US war veteran Mark O’Connor raced across Danang on a motorbike yesterday hoping to come face-to-face with Donald Trump, a president who dodged the war-era draft but whose politics have won fast fans among some former soldiers for “making America great again”.
After braving the searing sun, the 67-year-old’s 8,000-mile journey from the US ended in disappointment as he was turned away by heavy security and failed to snatch a glimpse of Trump.
The president was meeting a cluster of other American vets in the Vietnamese coastal city yesterday. “We tried, we did our best,” said a crestfallen O’Connor, who lives in South Dakota but frequently visits Vietnam for charity work. Sadly, he left his trademark red Trump campaign hat back home, but had planned to don a replacement on his mission to see the man whose politics have captivated him.
O’Connor had wanted to deliver a simple message to Trump in Danang, a former airbase where US marines first arrived more than 50 years ago to support the fight against communist-backed Viet Cong soldiers.
“Thank you for making America great again and taking our country back,” he had wanted to say. Trump, who famously avoided fighting in Vietnam by taking several deferments, arrived with a message of his own for former servicemen. “Our veterans are a national treasure, and I thank them all for their service, sacrifice, and patriotism,” he said, signing a proclamation to honour veterans of the Vietnam War.
He committed to repatriating the remains of 1,253 missing servicemen from Vietnam and found solid support among the clutch of men he met yesterday. “I just want to say what an honour and privilege it is to be with our president. I so admire what you’re doing for our country,” said one vet identified by the White House as Mr Hopper.
Trump had earlier remarked on the extraordinary turnaround in relations between Vietnam and the United States, from bitter foes to regional allies.
“This city was once home to an American military base in a country where many Americans and Vietnamese lost their lives in a very bloody war,” he said at the APEC meeting in Danang.
“Today we are no longer enemies, we are friends.”
O’Connor had earlier expressed hope that Trump would pledge help to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange who still live with crippling disabilities after being sprayed with the toxic defoliant during the bloody and bitter war.
The US government is working with Vietnam to clean up dioxin left over from the war. O’Connor often travels to Vietnam to provide bicycles to school children in remote communities, a far cry from his mission during the war. “We used to kill these people,” he said remorsefully.
Trump’s own service record doesn’t bother O’Connor. As for Trump’s controversial comments about former vet John McCain, who he has said isn’t a hero because he was captured during the war, O’Connor chalks them down to a personal grudge — and Trump’s penchant for off-the-cuff remarks.
“He’s not politically correct, he says some things sometime that he should not,” O’Connor said.
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In the dock