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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

From an M16 to John 3:16

By Beth Clayton-George and Scott Harrup
May 26, 2013

When Columbus, Ind., resident Tom Downs, 62, visited Vietnam last fall, more than 40 years after serving there with the U.S. Army, he took with him a granddaughter seeking knowledge and understanding of a conflict that occurred decades before her birth.

They came back with a plastic bag containing more than 100 dog tags. The military identification pieces, left over from the Vietnam War in the 1970s, are commonly sold as souvenirs for about a dollar apiece.

Downs, his wife, Sharon, and their granddaughter Courtney Fish, spent hours during a two-week October visit sifting through dog tag piles, doing their best to find authentic IDs to bring back to the States, where the arduous task of reuniting the tags with their original owners — or their family members — begins.

Many of the dog tags sold are fake, or so damaged they are unreadable. The Downses do not do much of the research on the dog tags themselves, instead handing them off to a pair of friends from out of state. But they well understand the importance of helping veterans and their families find a sense of closure to what many of them found to be a dark and senseless period of time.

Battle for peace

Tom didn’t wait for the draft papers to show up in his mailbox in December 1969. His birthday, Nov. 27, was assigned a low draft-number — 47 — and he knew he was bound for Vietnam. Better to enter as an enlistee, he thought.

So one cold Saturday afternoon, 19-year-old Tom signed up on his own, just two days before the draft papers arrived in his mailbox. By July 1970, Tom Downs was in the midst of the Vietnam conflict.

He returned to Bartholomew County (Ind.) in July 1971. Like so many soldiers who served during that time, Tom found the adjustment to home nearly as trying as his time spent overseas.

“We left as kids and missed out on growing up,” Tom says. “You just don’t belong with any of the people you knew before.”

The sense of isolation became debilitating. Tom’s first marriage ended in divorce shortly after his return, and he turned to drugs, alcohol and prescription antidepressants to cope. He was gripped with anger and bitterness toward anything at all related to his time spent in Vietnam, including the Vietnamese people. By the late 1980s, Tom’s second marriage was in danger.

“It came to the point Sharon was going to divorce me,” Tom says.

Trying to patch things up and convince Sharon to let him stay in their home, Tom went to the local Veterans Affairs hospital to ask for medication. His erratic behavior resulted in the VA calling the police. Tom was taken to the hospital’s psychiatric ward.

“They gave me more medication and sent me back home,” he remembers.

In desperation, Sharon asked Tom if she could call someone to pray for him.

“She wasn’t serving God, and neither was I,” Tom says. “I really didn’t believe in God, and hadn’t since I came back from Vietnam. But I told her I didn’t care if she made a call. I didn’t have anything left to try.”

Sharon placed that call to Randy and Cindy Burton, youth pastors at nearby Midway Assembly of God. Cindy is Sharon’s daughter. Randy Burton, now senior pastor at Northview Assembly of God in Columbus, joined Cindy in prayer with Tom to receive Christ as his Savior.

“Something happened that I didn’t really understand,” Tom remembers. “My depression left, and a peace came over me that I had not had for so many years. That day my hatred left, and I was delivered of drugs and alcohol. God became very real to me in a way only He can do.”

With their marriage still on the edge, Tom asked Sharon if she would go to church with him one time before he agreed to leave the house. They went together the following Sunday, and Sharon gave her life to the Lord that morning.

“God gave me my wife back, and we have been serving Him ever since,” Tom says.

Healing journeys

Although he turned his life to God and recovered from his addictions after hitting rock bottom, Tom says he still felt a hardness of heart toward Vietnam and its people that nothing seemed to be able to soften.

“I didn’t hate the Vietnamese anymore,” he remembers. “But I sure didn’t want to see them, either. It seemed that nothing good came out of that experience, and I didn’t want to relive it.”

In 1999, Sharon heard from a co-worker about an organization that took veterans back to Vietnam on healing trips, during which the former servicemen could revisit battle sites and do some charitable visits with the country’s poor. Led by Dave Roever, a Vietnam veteran and Assemblies of God evangelist, the trips sounded like the perfect opportunity for Tom’s continued recovery from his military experience.

Tom eventually agreed to go, but as his trip — which would take place 30 years to the day after he arrived in Vietnam as a 19-year-old soldier — drew closer, his anxiety took hold and he nearly backed out.

“But when the plane touched down, I knew I was in the right place at the right time,” Tom says. “A peace came over me.”

What he found was a populace as desperately in need of solace and healing as he had once been.

Tom says he is in awe at the conditions many of the Vietnamese live under but was inspired by their warmth, kindness and readiness to share with one another what little they have. The cold ambivalence he once felt warmed to respect, affection and, finally, love.

“The trip didn’t close any doors for me,” Tom says. “It opened them.”

The experience was so profound Tom returned with the group two more times before deciding that God was calling him to strike out on his own and devote more of his travel time to missions work.

After each trip, Tom returned with pictures and videos of the people he met, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

“I began to the feel a tug that I needed to experience it with him,” Sharon says.

The pair visited Vietnam together in 2005, and have returned several times since, distributing to children in and around Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) the toys and candy they collect year-round from family, friends and fellow congregants at Northview Assembly of God.

Heart for a nation

With each return trip, Tom is struck anew at how welcoming the people he encountered are and is touched they seem to remember him year after year. He recalls one woman who is crippled and survives by begging for money on the street in Ho Chi Minh City. Tom has seen her on almost every return trip, and each time she smiles at him, nodding and tapping the side of her head — she remembers.

“She has nothing, and yet she’s smiling,” Tom says. “It lights up your whole day.”

While Tom was reconciling his mixed emotions, his granddaughter, 17-year-old Courtney, was feeling a strong pull to the country that forever altered the course of Tom’s life.

The Columbus East High School senior was just 5 the first time Tom journeyed back to Vietnam. Sharon says the little girl cried as her grandfather’s plane took off and peppered him with questions when he returned.

As she grew, her childhood fascination with the faraway place cemented to a young woman’s desire to see more of the world around her. And as Tom revealed ever-more-detailed accounts of his time spent there as a soldier, Courtney felt called to see Vietnam for herself.

“I wanted to walk where he walked, and see the things he saw,” Courtney says.

So in 2012, Courtney traveled with her grandfather on his ninth missions trip to Vietnam. In addition to accompanying her grandparents on their charitable visits, she also visited battle sites from the conflict and took a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground network used by the Viet Cong.

“Having her there meant more to me than life itself,” Tom says. “She loved being there. She’s told me she’s ready to go back. She did her senior project on Vietnam.”

While he once wanted to forget the experiences from half a world and a lifetime away, Tom says he now feels that understanding is better than forgetting.

“You hear so many stories about violence and torture on both sides,” Tom says. “But I want Courtney to realize that the Vietnamese are people just like us. They didn’t cause the war. And we were just boys told to go do a job.”

Having lived as a committed follower of Christ for more than 20 years now, the most important goal for Tom on future trips is to share his faith. Although Vietnam is becoming more open to the gospel, he admits that is still a challenge.

“Our love is growing daily for Vietnam,” Tom says. “We pray God will open the doors so we can share Jesus openly. That is what they need so desperately.”

“In his heart, Tom has gone from an M16 to John 3:16,” Randy Burton says of his father-in-law. “He just loves the Vietnamese people. He would live there if the Lord would allow it.”

BETH CLAYTON-GEORGE is a reporter for The Republic in Columbus, Ind. SCOTT HARRUP is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.



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