I would like to tell you a story of sacrifice and how tragedy can lead to triumph and how a loss can lead to a new life… This is a story about a young man named Bruce who was very exceptional. He was a good student with many good friends and a popular athlete earning letters in four high school sports. He went on to college after high school earning a degree in construction management. He would be the pride of his family being the first in his lineage to graduate from college.
Coming home after college he met and married a beautiful young lady named Elaine. Several months into their marriage the couple received great news that Elaine was pregnant. That news was subdued shortly after when Bruce was notified he had been drafted by the selective service to fight for his country in Vietnam. Being an only son and having a pregnant wife Bruce could have deferred the draft, but he chose duty. One of the aspects of Bruce that I find so compelling is his respect for duty, a duty to serve when it was not a popular thing to do.
After arriving at basic training Bruce was offered an officer enlistment because of his college degree. He refused the assignment and instead chose to take his chances with the rest of the infantrymen. Yet another aspect of Bruce: courage. While Bruce was awaiting his flight to Vietnam from Seattle, he telephoned his father and explained that some soldiers were leaving the airport and fleeing across the border into Canada to escape the war. His father told him that he need not prove anything and would be proud of him no matter what he did. He chose to step on the plane for Vietnam. Another aspect of Bruce: integrity. The qualities of duty, courage, and integrity are qualities that would make any parent proud. They can also make a son proud, because, this story I tell you is of my father, Bruce Harold Tibbetts. That unborn child of Bruce and Elaine was me, their son, Aaron Bruce Tibbetts. In early June, 1969 my father moved to a fire support base atop a hill called LZ East which was approximately 15 miles east of Tam Kỳ in Quảng Nam Province. LZ stands for “Landing Zone” and the US used LZs because of the widespread use of helicopters, which provided mobility and rapid transportation of forces. On June 10, 1969 my Father sat down after stringing wire all day and wrote a letter to his parents. He wrote about how hot it was and how beautiful the view was being atop LZ East. From his position he could look across the green rice paddies below to the blue China Sea off in the distance. He explained that his company had been ambushed on the previous day, but reassured everyone that he was safe.
I’ve had the privilege to read many of my father’s letters that he sent home from Vietnam. Each time I read the letter from June 10 my eyes blur with tears as I read one short sentence, "How's the little guy doing?" For that little guy was me. At only 3 weeks old I could never have imagined that everything for me and my family would change forever the next morning. It was in the hours of June 11 there would be no more letters, all of it dashed in an instant. My father along with 16 of his brave comrades gave the ultimate sacrifice as the North Vietnamese overran LZ East.I have pieced together the rest of the story from “after action” reports and stories of witnesses who were in the battle…At about 2:30 a.m. June 11, 1969 the North Vietnamese Army first hit a bunker at the very outer edge of the perimeter of the landing zone. It was demolished with an RPG. The Sappers then began to run up the hill throwing grenades and firing their AK47’s. Sappers were well-trained, special North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers who were able to penetrate fortified base camp perimeters undetected. They would wreak havoc and chaos with satchel charges, RPGs, grenades and automatic weapons and then simply disappear. The NVA struck with an overwhelming force marching their mortar rounds systematically up the hill striking bunkers and lighting up the sky. My father and his comrades did what they could do to hold off the insurgence but the base was overrun. As dawn broke the next morning, the Americans counterattacked and drove the NVA from the destroyed base. Seventeen Americans lost their lives that night and thirty-four were wounded. It was estimated that the Americans killed sixty- nine of the NVA.For his valor my father was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart. I am certain he showed the courage and values that he had been taught during his short life.
The way he died that night can only be a reflection of the words I have already used to describe him; duty…courage… integrity. I never had the opportunity to meet my father and through the years I often wondered what his thoughts might have been when he found out that he had a son. Having sons of my own, I can only imagine that he was so very excited. I have often wondered what his aspirations and his plans for me and my mother were.
For me, my mother, and father those aspirations and plans were left on a mountain in Vietnam. LZ East before and after it was overrun Growing up, when I read or watched movies about Vietnam it brought feelings of anger, pain and sorrow. As you can imagine in a mind of a child my thoughts would wander. Although I always knew I was loved I would wonder why I even was born. Why was such a burden placed on my mother? Why did she become a widow so young with a newborn child to raise? Why did my grandparents have to go through that kind of pain only to now have a grandson that would be a reminder of a lost son? It just made no sense! Why should such a burden be placed on my mother and grandparents? Although I never talked about it I thought I was a constant reminder of the pain and sorrow they had to endure. People would say things to me like, “God has a reason for everything,” but with a father killed, never knowing him and living a life of “what-if” it was a tough pill to swallow.I tell people about my childhood thoughts but I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. My life has been blessed with so many great things. I grew up in the same small town of my father. I went to the same high school and even played the same sports on the same fields that my father once played. I went to college on a scholarship provided by the Veterans Administration, earned a degree and now have a wonderful wife and two precious sons of my own.
I have had many great things happen throughout my life.
One of those great things happened in 2005 when I had the privilege of meeting two incredible men from Alabama, Ron Moody and Wade Franks. Both of these men who are Vietnam veterans took me under their wings for a life changing experience. By fate Ron mentioned to me one day at work that he had just got home from a mission trip to Vietnam. He introduced me to Wade and I explained to both of them that I had always wondered what it would be like to breathe the same air and stand on the same ground where my father once stood. Wade said, “Well that’s it, you’re going with us on the next trip.” And with that I was making travel plans for Vietnam!After an extremely long flight we arrived in Vietnam only to find that our in-country connection had been delayed. For hours I sat there sticking to a hard plastic chair in an un-air-conditioned airport, sweaty, un-showered and awake for the better part of 26 hours. As I sat there my mind started to wander…I thought, this is the country that took my father…I was asking, God, why am I here? I just wanted to leave and forget Vietnam once and for-all. Vietnam was a nearly unspoken word in my family. I was at a very low place and felt so lonely and trapped. After a long awaited shower and some rest the mission trip was underway. At the onset of the mission trip I just observed. I had never been on a mission trip so I thought that I would just go with the flow. I watched veterans who fought and lost their best friends hugging and playing with orphans. I saw other members with no prior connection to Vietnam painting fences and playing with deaf and blind children. There was so much joy in the faces of the mission team members. I remember thinking, “I want that joy.” I just didn’t know how. I then found myself joining in and doing the same. It was simply amazing to see these men and women doing the awesome work Mission Vietnam does in this once forgotten country. The fact that I was a part of it was awesome.
Each day we started with a chapel service in which a member from the mission team spoke and Greg and Glenda Bostock who are both such gifted musicians would lead our group in worship and praise songs…they were such amazing songs. In addition to leading us in the songs they also used a projector so we could see the words and sing along. This made it much easier for me since I had never sung these songs at my church. As I read and sang the words to many of these songs they started to soften my heart. Strangely I felt as if the words in many of the songs were meant exactly for me! One particular song titled, “Above All” by Lenny LeBlanc contains the words, “Like a rose trampled on the ground, you took the fall and you thought of me above all.” When I saw those words the tears flowed down my face like a river. I was overrun with so much emotion I had trouble breathing. I thought of my Dad, his ultimate sacrifice and it just seemed so good to cry. I realized that throughout my life God had never forgotten me, even though I had trampled over him He had always been there. I also thought of my Dad and then I remembered his last letter and the words, “How’s the little guy doing?” On his last day alive on earth my Dad was thinking of me! It was so apparent to me that God placed me in Vietnam in this room with these wonderful people singing this song because He thought of me above all! That chapel service was a turning point in my life. I was like a sponge after that chapel service. I wanted so much to have that love and peace that these mission team members had. At one point during the trip we traveled to the province where my father was killed and it was announced that a scheduled visit to an orphanage had been canceled. To my amazement the mission director announced that we would instead travel to Tam Kỳ which was only several miles from where my father was killed. We drove as far as the director was comfortable (since Vietnam is a Communist country you can’t just drive wherever you want) which was about 10 miles from LZ East. It was there we stood on the edge of a rice paddy, prayed and held a memorial service for my father.
In a corner at the edge of a row of rice I left letters and poems from my mother, his mother and father and other family members and friends.
As you can imagine this was an extremely emotional time for me. When we stood there in that rice paddy God opened my eyes and painted an image that will be etched in my mind forever. The sky so blue, the rice fields so green, and the soil so red. Other than the beautiful smile of my wife or the first peek at my sons when they were born it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. In that peaceful vision, God was telling me that everything would be okay. While standing there near that mountain where my father gave his life, a voice told me that I need to carry my father’s torch. That same voice told me that his life does matter ‐ through me! That very night I sat on my bedside in a Da Nang hotel and with the help of my roommate Dean, I gave my heart to the Lord. That day, and each subsequent day has been an incredible journey for me and my family. I could never have imagined I would be this person I am today.
The rice field outside of Tam Kỳ where we held a memorial service for my Dad
After I got back home my wife Terri would look at me in bewilderment. She was so happy for me because her prayer while I was in Vietnam was that I would find my way. In those days after coming home I also realized I now had what those mission team members had! Since that trip I have been back to Vietnam nine times bringing my wife twice and several years’ back we brought our two sons Gabriel and Reagan. A country that I once thought took so much from me and my family has given so much back.
This entire experience has helped in healing me and my family. I think my family can realize what I have realized...my father did not die in vain!
The journey to Vietnam was life changing. I expected to go to Vietnam and bring my father home, and instead my Father brought me home!
I am now a board member of Mission Vietnam and Terri and I both continually promote the great works of Mission Vietnam. I could stop there and the story could end as such an uplifting story but God is so good and the more faithful I am the more I realize His great deeds…so I’ll continue! In 2014 another amazing thing happened. During a mission trip I had the opportunity to climb LZ East and stand on the hallowed ground where my father and 16 brave young men died for their country. It was a long drive over bumpy winding roads through many small villages but after 45 years I finally saw the same view that my father wrote about in his last letter home. I breathed the same air he breathed, and I heard the same sounds he heard. I could feel a gentle breeze flowing against my face and I smiled because I knew exactly what to do. I walked over to a spot by myself and knelt down and I had a nice long talk with my Dad! I later learned that my trip to LZ East was no easy feat. Our in-country Mission Vietnam Directors, Dr. Ahn and her husband Dr. Nogc along with a string of pastors throughout that province that made it happen. It consisted of many emails, phone calls, map research and government approvals. All done well in advance of the trip. I will forever be grateful to all of those wonderful people that made it happen. During that trip I shared much of what I am writing with several churches and several pastors. One pastor told me that my story gave him courage to keep going. Others told me how my story encouraged them. It made me realize that my story is really quite amazing. It made me realize that it should be shared because it is a story about love, hope, faith and forgiveness. I decided to write all of this down and share it with you.
LZ East in the background L to R: Wade Franks, Aaron Tibbetts, Vietnamese guide, Ron Moody and Chuck Crocket
I learned after coming home that one of the pastors and the Christian believers of a church in the area close to LZ East took a huge leap of faith. These were some of the people I shared my story and testimony. As you can imagine the Christian believers in this area are very poor but they raised enough money and received government approval to build a church. Their current church building is actually a house of one of the believers. I was told that the spot they chose for their church is in an area that you can see the entire view of LZ East in the background! The area where such a dark and terrible event took place is no
w going to be a beacon of hope and an area where light shines! The Son Cam Ha church will be a place of worship, where souls are saved and new life begins!
Drawing of the Son Cam Ha Church located near LZ East
One of the requirements for Mission
Vietnam to fund a church construction project is an application for funding. After we received the application I decided that since that pastor and his church members took a leap of faith that I would do the same. After much prayer and discussion with Terri I told the board members at our last board meeting that I wanted to raise all of the funding for this church construction project. I knew that after all of the great things that have transpired since my first trip to Vietnam that at this very moment it was my chance to pay it
forward. At first I wanted to write a check and get the project done but I didn’t think that was the way this project was meant to be completed. I believe this church should be a gift from people who believe in faith, from people who believe in love, from people who believe in hope and from people who believe in forgiveness.
I have never solicited donations for something like this before so it truly is a leap of faith. I’m asking that you be a partner in something that is so much bigger than you and me. Please visit the Mission Vietnam web page and click on the donate button, then where it says (add special instructions to the seller) write in Son Cam Ha church/Tibbetts . If you would like to help with this church and partner with Mission Vietnam you can also send your donation to
Mission Vietnam PO Box 6063 Twin Falls, Idaho 83303 Thank you for reading my story and God Bless you! Aaron Tibbetts