Trump's stop in Vietnam a poignant one for U.S. veterans

DANANG, Vietnam (Reuters) - Whether they like President Donald Trump or not, the U.S. veterans who gather at Hoa’s Place in Danang show little concern that he avoided the war that marked their lives.

U.S. Vietnam war veteran Keith Soukkala speaks during an interview with Reuters at a bar in Danang, Vietnam November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Trump flies into the Vietnamese resort of Danang on Friday for a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, landing in a city that for many Americans of his generation was their first sight of Vietnam - and of war.

“He’ll finally be able to put on his resume that he was in Vietnam,” said David Clark, 68, who is originally from Akron, Ohio and calls Trump “a joke”. After serving in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 with the Marine Corps, he has now returned to help with projects to address the legacy of the war.

Trump never served in the military. He received five deferments during the Vietnam War, including one for bone spurs in his heel, the New York Times reported last year. The paper quoted Trump as saying the bones spurs had been “temporary”.

“Everyone I know tried to avoid it,” said draftee Keith Soukkala, sipping a beer at Hoa’s Place, a favored bar of veterans near Danang’s “China Beach”.

“I stayed out as long as I could but I didn’t have any bone spurs,” said Soukkala, who splits his time between Vietnam and Alaska and said he voted for Trump.

At 73, he is two years older than Trump and recalls landing in Danang to the humid heat and “a certain smell in the air” at the start of a 13-month tour with the Marine Corps dodging bombs hidden by the communist Viet Cong guerrillas.


The seaside resort of Danang has a special place in U.S.-Vietnamese history: it was here that the first U.S. ground troops disembarked in 1965 in the escalation of a war that would last another decade before the communist victory.

Close to some of the heaviest fighting in central Vietnam, Danang had a big U.S. air base. China Beach was a relaxation spot for U.S. soldiers back from combat.

Now, Danang’s beachfront hotels draw tourists from around the world.

Gleaming office towers mark it out as one of Vietnam’s most modern cities and one the communist government sought to showcase with the hosting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit which Trump will attend.

It’s also home to a community of U.S. veterans who returned to a country where a recent Pew Research survey showed the United States was viewed favorably by 84 percent of people.

Clark came back in 2013 for a year and is still in Danang, busy with projects to destroy unexploded U.S. bombs and help families affected by the Agent Orange defoliant linked to illness and deformity.

Mark O’Connor, 67, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and once part of a helicopter assault team, visits as often as he can to provide bicycles to children in hill villages.

On this visit, though, he said he had come back in the hope of seeing Trump - his support unaffected by the fact the president had not served in Vietnam.

“You know, more power to him,” he said. “You can’t feel bad about him and not feel bad about everyone who went to Canada to avoid the draft.”

Editing by Ralph Boulton