stress for years, stemming from the hell he encountered during the Vietnam War. When he returned in 1996, it was as if he had never been there before.
In 1969, "I was out in the boonies and didn't see any Vietnamese other than enemy soldiers," Larsen said. He saw friends blown up in front of him and earned the Silver Star on a day he was pinned down by snipers.
"I lifted my head and got shot in the chin and it broke my jaw in half," Larsen said. That day would only get worse.
He returned to Vietnam in 1996 by himself for 18 days "as a way of healing." Larsen said it was one of the most wonderful experiences of his life.
"I was totally accepted," by the Vietnamese, said Larsen, who is 60. "They were not holding onto the war," and saw it as just one more step in their 1,000-year journey to independence.
"It was a very core piece in my puzzle of Vietnam," Larsen said. "You get to create new experiences and memories that are not a part of war."
Larsen wrote an essay about his return titled "The New Vietnam." It is included in an anthology of veterans' writings called "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace," that was edited by National Book Award winner Maxine Hong Kingston.
Larsen will read his essay at an event starting at 2 p.m. Saturday, Veterans Day, at The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley. In the reading, Larsen will talk about going to the charitable Peace Village in Vietnam.
There, he said, "I found about 100 artificial limbs, artificial legs. ... They were cheapo limbs, like plastic, just a little better than stilts," Larsen said.
He found out they were earmarked for the many people in Vietnam who lose limbs when they step on unexploded land mines and ordnance left over from the American military. The sight of the prostheses moved him so much, he raised money for the Peace Village when he got back.
When the Vietnam War began, "I was no pacifist," Larsen said.
He was for the war. He attended an officer training course in the United States Marine Corps during college, but turned down his commission because "I didn't get with the violence" of the program.
Larsen went into the Peace Corps after college, but got drafted into the U.S. Army as a buck private.
He found himself in Vietnam in March 1969, stationed on a fire base two hours north of Saigon in Tay Ninh Province. He was a member of the helicopter-equipped First Air Cavalry. There were 120 people in his company when they arrived.
By the time Larsen was shot in the chin on June 2, only 75 of them remained.
On that day, Larsen was trying to get to two men pinned down by North Vietnamese Army snipers. Just after he was shot, his buddy, Michael MacParlane, came over to help him out.
Just as MacParlane was reaching out to Larsen from about two feet away, a sniper sent a shot right through his eye, killing him. Larsen wrapped a bandage around his head and then went out to get the men he originally was trying to save.
One of the men was already near death, but the other was alive, although shot in the arms and the legs. As he was saving the man, "I got shot twice more in that little journey," and won the Silver Star for doing it.
Larsen spent the next year in military hospitals.
Path of drugs, recovery
He brought back another problem from Vietnam: Drugs. While in Vietnam, "There was very little to do. We played cards and smoked dope."
Convalescing at Fort Riley, Kan., Larsen became a dental assistant, "and I got started using drugs."
When he got out, some wild times ensued, and they included heroin. His wake-up call came in Mexico when some people he was about to make a deal with got busted about 40 feet away from him.
He got therapy for his drug and Vietnam-caused problems. In 1985, he became a psychotherapist himself.
Larsen started a Vietnam vets group in Nevada County in 1982, but not many vets came out. Then in 1987, he won a contract with the Sacramento Veterans Center and started the Combat Therapy Group.
While that helped fellow veterans, it turned on Larsen.
"All my issues started coming up," Larsen said. "I got hooked on trying to help vets," and became a workaholic. He developed an eye disease, was still dealing with post-traumatic stress and had arthritis from his gunshot wounds. He decided to give up the therapy group.
These days, Larsen still has his psychotherapy practice, and he contributes to peace efforts. As a former member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he also is no fan of the current one.
Larsen is looking forward to the reading on Veterans Day from the anthology, which includes the works of 88 authors.
"All of the proceeds go back to Vietnam" in relief efforts. "No author will make a dime."
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4237.
Watch an audio slideshow narrated by Bill Larson by clicking on the movie on the right side of this page.
Veterans Day activities
All Veterans Breakfast, 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building, 255 South Auburn St., Grass Valley. Veterans free, all others $5.
Commemorative Ceremony, 10 a.m., Veterans Memorial Park in Grass Valley. If it is raining, the ceremony will be at the Veterans Memorial Building.
Veterans Dinner, Elks Lodge, 109 South School St., Grass Valley Cash bar at 5 p.m., dinner at 6:30 p.m. Veterans free, spouses $10.
- Dave Moller
WHAT: Book reading and signing by Bill Larsen, Vietnam veteran.
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday, Veterans Day.
WHERE: The Center for the Arts, 314 West Main St., Grass Valley.