Weekly Feature

2015-04-17 / Local News

Kenmore native to share experiences in Vietnam as soldier, tourist


Richard Szczepaniec, M-16 in hand, poses with a group of Vietnamese boys. Richard Szczepaniec, M-16 in hand, poses with a group of Vietnamese boys. When Richard Szczepaniec landed in Vietnam for the first time in 1968, he was set to take part in one of the most polarizing conflicts in the nation’s history. This year, he went back as a tourist, and he now wants to explain the difference that almost half a century makes on a developing country.

Hosted by the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society, Szczepaniec will present a talk titled “Vietnam: Then and Now” which will detail his experiences visiting the country first as a soldier and then as a tourist.

Using a slide show of photos he took both times, Szczepaniec will focus not only on the experiences of young American troops fighting a guerilla war, but also the challenges that still lay ahead for a country in transition.

A major factor in Szczepaniec’s decision to return to a place he once knew only as volatile and unstable was his yearning to relive a significant part of his youth.

Returning as a tourist in 2015, Richard Szczepaniec is shown in the An Khe District of Vietnam. Returning as a tourist in 2015, Richard Szczepaniec is shown in the An Khe District of Vietnam. “You can’t go back in time, but you can go back in space,” he said.

In order to avoid the anxiety associated with the draft process, Szczepaniec decided in 1968 to volunteer for military service and deployment to Vietnam. He was fortunate enough to avoid seeing combat, mostly because of his education and skills that the U.S. military deemed important to designate to other areas.

“I went over as infantry, but I could read and write, so they kept me for other kinds of jobs,” he said.

Bookkeeper, bartender, cook, driver and communications clerk were all positions that helped Szczepaniec avoid becoming one of the almost 60,000 U.S. casualties.

Szczepaniec stated that another facet of his decision to return was that he had always wanted to see the areas of the country that were off limits the first time around, including Hanoi, which was under the control of North Vietnam.

He can recall flying over the lush landscapes of the country and remarking how the international community would one day take note.

“My prophecy at the time was that the country would become a tourist destination, and my prophecy has come true,” he said.

Part of Szczepaniec’s talk will focus on the common misconceptions that U.S. citizens often have of Vietnam and its natives — notably, that the Vietnamese harbor resentment toward Americans.

“They’re [the Vietnamese government] telling their people that they want Americans there. They want the investment, and they want the tourism,” he said. “There really was no animosity with the people we came across.”

In the mid-1980s, Vietnam began a massive shift to incorporate principles of the market economy following years of economic stagnation. It has since integrated tourism to blossoming results. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2013 the country’s tourism sector accounted for 9.6 percent of total contribution to the gross domestic product.

While economists and international organizations alike note that the Vietnamese economy is reviving, rampant corruption and a bad debt ratio continue to hinder growth. A 2015 report by the Heritage Foundation noted “vast corruption within the Communist Party of Vietnam, and a general lack of accountability.” The report also cited the country’s insistence on restricting foreign investment and a lack of an efficient regulatory framework.

Despite the changes, including the discovery that the U.S. base where he had once been stationed is now an active Vietnamese military base, Szczepaniec is grateful for the opportunity to return to the country and see it as he believes it was always meant to be seen.

He says he had just one thought as he landed in the nation for the first time since exiting it as a soldier.

“Well, this is good, nobody’s shooting at us. We get a chance to come back and be friendly.”

Szczepaniec will present “Viet- nam: Then and Now” at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, at the Tonawanda Historical Museum, 100 Knoche Road.

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