War Never Ends: I Went Back To Vietnam To See Where My Uncle Died

How my uncle's death in the Vietnam War, over fifty years ago, has impacted me.

Author collecting the dirt where her uncle died in Hue Vietnam. Courtesy Of Author

I don’t know what I expected; I guess I wished I’d see a ghost or some other sign. But as I rode through the small villages of Vietnam on a motorbike, with my arms around my husband Julian’s stomach, I watched the vast and overwhelming beauty fly by: the rice paddies, the water buffalo, the school kids racing each other on bicycles.

Snuggled up against Julian, it was easy to watch the world float by. He has the most wide-open heart I’ve ever known. Julian trusts the good in the world in a way that it really shouldn’t be trusted. His loving perspective buoys me up, even in my darkest times. Feeling peaceful is easy around him, and giving in to misery is nearly impossible. Believe me, I’ve tried to give in. 


I yelled hello to the school kids from the back of the motorbike as we passed. One kid shouted back, “Nice to meet you. My name is Hoang, what’s yours?” I yelled back, “My name is Heather Box!” Their hysteria from talking to a foreigner in English faded as we rode on. 

War Never Ends: I Went Back To Vietnam To See Where My Uncle Died Photo by author


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One of the members of his platoon said my uncle died by a small stream. I passed dozens of streams that day, each time wondering if that was the one he died by.

We parked our bikes and looked out. The sun hit the streams making them twinkle. The breeze brushed my face so soft it made me sleepy. Amid all this beauty I struggled to imagine the horrendous violence that happened right here on this dirt. I was incapable of imagining my uncle, looking like me with his small chin, lying dead here. 

It made me light-headed and crazy-mad, that in his short life, he had to be a part of and bear witness to the darkest of humanity’s violence. 


I wanted to stand on the edge of the road, snap my fingers, and bring all the dead bodies back to life, even if it was just for a few minutes, so they could call their families and tell them they loved them. Maybe they could tell them where exactly they were when they died. Because dying by a stream in an unknown place leaves families with overwhelming emptiness, with nothing to grab onto. 

That’s why I was there, I guess. I was trying to throw a spark into that nothingness for my dad.

It breaks my heart anew every time I think about my 22-year-old dad and his best friend Doug driving down the empty Los Angeles highways to the train station at 3 a.m. to meet my uncle’s body returning from Hue, Vietnam. As my Dad was driving away from the train station he committed himself to go back to Vietnam to see where his brother had died. A generation later, I turned that commitment into a family mission and decided to take it on. 

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With my Grandpa’s spirit in my heart and my Dad and his siblings in my mind, I took all the different maps they had sent me — some from war books, others from satellite maps — and went out searching for some trace of my uncle.

It’s a mission so many people impacted by war — veterans, refugees pushed out by war, and their families — have gone on before, to visit or revisit the land. Everyone goes for a different reason, whether it be to find peace, to apologize, to see their homeland, to try to connect with a loved one, to understand history, or something else.

My mission wasn’t fully flushed out, but I knew I wanted to stand where my Uncle had died and see if I could feel him. I knew I wanted to make any small gesture to try to transform the legacy of hate my family was involved in in Vietnam. 

When I was in my apartment in San Francisco it felt like such an abstract mission that was probably going to be impossible, but sitting in the cafe in Hue looking at maps with the cafe owner who grew up there, the journey felt so doable. She told me the best place to rent a scooter and how to get to the fields where my uncle spent his last moments. 


I wandered the sandy fields, kicking dust and snapping photos. Julian said, in his weird, formal something-sad-happened voice, “Want to say something to him?” I did. My Mom had said I should say something to him and I thought it’d be weird to come all this way and not say anything in case he could hear me or had been waiting for someone to return.

We just had to find the place where it felt right to talk to him. So, we got back on our bike and rode down a narrow road, across a small bridge, and past some confused farmers. We got off and went down by the stream. 

I knelt by the stream and started whispering.

Uncle John, my Dad loved you, Grandpa was so proud of you; he missed you until the day he died. We always miss you at the family reunions, and my sister, cousins, and I constantly wonder how you became the serious, straight-laced one in a family of eight wild hippies. We love you and are so sorry you went to war. We wish you were here with us. 


As I collected dirt in a film canister, I could hear the water buffalos bathing in the stream beside me. Even while thinking about my uncle’s death, I couldn’t help but admire their beauty.

With my hands in the dirt, I wished for my uncle’s peace. I wished that for my uncle because he’s my family; because he looked like me; because he probably had all the same mannerisms as my aunts and uncles. But looking over at the old Vietnamese man who was resting in the shade by the bridge, I wished peace for the people he lost too.

It was really hard for me to take my hands out of the dirt. I could feel that there were so many brothers and sisters in the world who wanted the ones they lost to have peace too. I just kept wishing for peace for them over and over again.  

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My story is from the side of the perpetrator, of the military who went to another country and committed mass murder.

And even though everyone in my family agrees that the Vietnam War was bad, it doesn’t change the personal pain of knowing that my uncle was blown up. It’s hard for me to imagine the depth of suffering I’d be living with if a foreign military came to my country, my city, and my home with the intent to kill. It’s a level of pain I hope I never know, and the fact that my family has been a part of that military brutality haunts me.

I think about the wars being waged today and the sickening violence we are witnessing on an hourly basis. It’s impossible to comprehend the legacy of pain we are etching into the lineage of families on all sides of every conflict. War is agony and no one comes back from it without scars to pass on to those who come after them. 

The breeze in the fields felt gentle and continuous. It kept telling me that war never ends. I felt that. I felt the spookiness, loneliness, and pain of people dying and suffering in that way that lives on for generations, forever.


I am sorry for the nieces and nephews who will be on some similar mission in twenty years in war zones across the world looking for some semblance of a reason for the pain they see in their parents’ eyes.  

Isn’t it sad how after someone dies you want to curl up on their couch or bury your head in their sweater? By burrowing down into some inanimate object that they also touched, your heart releases its clench a little. That’s how it felt digging in the dirt. I felt closer to Uncle John and like my love could reach him.

But, with my hand in the dirt, I also felt sorry for the dirt. I felt sorry that my family had come and been part of such violence and I was sorry my uncle’s boots had marched along the dirt leaving such a legacy of hate. It didn’t feel like the land was keeping score, but I tend to hold grudges. The only thing that helps me once I have a grudge is when someone gives me a direct apology and an articulation of a clear new intention.

So for me, it was important to say sorry to the dirt. As I walked back to my motorbike I felt sort of silly and self-important, but I kept whispering through my feet, “My intention is peace” … just in case it helped the dirt to hear that.


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Heather Box is an author and story coach working with change-makers around the world to share their truest personal stories publicly. She is the co-author of How Your Story Sets You Free and has been published in Source Magazine, Foreign Policy Focus, Ms. Magazine, Huffington Post, and Stark and Smith Magazine.