He couldn’t sleep. So just before dawn, Steve Wilburn slipped out of his hotel room to walk the beach.
Not just any beach.
After 48 years, he’d returned to Da Nang, where he’d served as a U.S. Marine infantryman in the Vietnam War.
This was the same soil where he’d bled – where he’d killed the enemy and they’d killed his friends.
Wilburn, 66, was here with a nonprofit group to help orphans and lepers. But something weighed on his mind. The next day, he would come face to face with his former enemy – several members of the North Vietnamese Army.
He didn’t know how he’d react.
“I thought of the friends I lost, the impact, the pain,” he says. “I was crying. It was just overwhelming.”
As he walked alone in the dark, he reviewed his life: how he’d felt guilty for surviving the war; how he’d withdrawn from three former wives and five children; how he’d put a gun to his mouth in the worst of times.
“That was the most powerful walk on the beach I ever had,” he says.
He recorded messages to his wife, Margaret, and his children: “I tried to explain who I am. Why I’m here. And what it was like to be an 18-year-old here in combat.”
From his family, he sought forgiveness. From himself, he sought acceptance. That’s why he was in Vietnam, to heal.
But he still didn’t know if meeting his former enemy would help. Or hurt.
WOUNDED IN WAR
One wall in Wilburn’s Newport Beach office holds a framed Purple Heart.
The opposite wall holds a spectacular view of Newport Harbor, just outside the window.
Wilburn runs FirmGreen Inc., a renewable energy company with offices in Newport Beach, Brazil, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
He’s tall and outspoken and carries himself with the confidence of a Marine – drilled into him in 1966 after graduating from Althoff High School in Belleville, Ill.
He still recalls the moment he decided to join, when his girlfriend’s dad tossed a newspaper across the table with a story about the USS Maddox getting torpedoed in the Gulf of Tonkin.
“He said, ‘What are you go to do about this?’ It wasn’t we as a nation. It was you. That’s the way I was raised. We took personal responsibility.”
In June 1967, Wilburn landed in Da Nang with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. They deployed along the border of North Vietnam in small jungle outposts of 40 men each. Their mission was to observe and engage the enemy, every day, on six- or 12-man forays.
“I saw horrible death,” he says. “I tried to keep guys alive, gurgling, in death throes, at age 18.”
They slept in foxholes, waded through rice paddies and dodged fire from machine guns, mortar and artillery. They relied on each other and protected each other.
“It’s still the strongest emotional bond I’ve ever known,” he says.
In July 1967, near Dong Ha, an artillery explosion left him with a concussion, a back injury and internal organ damage. A week later, he returned to his unit.
In November 1967, near Con Thien, a mortar explosion sprayed shrapnel into his knees, thighs, belly and shoulders.
He spent nine months in the Great Lakes Naval Hospital recuperating from his wounds. Then he was discharged from the Marines and told to have a good life.
Today Wilburn is a successful businessman. But it’s been a long road.
In 1969, he lay in a naval hospital, watching fellow veterans return wounded, disfigured, paralyzed.
“I felt powerless,” he says. “I couldn’t help my buddies in Vietnam or those coming home wounded. The frustration built up. And I didn’t deal with it very well.”
He drank too much, fought too much, married too young. He’d seen men killed, just a few feet from him, and felt guilty that he survived.
“I thought I should be dead and buried with them,” he says. “I tasted gun oil in my mouth on several occasions.”
His third wife, Pamela, on her deathbed, changed his life. She’d battled cancer for five years without complaint.
“The one I’m worried about is you because you’re a mess,” she told him, as tumors spread throughout her body. “Get better.’”
For four days in June 2000, she lay unresponsive. Suddenly she awoke and called for him.
“I just want to tell you goodbye,” she said, calmly.
She kissed him and died – at peace with her own death.
“It was an epiphany,” he says. “If she could find acceptance, why couldn’t I?”
BACK TO VIETNAM
Wilburn began to accept his past and reclaim his life.
Eventually he built a successful business; he remarried; he mentored younger veterans and started the nonprofit Open Hearts for Purple Hearts, which helps military families who’ve lost loved ones in the line of duty.
“When I talk to veterans, I say, ‘You can screw up and have damaged relationships, but it’s never too late to change. If you can find your path to acceptance, you have a chance. I know. I’ve been there.’”
Along the way, Wilburn met Jerry Huson, founder of the nonprofit group 7 Day Hero, which provides humanitarian aid to several countries.
Huson invited Wilburn on a mission to Vietnam, where they’d visit orphanages, hospitals and a leper colony.
“We don’t just drop off noodles and rice and chopsticks and leave,” says Huson. “We go in every room. We hug them. We love them. Touching is validation.”
The last leg of his trip would take Wilburn into a veterans hospital run by North Vietnamese army veterans.
Would he go? He thought about his epiphany and about acceptance. He said yes.
Wilburn pulls out a photo of him hugging an orphaned infant: “Look at her,” he says. “Forty-eight years ago I was trying to kill her daddy. I got her giggling. Now I want to go back and get her out.”
That’s how the trip started. But it ended in a traditional Vietnamese restaurant with eight U.S. volunteers – including Wilburn, Army medic Steve Carlin and Air Force maintenance officer David Larson – dining with eight Vietnamese hospital administrators, who’d served in the North Vietnamese army.
Huson had offered to help their hospital and orphanage.
“It was very awkward,” Wilburn says. “I sat where my back wasn’t to the door.”
During dinner, Huson did most of the talking. After dinner, three Vietnamese officials proposed toasts. Wilburn returned the favor with toasts of his own.
He figured that was the end of it until a Vietnamese veteran sat down beside him with a vodka, proposing another toast.
“I almost said, ‘I’m done. I can’t do that,’” Wilburn says.
But the man showed a scar on his head and explained, through the interpreter, that he’d been shot in the head near Da Nang in 1969.
If you’ve ever met Steve Wilburn, you know this about him: He doesn’t hold back. He stood and said he blurted out: ‘I would hope that I was the one that shot you.”
Everyone froze, including the interpreter.
“I want you to tell him that,” Wilburn said, pointing at the man’s scar.
The interpreter did. Then the Vietnamese veteran responded: “I would hope I was the one who hurt you too.”
It was as if their honesty led to their acceptance.
After that, they drank. They hugged and exchanged military pins.
Back in his Newport Beach office, Wilburn says the trip changed him.
“I feel much more at peace. And it renewed my energy to reach out to these kids from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says of fellow veterans. “I want to do more with them.”
Last week, he held a job fair for veterans. And on Saturday, he sponsored a military appreciation day at the Toshiba Classic golf tournament at the Newport Beach Country Club.
“If I can give hope to one other veteran out there,” he says, “it’s worth it.”
Still, he knows some will question what he did.
“Am I honoring my brothers’ sacrifices by being charitable to these people,” he says of his former enemy. “I believe they would want that. I believe if one of them would’ve survived instead of me, they would’ve done a similar thing – they’d reach out to take care of orphans and lepers and forgive your enemy.”
“Forgive your enemy, because how long can you hate?” he says. “How long can you hate?”
This article first appeared in Orange County Register.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org