By Edward Tick
His stealth, fierce energy, loyalty, and unquenchable determination in fighting the Japanese during World War II earned Nguyen Minh Tu’oi at age 24 the nickname “Mr. Tiger.” Ho means Tiger and he was known as Nguyen Tam Ho for the rest of his life. And perhaps because of his venerability and advanced age, wisdom and warmth, lifelong devotion to his homeland, and his long gray beard that he loved to stroke, he was sometimes called “the Ho Chi Minh of the Mekong Delta.”
Since 2000 Edward Tick has led veterans and civilians on annual healing and reconciliation journeys to Viet Nam. He has visited with Mr. Tiger on his island home and nursery every year. A clinical psychotherapist who has been healing war veterans for more than 40 years, Tick is author of War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Beyond the Delta town of Vinh Long, we putter along a wide arm of the gray-green Mekong River in a small water taxi. We arrive at the worn wooden landing to his corner of an island. Simple signs announce that we have arrived at Mr. Tiger’s large nursery, his base for helping restore the war-devastated ecology of his home. A large poster greets us at the compound’s entry. It shows photos of a beaming Mr. Tiger greeting, toasting and warmly welcoming visitors. His simple poem in Vietnamese beneath the photos reads:
On our island we do not worry about being poor.
We only worry about the lack of smiles and loss of belief.
We stroll through a thick low maze of hundreds of young banana, mango, coconut, guava and other fruit trees sprouting in small pots or plastic-wrapped root bundles. For decades Mr. Tiger and his son Nghiep have been operating this nursery to help restore the ecology of their Delta home, which had been “devastated to a barren moonscape,” as one American vet described it. Thousands of the lush green trees sprouting around us in this region were first cloned, planted or grafted in Mr. Tiger’s compound.
We weave through these thick rows of sprouts to arrive at a long open wooden pergola (archway) with hard seats and tiny tables set with tea sets and bowls of fruit. Family members and others serve us. Then Mr. Tiger walks toward us, slowly, with great dignity—in recent years holding a staff that looked like an ancient chieftain’s totem more than a walking stick.
Mr. Tiger always welcomed us with a joyous grin and wideopen arms. His eyes twinkled as he playfully stroked his long gray Uncle Ho-style beard. As we enjoyed his tea and fruit, he spoke to us with wisdom and kindness. And with thimbles–full of his homemade snake wine we toasted each other and Hoa Binh (Peace).
Though at war for a quarter century, Mr. Tiger was never a paid professional soldier. He was in regional guerilla forces— the Viet Minh against the Japanese and French and then the Viet Cong against Americans. These were what we would call local militia, comparable in American history to the Minutemen. With his own clothes and supplies and, at first, old, primitive, and or even homemade weapons, he fought in his home territory against the Japanese during World War II, the French during their war, and Americans during ours. What we call the Vietnam War is known in his country as either “The American War” or “The Last Anti-colonial War.” As Mr. Tiger explained, “I was never at war with America or Americans. I was only fighting invaders. An invader,” he explains, “is anyone who attacks your children and destroys your home and schools. When I had to fight Americans, I only thought of repelling invaders.”
He never developed rancor or hatred, but in each instance of combat over a quarter of a century, he was fighting as a moral warrior; after all peace efforts failed he did not fight for complex political or economic reasons, but only to protect his home, family and village from danger and destruction and to expel invaders. Further, Nguyen Tam Ho was well known in the Delta not only for his fierce warrior spirit. During the war he also reportedly stopped his comrades from harming Americans taken prisoner. He put himself between angry companions and their captured Americans, saying, “When they are armed and fighting, we must fight with all we have. But unarmed they are our guests and we must take care of them.” Mr. Tiger had no invisible wounding from what today we call moral injury, the betrayal of what’s right.
For the last 15 years Mr. Tiger has shared his hard-won warrior wisdom, providing spiritual guidance and counsel to visiting veterans and civilians. He contributed much to American veterans returning to the US having achieved significant inner peace and healing from their own invisible wounds.
Mr. Tiger confirmed that there is no post-traumatic stress disorder in Viet Nam and something different in the Vietnamese psyche. “There is no PTSD here,” he said, “no invisible wounds such as you American veterans suffer.”
When asked how this is possible, Mr. Tiger answered, “In America you think the wound is here,” and he pointed to his head. “But in Viet Nam we know the wound is here,” and he pointed to his heart. “We love each other back to health.”
One vet said, “You were at war for a quarter century and the war was right here. You must have lost so many family and friends. You must have terrible survivor’s guilt.”
“No,” Mr. Tiger advised, “no. Feel sorrow, not survivor’s guilt. It is not any one person’s fault or decision who lives or who dies. And who knows, perhaps the souls on the other side are at peace and we have the greater struggle to live on.”
But how can we accept that we are not responsible for the deaths we caused? another vet asked.
Mr. Tiger taught that war, and indeed every human act, is so complicated that all the universal forces converging at once—karma—and not our own individual actions determine the outcome. Mr. Tiger said, “The bullet is the messenger of karma. Learn to see from the point of view of the bullet.”
Asked how to prevent PTSD, he smiled broadly and said, “To prevent PTSD, stay home!” He did not mean that we should never fight. “If your country or homes are invaded and there is no other choice, you must fight. But if your government sends your children to unjustly attack other countries, do not let them go. That is the cause of invisible wounds.”
Mr. Tiger had been slowly weakening, his energy diminishing for several years. Surrounded by his family, he died a gentle and natural death at home, simply fading away among his family members on October 26, 2017, 10 days before our annual visit. He was 97. Though we were unable to sit with him one last time, it was as important as ever that our group visit his compound. Ancestor reverence is one of the pillars of Vietnamese spirituality. Vietnamese pray mightily for the well-being of the souls of deceased loved ones. They believe that the soul remains nearby immediately after death, and afterward still lingers near the family altar and its tomb for four generations, a century, before it moves on in the cycle of reincarnation. Since Mr. Tiger had always been a welcoming, generous and wise elder for us, it felt right to honor him at his altar.
My group of veterans and civilians lined up in silence in front of the large altar constructed in Mr. Tiger’s old simple wooden bedroom. Holding a burning stick of incense, one by one we approached the gold-colored table that held a large photo of smiling Tiger stroking his Uncle Ho beard. Flowers, candlesticks, offerings of fruit surrounded his picture, as well as the ubiquitous bowl holding upright incense sticks sending their pleasant smoky scent to the souls on the other side. One at a time we stood Vietnamese style before Mr. Tiger’s portrait. We each bowed three times while we prayed, then offered our incense to the altar. In silent honor and gratitude Nghiep stood beside his father’s picture looking out at us. He bowed deeply to each American veteran and civilian in turn.
When our line was complete, Nghiep turned to our group and said, “Here in Viet Nam we believe the soul lingers at home for 49 days before moving on. My father knows that you, his friends, are here.”
We proceeded to Mr. Tiger’s tomb, a smooth marble aboveground sarcophagus stretching next to his wife’s, who died three years ago. Both stand beneath a simple rain shelter set in the fields at the edge of their home and land among the new young trees he has spent decades nurturing. Like millions of Vietnamese before him, there lies Nguyen Tam Ho, peacefully returning his remains to the land he loved and for which he spent his life in sacrifice and service.
“Your veterans hurt over the war as deeply as we did.”
During our visit after Mr. Tiger’s death we were greeted and hosted by Mr. Tiger’s son Nghiep, a middle-aged man who helped run the nursery. As elder son in the family and in this culture that for thousands of years has practiced familial, moral and social continuity and responsibility, Nghiep naturally takes over its direction and hospitality.
Nghiep is slighter than his short and husky father, with a thick bush of gray hair and bright eyes shining out of a smooth-shaven face that wears a gentle smile even in sorrow. Nghiep was in college in Sai Gon during the American War. He became a peace activist, distributing propaganda leaflets, teaching in secret meetings, enlisting sympathy for the cause of national liberation. He declared that he never felt hatred but only wanted Americans to go home. Though not a combatant, both he and his father honored and felt pride in his form of wartime service.
Nghiep did serve in the military from 1979-1981. He is a veteran of the war against the Khmer Rouge when Viet Nam invaded Cambodia to stop the Chinese-supported invasion of their country as well as the genocide the Khmer Rouge was perpetrating against its own people. Nghiep humbly expressed gratitude that he had never raised a gun against another human being in either war. In Cambodia he was an emissary to villages that had been ravaged by the Khmer Rouge, providing basic education and services to help the locals rebuild their shattered lives. There in the countryside, helping poor peasants like his neighbors and himself, he stepped on a land mine and lost part of his left foot. Nghiep walks through life with a limp.
Only long after the American War, as my groups and others visited his home and compound, did Nghiep learn of the depth of pain and suffering our veterans carry. “It was important for me to learn that in their ways your veterans hurt over the war as deeply as we did.” Not tortured by nightmares, flashbacks or other symptoms of traumatic preoccupation or intrusion, Nghiep still remembers seeing thousands killed during the war. He remembers seeing an entire family—elders, parents, children, babies—sitting together at dinner when an American bomb fell and killed them all. During one visit he pointed to a photo of his father and him embracing visiting American veterans and sadly asked, “Do we always need somebody to be a Taliban?” Nghiep still feels tortured by the senselessness of the wars. “Now I only want people to unite their voices for peace,” he has said on many visits. “I see that we are all the same and most of us are good. And I see that history is an endless repetition of the same human struggles—until we learn.” —Ed Tick