Remembering a father lost to Vietnam by doing good
JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to the legacy of the Vietnam War and a story of one woman whose pilot father was shot down over neighboring Laos.
She went on a mission to find the place he died and some measure of comfort.
A new film lays out her odyssey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Special correspondent Mike Cerre, a Vietnam veteran himself, reports.
REBECCA RUSCH, Firefighter: I don't have any of my own personal memories of my dad. I mean, he left when I was very young. We have very few photos, really just one or two of me with him as a baby.
MIKE CERRE, Special correspondent: Rebecca Rusch's father, Steve, was shot down in Laos in 1972 while flying a bombing mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail near the end of the Vietnam War.
He was listed as MIA, missing in action, most of her life.
REBECCA RUSCH: This is my remembrance. This is my dad's crash coordinates, the place really where my life changed. There are the military navigation coordinates that we received years ago.
And it's also a remembrance that he's still a part of my life.
MIKE CERRE: Rebecca, an Idaho firefighter and endurance mountain bike racer, has spent most of her life wondering about what happened to the father she never had a chance to know. He left for Vietnam when she was only 3 years old.
REBECCA RUSCH: I'm attached to Vietnam and Southeast Asia for the rest of my life. And I have been attached through my dad my entire life. I just hadn't really — hadn't really recognized the depth of it until now.
There's a place I have been avoiding for a long time. It's been in my thoughts for more than 40 years. What happened there long ago set me on this path.
MIKE CERRE: Rebecca rode nearly 1,200 miles, the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to visit her father's crash site, both as a memorial tribute to him and for some possible closure to her family's Vietnam experience the past 45 years.
Her journey, along with a Vietnamese mountain bike racer, was documented in the theatrical film "Blood Road."
REBECCA RUSCH: They call it Blood Road because so many people died there, and countless Americans, countless Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian.
And knowing that we were going to travel that path of history, but also that path of death, was very somber.
There was trepidation about what we were going to find in the jungle, but also this deep sense of remorse and sadness for what this trail represented.
MIKE CERRE: This critical network of roads, trails and footpaths through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was used by the North Vietnamese to move troops and supplies to fight in South Vietnam. It was heavily bombed by the Americans.
REBECCA RUSCH: I really didn't expect to see so many bomb craters and the land to still be pockmarked with representation of the devastation that happened there.
I didn't expect to see so many physical remnants of the war while we were riding. And this included a boat that we took that was a fuel fuselage from an F-4 Phantom, the same plane that my dad flew.
MIKE CERRE: She also didn't expect to be greeted so warmly by villagers once they understood her family's connection to the decade-long bombing campaign that claimed many of their family members.
REBECCA RUSCH: If someone had come to my house, and her had been dropping bombs on my family, and she came and knocked on my door, would I be as open and welcoming and say, come on in, I want to help you on your mission?
Sadly, I don't think that I would be that open. And it was — it's a big lesson to take from them on forgiveness and getting past the painful history.
MIKE CERRE: The son of the villager who saw her father's plane crash in 1972 took her to the site in the jungle where his father buried her father, next to a large tree.
REBECCA RUSCH: Picking around in the dirt with his machete, he actually found parts of the plane. Finding those pieces and actual remnants made it very real and made it, you know, that this really is the place where dad was. And that's his gravestone for me.
MIKE CERRE: There's very few pictures of you and him.
REBECCA RUSCH: Yes, this is — this is the one.
MIKE CERRE: Instead of closure, Rebecca's journey opened a new chapter in her Vietnam War history, one inspired by how her fathered signed off one of his last letters home to his family.
REBECCA RUSCH: "I love the flying in the airplane, but I don't really like the job. Regardless of any opinions I have of this war or any other, I try to rationalize and say it has to be done, but I can't see any reason why. If anything should happen to me, please don't let me die. Be good. Steve."
MIKE CERRE: Rebecca has gone back to Laos since her initial ride to keep her father's memory alive, as well as those of the local casualties of the war, whose numbers continue to grow, due to UXOs, the unexploded ordnance that is still injuring another generation of Lao.
REBECCA RUSCH: Two of the fingers were cut off.
MIKE CERRE: The United States government estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the bombs dropped here didn't go off as designed.
As a result, there may be tens of millions of unexploded ordnance littered around the landscape.
REBECCA RUSCH: So, this one is safe?
MAN: Yes, it's safe. It's safe too.
REBECCA RUSCH: This is one safe too?
MIKE CERRE: To help pay for the clearing of the land of this dangerous legacy of the war, Rebecca is working with local artisans and the New York jewelry company Article 22 on recycling metal from UXOs and parts of downed aircraft like her father's. A portion of the sales goes to UXO cleanup.
REBECCA RUSCH: The bracelets, I have had engraved with in my dad's handwriting the way that he signed his letters home, the words, "Be good."
And on the opposite side in my handwriting is the Lao translation of "Be good." And, really, it does represent a combining of the two cultures and my trip over there.
The bracelet is not just about my dad or my story or even one person. It's — you know, there are millions who lost their lives there. And we can look back at our history and be embarrassed or devastated by it or ashamed by it, but then it's up to us to actually do something to create a better future.
And that's what's happening with my trips back and my partnership with Article 22. And taking mountain bike groups back there is. I feel a responsibility to be part of the change.
MIKE CERRE: For the PBS NewsHour, Mike Cerre reporting from Xiangkhouang Province, Laos.