Dear Max: A Letter To Senator Max Cleland From Hill 471 Khe Sanh

Dear Max:

Well, here I am, Hill 471 in Khe Sanh. I came here because I love and admire you and since I was touring Vietnam I figured what the hell, I’ll head up to Khe Sanh and find Hill 471 and stand where you last stood all those years ago.

These days I have to confess that it’s pretty easy to get to Khe Sanh. I’m told back then the roads were mud and a mess, now you speed right on up them. I don’t know if you noticed all those years ago, during the war, but it’s beautiful country Max.

You can lost watching the mountains and the streams, passing through the villages with the houses built on stilts but then you get jarred back to why you are here, where you are when you see the signs for Camp Carroll or you go by a beautiful small mountain peak and your guide tells you:

“That’s Rockpile, Marines, Rockpile.”

Like all good pilgrimages, as you head towards Khe Sanh from the coast, you climb higher and ever higher into the hills, headed towards Laos, past the memorial to the Ho Chi Minh trail, past the small towns and villages, the highway markers counting down to the old base, twenty klicks, then ten, then five.

And then I am here.

First we head up to the main base,to see the small museum there and also, well, my guide has been going here for twenty years and I’ve been searching for about six months, but neither of us are 100% sure where Hill 471 is so we need to double check on the maps that the museum has.

My guide is dutifully calling all her other guide friends and we are pretty sure we know, but hell, I don’t want to come all this way and not be sure, it’d be just like me to come all this way and be one hill off.

Ironically what greets me when I walk onto the base? A chopper, looking like it could fly today.

In the museum,we check the map and there’s Hill 471, right about where we thought it was. I wander the museum a bit and take a walk down the runway, they’ve planted corn on parts of it of all things. I’m sure back then it was never quiet enough to hear the wind rush up the valleys, or to feel it as it goes over the top of the hills.

I ask my guide if many Americans come here, the answer is yes. How are they when they are here? Sad, many still affected by the war.

As we get back in the car and head to Hill 471, I think of when we first met, almost ten years ago, and all those times together on JK’s campaign and since. I especially remember, for some reason, a dinner we had at Legal Sea Foods a couple of years ago, I sat next to you and I know you love your lobster!

I remember cutting the pieces for you, smaller and smaller so you could eat them. When we eat, I know now to take your plate when the food arrives, and start cutting it up, without asking you, without you asking me.

Sometime between then and when I planned this trip, I decided I wanted to come here. For you. Just so you know I love you and I think the world of you, you are one of my heroes and always will be.

We cut back through town and up a small road, you’d be happy to know some kids were playing soccer and their laughter filled the air as we got near the hill.

Here it is Max, this is Hill 471 today, looks different I imagine. It was very, very green and very, very quiet. I climbed through the underbrush and right in the middle, you can’t quite see in the pictures, but hell it’s been a few years you know.

But when you climb up from the road, you can tell where the top of the hill was flattened for a landing pad. So I figure this is about where the chopper landed, and about where you got out.

I tried to close my eyes and imagine the sounds back then, of choppers flying and guns and of soldiers and of war, but I really couldn’t. All I heard were the kids down the hill, laughing and yelling, the birds in the trees and the wind.

I felt wonderfully calm and at peace, that’s the love in you Max, so much love and faith in you, coming to me over here – it made me smile.

I thought I might be sad here thinking of you and what you lost on this hill, but I wasn’t, it was more of a joyous moment, for you for surviving, for the men and medics who helped you survive and for what you have given me and so many others, life lessons in the power of love and forgiveness and perseverance like no other man could.

I wish you had been here so I could have given you and gotten one of your great one-arm hugs.

I made it back through the thicket to the road and took another picture for you. About the middle of the trees is where the hill is flat for the landing pad.

As I headed to the car, my guide asked:

“Your friend, maybe he come back here one day?”

“Maybe it’d be a long way for him to travel. But maybe.”

“So you like son, you come here for him, pay respects?”

God damm right I did.

Time for some more lobster, I’ll come see you soon.

James

Two pictures of Max, in Vietnam in 1968, perhaps in Khe Sanh, and giving a speech a few years ago.

12 thoughts on “Dear Max: A Letter To Senator Max Cleland From Hill 471 Khe Sanh

  1. That was very, very beautiful. It applies to Max Cleland, the Viet Nam war and to so much in life – to the power of forgiveness and renewal. How something so ugly and deadly in 45 years can be quiet and beautiful with birds singing and children playing. Thank you so much for this.

  2. I still have tears in my eyes over the whole story. Just recently I went to Fouras in France to our old house where we lived when I was a little child and finally after 50 years I got to see the house to which I had never returned because we were on leave when my father, and Army officer died. Just like you, mine was a pilgramige for my father to whom I can only say I love you in my thoughts and prayers. I will forever have fond memories of my father, my childhood and the places I have been but there is one thing that I do have in common with you and Max..I too got a great Max one arm hug when I needed it and I will never forget his softly spoken words of kindness and care. Thank you for sharing your story and for reminding me and others that a hug and a bit of care can make you reach the sky.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story. The world is a better place because Max made it off Hill 471 that day so that he could spread his words of encouragement, compassion, and wisdom ever since.

  4. This was a very touching report. I was reminded once again that was happens because men create opinions of others that reflect their fear and lack of love for one another. In reality, it is all made up. It only exists in our minds. The report is also a great reminder of just how powerful the MIND really is. Max is a living testament that your MIND controls all things. We should never give up. All things really are possible. Thank you. Wally Amos, a friend and admirer of Max Cleland.

  5. First and foremost I wanted to say thank you to Max Cleland for his service to this country.We will always remember!And what a great story.Very nice being able to read this.Michael Dineen

  6. Beautiful Post. Sharing with my father, who served in Vietnam and knows Max well. Grateful to you for the detail and pictures

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