Mennonite Farm Boy Goes to Vietnam
by Jim Bowman,
MCC Vietnam Service Worker 1966-1969
Back in the 1960s, the draft—an instrument of the military to keep its ranks filled with fresh recruits—was a high-stakes event that all teenage boys were obliged to negotiate. For me, it precipitated changes that altered my life’s course forever.
At age eighteen, I registered, as required, at the post office. I checked the box on the form indicating that I wished to register as a conscientious objector (CO). We Mennonites believed in non-resistance and held that it was morally wrong to participate in war or violence of any kind. I was opting out of military service in favor of “alternate service.”
Children around my age at church had been coached on how to navigate the process of registering as a CO. We were told that we may be called before the draft board to defend our position. This scared me silly. I dreaded the prospect of being grilled by a suspicious group of men about my conscientious objector convictions. My apprehension emerged out of the realization that my beliefs were mostly inherited from my culture, as opposed to—at that time—being deeply owned personally. I was afraid I might not answer per the prescribed policy of the church.
Some months later, Dad walked in the house with a handful of mail. “Jim, you have a letter from the draft board.” I took the letter and went to my room. I was afraid to open it, assuming that it was a summons to appear before the board for vetting. But no, it was good news—the board waived the hearing and granted me CO status outright. What an incredible relief!
In lieu of military service, COs were required to perform “service in the national interest” for a minimum of two years. This meant finding employment with an approved service organization, of which there were many options. One that appealed to me was with the government dairy experiment station in Beltsville, Maryland. I had grown up on a dairy and poultry farm, and assumed that I would be continuing in the farming tradition of my culture. Working at a cutting-edge dairy experimental station for several years felt good for obvious reasons. A few other service options, among the many that existed, included working at Goodwill, serving at a mental hospital, or working with a church voluntary service organization.
About a year after receiving my notice of CO registration from the draft board, I received another letter. This one said I was being called up. As a CO, I would need to find alternate service employment within three months. Gulp! No more pondering what course to take. I needed to get on with it.
At about that time, I had been selected by our church district youth organization to join a youth “gospel team.” We would be traveling to Tennessee to give a number of presentations. During the long drive south, I was telling others in the car about my draft status and plans for alternate service. One of the persons offered an alternative suggestion: “Jim, MCC is recruiting Paxmen for service in Việt Nam. Why don’t you apply for that?”
Hmm. Now that was an “outside of the box” idea. I had always had a latent wander-lust streak. Maybe I should apply. Serve, and get to see the world besides. Hmm. But I hadn’t gone to college at all yet. They wouldn’t want an ordinary farm boy like me. I also wondered what my conservative, traditionalist parents would have to say about it. Afterall, my Dad, especially, had rigid and outspoken opinions about almost everything. But you know, I thought to myself, I'm almost twenty years old, and it is time to do as Jim thinks and move away from the shadow of my parents.
And then there were my high school peers, who were likewise being drafted, and joining the military. As a CO, I was sensitive to a perceived accusation that I was a “yellow belly” for refusing military service. Hmm, okay, I’ll show them, I thought. I’ll go to Việt Nam for three years—while draftees are only stationed in Việt Nam for one year. This should demonstrate that I'm not a coward. I’ll go there and do some good instead instead of going there to kill people.
I was still far from decided. Hmm, okay, if the Lord wants me to do this the doors will open—a proposition I heard again and again at church—and I will go. But I needed to move. I had to find employment within a very short time.
Upon returning home I wrote a letter to MCC inquiring about service possibilities, particularly in Việt Nam. I didn’t tell my parents what I was doing—I assumed that it was a long shot that I would be accepted, and were I not accepted, I didn’t want my failure to be public. Within a week, however, I received an encouraging letter in the mail, along with a PAX application form. The letter said that an MCC representative was planning a recruiting trip to Eastern Mennonite College, located in my town, and that I should make an appointment for an interview during their visit. I still didn’t tell my parents what was going on.
As the day of the interview approached, I was nervous—after all, I was just a farm boy with no college education, and MCC seemed to be a high and mighty church body far out of reach of a pip-squeak like me; however, the interviewer, all dressed up in a spiffy suit and tie, made me feel at ease and I ended up feeling pretty good about the interview. Still, I didn’t expect to be accepted. I couldn’t get over what I perceived to be my lowly country boy status.
You can imagine my surprise when, a week or two later, on a bitterly cold snowy day, I received a letter from MCC: I was accepted in the PAX program, for Việt Nam, and I should report to Pennsylvania for orientation.
Although I was excited, I next faced the challenge of breaking the news to my parents. My father and I were working on a farm chore outside, stomping our feet to stay warm, when I decided to tell him. “Dad, for my alternate service, I applied to MCC to go to Việt Nam in their PAX program. Today, I got a letter from them saying I was accepted for a three-year term of service. I’m going to take it.”
Deafening silence. I can hardly imagine the shock this must have been for him. I hadn’t told anyone in my family I was even considering going abroad. He looked at me, then quickly looked away and continued his work.
That evening at the supper table everything was quiet. By then the entire family knew of my plans, but not a word was said about them. Dad and Mom never said one word to me about my decision. This silence was so unlike my Dad—he always had opinions and answers about everything. His silence was shocking and completely out of character. I didn’t know what to think—it left me off balance.
Was he proud of me? Was he afraid of what could happen? Was he worried about what would happen to me as a person? It was obvious he was apprehensive, but beyond that, I couldn’t tell. Years later, after Dad died, my sisters told me that Dad was actually proud of me for going to Việt Nam. They told me he would proudly share news from my letters with his peers. This was a real shock to me—I never heard anything along these lines from him personally.
His silence made me think—do I know what I'm getting myself into? I was heading to a war zone. Am I really ready for this? But then, in a process I subscribed to in those days, I remembered how I had told myself that God would open the doors if this is what he wanted me to do. Boy, did the doors ever open!
Before my departure, my home church, Weavers Mennonite, asked me to say a few words about my upcoming PAX service during a Sunday evening program. They wanted to “commission” me and send me off with a blessing and prayer. As I recall, I was the only person my age at church who opted for overseas service to fulfil their alternate service requirement—everyone else signed up for domestic programs.
During my fifteen minute presentation, I was trying to make a point that if it was God’s will that I be safe in Việt Nam, then that is what would happen. Instead, I made a statement that I’m still embarrassed about today—“If it’s the Lord’s will,” I declared, “I believe the bullets in Việt Nam will bounce off me like ping-pong balls.”
My goodness, what did I just say? What kind of puffed up pip-squeak had I become? Mom and Dad heard it, but they never said a word. I wanted to crawl into a hole. Even today, when I drive past Weavers, I think about what I said and wonder if anyone still remembers it.
And so, it was through those proverbial open doors that in late April 1966, when I was twenty years old, I emerged from a Pan Am 707 jet into an incredibly hot and steamy Sài Gòn. What will become of me during these three years? Will I even make it back?
Three years later I did make it back. I was a very different person from the farm boy who left. Looking back, I can say that the Việt Nam experience was the most formative event of my life in terms of who I am today. It was the right thing for me—it was a powerful, paradigm-changing block of time.
My term of PAX service was packed full of life-changing experiences. I will, however, share one event that was particularly poignant that catches some of the drama and dilemma that was all too common during my term of service.
For part of my term of service, I worked as the bookkeeper for Việt Nam Christian Service (VNCS). My job was not only to keep records of all financial operations, but also to dispense funds as laid out in the budget.
In those days, all business transactions in Việt Nam were done in cash. There was no checking system for paying bills. Thus, handling and counting out money was a tedious reality of my daily routine. I would sign out bundles of cash to program leaders, and they would in turn send a monthly report to me, reconciling its use in accordance with the budget.
In order to keep the safe well stocked with cash, I would trek several blocks to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank two or three times a week with a large briefcase that would fill with piasters. I often wondered, being as obvious and regular as I was, whether I was being noticed or followed.
At the bank there was a string of perhaps a dozen tellers sitting behind steel bars. I got in the habit of going to one particular teller who went out of her way to be friendly and helpful. Besides, she was pretty. Her name was Co Lieng, and over time we became good friends. I enjoyed practicing my Vietnamese, and she was glad for an opportunity to polish her English. The friendship was daytime only—we only ever saw each other at the bank.
One evening, however, just after dark, I was relaxing in my room reading a Time magazine and swatting mosquitoes. I was startled by a knock at my door. Hmm. It was rather unusual for people to be out after dark because rockets were launched into and out of the city every night. I opened the door to find Co Lieng standing there crying.
“Co Lieng, what happened?” I was too surprised to even invite her in.
She was unable to speak for some time. Had someone in her family been hit by a rocket? I wondered. Eventually she was able to tell me her story.
“This evening I motorbike home from work. I stop red light. Many hundreds people on bicycles, motorbikes, cars, on foot. In front was U.S. army truck with U.S. armed soldiers riding in back. Soldiers notice me. I not feel good. Then one jumped off truck, run up to me...” She paused, searching for words. Then she put her hand on her breast and said, “He did this. I could not move. Hundreds of people saw. Some laughed. Some looked away. I so humiliated. Then light changed and soldier jumped back on truck and drove away.”
Co Lieng’s voice then hardened. “I get revenge. Tonight I leave for bush. I am going other side.” With eyes as hard as steel, she repeated, “U.S. soldier number ten. I get revenge.” Then she turned and vanished into the night. I never saw her again.
I often wondered if Co Lieng was one of the “other side” from the beginning. Had she been keeping an eye on me? And why did she bother to come tell me that she was leaving? What became of Co Lieng? Is she still living? Did she get her revenge?
And what became of the offending soldier? Is he still living? Does he remember what he did? Does he regret it?
Nothing in my upbringing had prepared me for the three year service assignment in Việt Nam. I grew up in a conservative Mennonite family of nine kids. We were taught that the proper way was to be the “quiet in the land”—we steered clear of secular and political institutions and processes. While MCC was a Mennonite organization, even it was a bit too liberal and “noisy” for the sensibilities of my family’s culture. Our way was strictly with the church and farming. I had hardly ever spent time away from home, and rarely rubbed shoulders with anyone not Mennonite. This may have been the source of my parent’s apprehension about my going to Việt Nam. Would I be able to cope?
This insular upbringing set me up for deep and profound—even disturbing—culture shock as I began my assignment. All the old parameters of life went out the window. Being the quiet of the land no longer worked. Something else had to—and did—take its place. “Mennonitism” is not the only way. Other cultures are valid. Buddhism and other religions can be authentic expressions of spirituality. Soldiers on all sides are people. The United States is not a benevolent teddy bear. War corrupts. Rice is a wonderful food. White people are not at the center of the world. The theory of Communism is well meaning. Diversity in thought and action is a rich advantage. And on and on.
As disturbing as these ideological shifts were, perhaps even more disturbing was the disorientation I felt on returning home.
I had decided, while still in Việt Nam, that I would forgo farming, at least for the time being, and go to college, with an eye on further service with MCC. One might think that taking this route would mitigate the effects of the reverse culture-shock of returning home, but I’m not sure if it did. Coming home turned out to be even more challenging for me than going.
The home front changed drastically while I was away. By the time I returned home in 1969, the war in Việt Nam and the large and impactful peace movement sweeping the US were front and center for everyone. It wasn’t only the war in Việt Nam that had changed things—college campuses across the country were burning, fueled by anti-war sentiment and the sexual revolution. Politics, as they had been when I left, were in shambles.
Our church culture was also undergoing profound changes. The church was in the midst of a “liberalizing” trend, much to my Dad’s consternation. I was shocked to see the short hair, ties, and fast, souped-up cars with four barrel carburetors and glass pack mufflers—none of which had been tolerated before. These changes were disorientating, not because I disapproved, but because they seemed frivolous to me. I had come to see that the world was much, much bigger than my home church. Didn’t my peers care at all about all the revolutionary events that were going on in the world? It was as though they had put on blinders to keep the world at bay.
Coming home to my church community, I was, to a degree, set up on a pedestal. In spite of its parochial and insular vision, I had made the community proud, it seemed. To some—even many—I was seen as a native son returning home from heroic service in that exotic and famous place called Việt Nam. This too caused discomfort and disorientation. After all, I just felt like an ordinary country farm boy returning from alternate service. Sure, a very different “me” from the one who went to Việt Nam three years earlier, but still a farm boy at heart. At a certain level, this attention felt good, but at another level, I was never quite sure how to handle it.
I was asked to “show my slides” and give talks at fifteen or twenty churches and schools in the community over the course of the first months after I returned home. I'm sure I was not the most eloquent speaker around, but I did my best to describe what life was like in Việt Nam and what its issues were. But afterwards, people went right back to their slick cars with fender skirts, their sweethearts, their farms, their classrooms, their hunting, as if Việt Nam didn’t exist—at least it seemed that way to me. It felt like I was not able to get people to think or comprehend. I came to dislike the well-meant question “What was it like in Việt Nam?” because I could see that after a few sentences of response the questioner’s attention level would drop and their eyes would cloud over. I wasn’t getting through. I couldn’t get through. And it was hurtful. It was this piece of reverse culture shock that was most difficult for me.
Eventually, I came to realize that it wasn’t the people’s fault that they couldn’t “understand” Việt Nam. Having never experienced another culture, they simply did not have the requisite tools needed to comprehend what I shared—there was a near unbridgeable chasm there. This realization helped me to eventually reconcile the cultural disorientation I felt.
Another difficulty was that I couldn’t find a group of people to go back to that felt comfortable. The church community and family I left three years earlier no longer represented a good fit. It was as if I had grown sideways, knocked askew and away from the expected norms of the community. I felt like a misfit, very much alone and on my own.
I did find some kindred spirit in college, but even that was not satisfactory. At that time, the peace movement was sweeping across campuses, including the college I was attending, Eastern Mennonite College. One might expect that this movement would have been a place where I could find comfort and feel at home. After all, at the intellectual level, I fully subscribed to most of the tenets of the movement and supported what was being done. But for some reason, a reason that still puzzles me today, I never could find a comfortable home there.
Being unable to find a comfort zone at home, I soon began dreaming and planning for further service in a cross cultural setting where I knew I could find the proverbial “home” I needed. And so, after finishing college and getting married, my wife Cathy and I joined MCC, this time to go to Indonesia. We spent seven very good years in service there, and later in life we joined MCC yet again, this time working in Kenya. With each iteration of service assignments, I found that the attendant culture shock—at both ends—became less and less intense.
My Việt Nam experience set me on an incredibly rich and rewarding pathway, for which I’m grateful. What would have happened to me if, instead of going to Việt Nam, I had signed up for alternate service at that dairy experiment station? Hmm.
Bowman’s story of meeting Co Lieng was told in his memoir, From Saigon to Singers Glen, which was published in 2017 by Friesen Press. Used with the author’s permission.