Koa Books

Veterans of War
Veterans of Peace

Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace
Author Biographies
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Julie Thi Underhill

When Saigon fell, my parents fled together by helicopter and boat, and I was born in the United States the following year. My father was an American civilian contractor servicing Huey helicopters in Viet Nam . Before their marriage, my Cham-French Vietnamese mother had lost her first husband, a lieutenant in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam . She had left behind five children in the evacuation, whom she did not see for sixteen years. One died, and another was imprisoned for two years in Cambodia during an attempted escape. After my parents' marriage ended, my mother wed a US Army captain who'd spent six years in Viet Nam as a combat helicopter pilot. I negotiated an inheritance of ghosts and regret, while living in a culture of theatrical cinema, hushed tones, and conspicuous silences about Viet Nam .

In 1999, I traveled with siblings to Viet Nam to finally meet our maternal kin and dying grandmother. The next year I interviewed my mother and stepfather in Texas about their war memories, before returning to Viet Nam for a touring seminar over the war's historical, geopolitical, and psychological aspects. In 2001, I began making Crossing Fire: Salvadoran and Vietnamese Women After War , a film about surviving, organizing, and healing. In 2002, I visited El Salvador to interview women and photograph sites of remembrance. My oral history with US Army veteran Robert Cagle, prefacing our visit to My Lai , was in Takin' it to the Streets: A Sixties Reader . I often exhibit my Viet Nam portraits, and I was included in NPR's Crossing East , a May 2006 documentary on Asian Americans.

I returned to Viet Nam in 2006 for my Cham grandmother's second burial ceremony. My mother, extended family, and I exhumed her skeleton, prayed, atoned regrets, feasted, and reburied her by tradition. Through a fellowship at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at University of Massachusetts-Boston, I have researched how conquest, colonialism, and war have affected the cultural survival of the Cham, whose 1,500-year-old kingdom the Vietnamese destroyed.

Spanning eight years, these dreams are allegories revealing my vulnerability and culpability about witnessing, remembering, and healing war's atrocities and sorrows.

I welcome you to visit my website at: www.jthiunderhill.com

I was born in New York City, lived over my grandfather’s bar in East Newark, New Jersey, and was raised in the desert near Tucson with my five sisters. My father had navigated a B-25 bomber in the South Pacific and courted my mother, an Army nurse. Growing up during the 1950s, I heard the adults speak about “the war” over cocktails like a secret society, while on television, John Wayne, detectives, and cowboys battled evil, inspiring me and my friends to run endless raids through the Arizona desert, throwing rocks, shooting B-B guns, and dying beautiful deaths.

In 1968, ambivalent and uninformed about Vietnam, I dropped out of college and was drafted immediately. I ended up in the 299th Combat Engineers near the Cambodian and Laotian border, serving as an ambulance driver and medic. During the 1969 siege at Dak To, all that television blood and movie dying became real and the world changed forever. After my war, no one wanted to listen to our stories or try and understand where America had gone. The left called us baby killers, the right called us losers, and everyone else just ignored us.

After college, I could only bear to work out under the open sky, exploring for minerals all over the Rocky Mountains. I spent sixteen months in Europe running away from the war and nearly ended it all in a rowboat on a cold Norwegian lake. Afterwards, I lived in Laguna Beach, California, thinking that law school, the ocean, and a family might be the solution. But the war would not go away. So I began writing about it. I got married, raised a stepdaughter, and got divorced.

In 1992, I journeyed to Hanoi with the poet Bruce Weigl to photograph for the “Poems From Captured Documents” project. In 2004, I took four veterans I had fought with back to Dak To, for my first documentary film, Return to Dak To. I live in San Francisco and work as a writer, actor, producer, and story consultant.