His memory of that historic day is vivid, to this day.
Early in the morning on April 30, 1975, Grant Coates, then a 26-year-old New York cop, got home to make something to eat after finishing his shift.
He turned on the news channel and saw images of northern Vietnamese army tanks knocking down the entrance of the Independence Palace in Saigon. The actual event had happened a few hours earlier, at around noon, Vietnam time.
Coates had not been following news of the Vietnam War after he left the army in 1974 after a tour to the war zone. He wanted to forget what he’d seen and experienced. So he was “very surprised to see the images of the fall of Saigon. For a moment, all memories about Vietnam suddenly rushed back.”
In 1968, a 19-year-old Coates arrived in Vietnam as a member of the 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, under the 199th Infantry Brigade (Light) unit of the United States Army. The main task of the unit was to use professional dogs to scout and support American troops. The area of work was the provinces of Long An, Tien Giang, Binh Duong, Bien Hoa, Dong Nai and Bac Lieu.
Grant Coates in Long Khanh Town, Dong Nai Province, in 1969. Photo courtesy of Coates.
Once, his unit was hit by a bomb and he saw many people die in front of his eyes. He himself had serious injuries to his chest, abdomen and legs, requiring a month of hospitalization. After a year, Coates ended his mission, returned home and was later sent to an infantry division in Maryland and some other locations.
Vietnam’s Reunification Day on April 30, 1975 made Coates realize he was struggling with what is now commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which many veterans experienced. He tried not to let himself “drink too much alcohol and abuse drugs” as he tried to forget the past, as many other veterans did.
After he got discharged from the army in 1974, Coates became a police officer for New York Police Department, forcing himself to exert more self-control and show a better sense of responsibility.
Over time, his was able to begin sleeping normally again, and also followed the dictum of “helping other people is also a way I can help myself.”
Coates’s settled life took a sharp turn in 1983, when a few friends told him about the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) setting up a branch in Oneonta City, New York, where he lived.
He wanted to reconnect with other soldiers who came back from the war and to see if other people had the same problem he had.
“So I decided to join the VVA chapter in my area.”
Although he was busy working as a police officer, Coates had a strong interest in information about U.S. soldiers who were allegedly kept as prisoners or had gone missing. This information was being collected under the POW/MIA (Prisoner of War/Missing in Action) program of VVA. He spent a lot of time gathering clues from the veteran community trying to bring back those who were still in Vietnam, dead or alive.
“Looking back on my time in Vietnam, I thought I could had died and gone missing. If that had happened, who would be looking for me? So I wanted to carry out the responsibility of a soldier and I set out to find my companions.”
From information about the battle and burial sites to photos provided by soldiers’ families, Coates and colleagues in VVA gradually drew up a map of showing locations of missing soldiers in Vietnam. VVA transferred the data back to relevant agencies and the Vietnamese Government, requesting assistance in the search, also helping Vietnam identify its troops who’d gone missing during the war.
In 2004, Coates stopped working as a police officer after suffering a heart attack, and began devoting all his time to the VVA’s POW/MIA Committee. In 2015, he became chairman of this committee.
Coates’s first trip back to Vietnam happened in 2005. He joined a delegation that arrived in Hanoi to discuss the POW/MIA program.
“I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to expect,” he recalled.
His anxieties were dispelled when Coates’s met with his Vietnamese counterparts and encountered friendly, polite people.
Coates could no longer “see, hear or smell the war.”
He realized then that the soldiers, former enemies, had great empathy in performing their assigned duties, that they also carried wounds on their bodies and in their minds.
Grant Coates standing next to the mother of an Agent Orange victim in the central city of Da Nang in 2018. Photo courtesy of Coates.
From 2005 until now, Coates has made around six working trips to Vietnam. Within the country, he typically travels from Hanoi to Hue Town and Da Nang City in the central region and to Ho Chi Minh City and Ben Tre Province in the south.
Now, he calls Vietnamese veterans “my old friends” and they spend most of their time talking about their children when they meet. Some show him their grown-up children who are married, some talk about their grandchildren going to college in the U.S. and about to return to Vietnam.
As of July 2019, more than 670 remains of American soldiers had been repatriated and more than 1,580 remains were yet to be found, according to VVA. Meanwhile, VVA has provided more than 300 records, helping Vietnam find a total of about 15,000 missing people.
Finding the bodies of missing American soldiers in Vietnam has become more and more difficult with Vietnam going a nation-building spree that has transformed former battlefields into peacetime infrastructure like bridges, roads and other constructions to boost socio-economic development.
Coates said that in the next five years, VVA will mainly rely on the documentation of American families to find information on missing soldiers. “We will still do our best to find as much as we can to bring the remains of American soldiers back home,” he said.
But today, each of Coates’s trips to Vietnam is not exclusively focused on MIA records. He is also eager to witness Vietnam’s day-to-day changes. He is happy to see that Vietnam’s agricultural products, mainly from the south where he had once been stationed, account for a large share of exports. He is also happy to see Vietnam heavily invest in transportation and tourism infrastructure.
Coates said he expects Vietnam and the U.S. to maintain strong cooperation momentum in the coming time, as the two countries celebrate the 25th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations this year.
He said his deep affection for Vietnam is “spread” within the family. His wife has always supported her husband’s work since the early days of Coates joining VVA, while his five children and nine grandchildren understand that veterans of both sides are cooperating because they want to put the past behind and look to the future.
His family members always look forward to the gifts he brings back, like ginger tea and Vietnamese coffee.
Today, Coates is at peace. “I love the feeling of making a cup of tea, sitting by the window and thinking about what I’m doing with my friends in Vietnam.”
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