photography

Lê Thi My Lệ, 68

Lê Thi My Lệ, born in 1946, photographed in her home in Huế, Vietnam. July 2010.

I was born in 1946, about 15 kilometers from Hue in Quang Binh Province, by the Nhật Lệ River.  That is why I am named My Lệ.  It means beautiful.

Growing up, my family was very poor, so I had to work as a housekeeper and babysitter for other families from when I was 7 to when I was 10.  I could not go to school.  When my family’s condition got a little better, they were able to send me to school to study.  But you need to be a lower age to study – if you are over a certain age, you cannot study.  Which is why, even though I am 68, on paper I am 65.

I always studied very well and always worked hard.  After studying and taking the high school exam, I worked at the communications department of the locality here.

In July 1965, I heard the appeal from the government, which said that because the war was so fierce, they needed volunteers who could support, who could help. I really wanted to become a youth volunteer, but I was still too young.  But because they really needed people, they accepted me anyway.  I was nineteen.

At first they asked me to work on transportation, transporting things by bicycle –food, ammunition – and also working as a road construction worker.  Also, they took people who had a bit of education, like me, so that we could teach other youth volunteers learn how to read and write.  Whoever had studied the second grade, taught the first grade.  Whoever had studied the third grade, taught the second grade.  And so on for the elementary and secondary school programs.  A lot of people at that time, we during the day they worked, and studied at night.  That was the work of the youth brigade.

We had about two hundred people in the youth brigade, and about two thirds of them were women. I was in charge of a unit, which was ten people.  I was the only woman in the unit.

As the head of the unit, whenever the bomb explodes, you have to go see what kind of bomb it is, what shape it is, and you have to use math to calculate how many people you need to cover it up.  If you send too many, then if another bomb comes, too many people will die.  After one hour, the bomb crater has to be covered so the road can be useable by the soldiers.

Whoever joins the youth brigade, you make a vow that you are ready to fight for the country.  And it’s very strange – at that time spirits were so high, we were not afraid of death at all. But now, we have children, we have a family, we are afraid of death.

In terms of working, there was no difference between men and women’s jobs.  Everything that we need to do we do.

At that time, everyone is so carefree, and you know, sometimes people were lying in the hammock at the shelter together, male and female soldiers, and they talked and laughed, without any kind of romantic sentiment.  They just listen to each other. After work, you know, we work hard, so we try to laugh, we joke with each other and tease each other.  If we need to cover the road then we do, if we need to transport food, then we just go out and do it.

There were some differences between men and women, however.  Sometimes the mail would come, and we would rush out to look for the mail from our families and whoever had letters was so happy.  And the ones that didn’t have mail felt very sad and sometimes even cried, because all of us, we are homesick.  But this was just something us women would do.

In the political training, they taught us that if we are not in love yet, then don’t fall in love during the war.  If you are in love and engaged, okay, but don’t get married.  And if you are married already, then delay having children.  Everything needs to focus on fighting the enemy to unite the country.  They called this The Three Delays.

There were some that fell in love while at war anyway, but they were very secretive.  They felt that they were in love, and both of them knew it, but neither said anything.  They were very in love, and love was something that they really treasured and respected.  They felt it very strongly.  But they did not betray it – they can understand it through glances and gestures.  But love during the war it is against the ideology, the teaching of The Three Delays, so they kept it quiet.

In my unit, everyone was very strict, correct.  But one couple fell in love, and the army let them go, basically fired them, told them to go back to their village.  The couple cried, they didn’t want to go back.

I fell in with my husband love before I went to work at the youth brigade.  My boss told me that because the man that I loved was ten years older than me, that I should go home and have a child before it’s too late – that we were a special case.   But I said no.  I was the head of the unit, so I wanted to make a good example for the people and follow The Three Delays regulation.  But in 1968, when there was a ceasefire for sometime, I went and got married.  Then I went back to the war.

After I went back, I didn’t work as a unit head anymore, but instead they sent me to study – to work with mechanics, electricity, statistical analysis.  During this time, my husband was still serving as a professional soldier at Côn Co’ island.

I had my first child in 1971, while the war was still going.  Having a child during the war was hard, because my feelings changed after I had my daughter.  I wasn’t scared while fighting in the unit before I was a mother.  But after I had my daughter, I was.  I was afraid of death.

I had two more children – one boy in 1973, and another in 1975. When I gave birth to the youngest one, I called him “Great Victory.”  I said to my husband, “The war is finished now honey, so you’re not going to die,” and that’s why I named my son “Great Victory.”

Because my husband was a professional soldier, he remained at Côn Co’ island even after freedom in 1975.  He lived very far away until he retired in 1988.  I only got to see him when he would go to Hanoi to do military reports, and then he would stop by Quang Binh Province to visit.

Raising my children by myself was very, very hard.  I cannot even say it. I grew the vegetables and the fruit in the morning, and had to take it to the market to sell before I taught in the afternoon. Whenever I need to go somewhere, then I ask my mother to take care of the kids.  There was no salary from my husband.

You know, it was dangerous when I was fighting as a youth volunteer in the war.  You can die anytime.  But you are young and you have friends with you, so you are very happy.  But raising my kids by myself was so tough.  Very sad.  Sometimes, I would just sit by myself and cry.

My situation was also hard because my youngest boy developed a problem with his brain, because my husband was exposed to Agent Orange.  Sometimes, he acts crazy and shouts at his father and me.  Other times he is a good boy.  But I can tell that there is something happening inside him.  He has refused to take medicine.

When I returned from war, I talked about it a lot with my children, especially when their father was still away.  I would tell them stories about how I went to jungles with waterfalls and forests.  I told them about the work my unit did.  And my daughter would say, “That sounds quite fun, when I am grown up I would also like to go!”

Now my children are grown men and women.  They are old enough, so they learn about the war through television and books.  My story is only one I told them when they were small.

The thing that the younger generation has to remember is that when your country needs you, don’t fear death, just go.  My own spirit is such that, because I have been through hardship and dangerous situations so many times, I became able to bear it. I saw bomb explosions and had to shout, everyone lie down!  I had eight out of ten people in my unit die and become wounded at once.  But amazingly, during this time, none of us was afraid of death.

I still dream about the war.  Sometimes I dream exactly about the scene of the war in which the bomb is about to explode and I tell all the people, I shout to my unit to lie down.  I tell my sister to lie down.  Now my wish now is that there is no war in the world, that we can help each other lead our lives instead of fighting.  That is my message.  I want peace.  When you have a war, the people, the family members are divided between husband and wife, parent and children.  War is cruel.  Cruel.

Lê Thi My Lệ, born in 1946, served as a head of a unit in the youth brigade for the North Vietnamese Army during the American War.

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