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My Lai Massacre remembered through Virginia couple’s eyes

March 24, 2018

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — A half-century ago, Earl Martin and Pat Hostetter Martin became acquainted while getting their exercise during the Vietnam War, where they were service workers for Mennonite Central Committee.

“We were assigned to the same area in the Vietnam Christian Committee,” said Pat Martin, 75. “Every day, we rode bicycles together, and that’s how we got to know each other.”

But the memory of their wedding day, March 15, 1968, carries a dark side, too. Unknown to them at the time, one of the most horrific acts carried out by American soldiers during the long war would occur just a day later.

For 50 years, the Martins have marked their anniversary as well as that of the My Lai massacre, in which as many as 500 villagers were shot dead just 8 miles from where they were married.

Married Before My Lai

The couple, who now live in Harrisonburg, married in a civil ceremony in Quang Ngai city in what was then South Vietnam, when Earl was 23 years old and Pat 25.

The next day soldiers from U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry Division entered and destroyed My Lai on the suspicion that members of the Viet Cong, the insurgent communist force aligned with North Vietnam, had taken control of the area.

At day’s end, hundreds were dead, many unarmed women and children. Details of the massacre didn’t become public knowledge until November 1969.

Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lt. William Calley Jr., a platoon leader, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, Calley originally was given a life sentence, but served only 3½ years under house arrest.

The Martins had left Vietnam for Palo Alto, California, when they heard about the massacre, Pat said.

“We looked at ourselves and I said, ‘I think the children were trying to tell us about that,’” she said. “They had told us that (Americans) had killed so-and-so many people here. We knew it was happening everywhere, but nobody said it in a way that we understood.”

The Martins served in refugee camps in Quang Ngai province, where My Lai is located, from 1966 to 1969.

After leaving the country that year, Earl, now 73, finished his bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies and earned a master’s degree in the same subject at Stanford University, while Pat studied occupational therapy at San Jose State University.

The couple returned to Vietnam to continue their service work in 1974, a year after the Paris Peace Accords ended the U.S. military involvement in the war.

Pat and the couple’s two children left after South Vietnam surrendered to the North Vietnamese in April 1975, but Earl stayed for another four months to help find and destroy unexploded munitions in the former South Vietnam, he said.

“We had just purchased a tractor that we covered with armored plates to try and plow up some of these fields,” he said.

Pat grew up in Harrisonburg, while Earl was raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, He started a bachelor’s program at Hesston College in Kansas before joining Mennonite Central Committee, a relief, service and peace agency representing several Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and Amish congregations in North America.

The couple’s war service launched a lifelong passion that led them to tour all of Southeast Asia and return to Vietnam multiple times, they said.

‘The Heavens Are Sad’

One of those trips coincided with the 25th anniversary of both their wedding and the My Lai massacre in 1993, Pat said.

“We happened to be living in Hanoi,” she said. “We were filling in for the Mennonite Christian Committee, after one couple who was leading left and before another one came to replace them.”

The anniversary ceremony, Earl said, involved about 1,000 officials, students and farmers in the province. Being the only Americans at the gathering, they were asked to speak, which Earl initially declined and then accepted, he said.

“In simple Vietnamese, I expressed sadness at what had happened,” he said. “I said countries around the world were sad about what had happened. It started raining, and I said even the heavens are sad about what happened in the village.”

After the speeches, mourners lit incense sticks at the graves that had been reconstructed after the mass bulldozing, Earl said.

“We went to an irrigation ditch where 170 people were herded,” he said. “I knelt down and felt the children touching me and tugs on my sleeve. I looked at them through teary eyes and realized that this was a new generation of a village that had experienced so much. It was a very moving moment.”

The Martins returned to Quang Ngai province in January for an early commemoration of the 50th anniversaries of the massacre and their wedding.

While no official ceremony was held, they visited the museum and memorial statue that had been built in the village.

“They did a good job of collecting things from the village,” Pat said. “They had household kitchen equipment and clothing, and the names of who each thing belonged to.”

The Martins also admired how far the country has come since the war, which was illustrated when they tried to find the house they lived and got married in during the war, Earl said.

“We told someone that we were trying to find our old house,” he said. “The person said, ‘Oh, yes, your house used to be right there,’ and pointed at a three-story modern bank.”

Acknowledging ‘Shadows’

The couple participated in a vigil to mark the massacre’s 50th anniversary in Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, Earl said.

Having dedicated their lives to studying Southeast Asian culture — and having their wedding day so closely connected to My Lai — have given the Martins opportunities to ponder the consequences of the massacre, they said.

Employing a more peaceful approach to international conflicts would help the U.S. prevent tragedies like My Lai, Earl said.

“Sometimes, we’re a little too quick to think in terms of military solutions,” he said. “Maybe we can be a little more creative and come up with ways to solve problems that aren’t so quick to engage military solutions.”

Pat agreed, saying embracing “our common humanity” with the rest of the world would serve America well.

“Buddhism talks about ignorance and not being enlightened,” she said. “We should be learning to acknowledge our own shadows.”

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Information from: Daily News-Record, http://www.dnronline.com

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