A story of war, friendship and faith

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R. Lanny Hunter will sign his book, "My Soul to Keep; A Journey of Faith," Sunday at Diesel, A Bookstore.

“My Soul to Keep; A Journey of Faith,” by R. Lanny Hunter

Chalice Press, 227 pages

By Bridget Graham-Gungoren/Special to The Malibu Times

When he returned to the United States in 1966 after serving in the Vietnam War, R. Lanny Hunter never thought he would return there, nor did he want to. But when he received a letter in 1997, from a friend made during his time spent there, in need of help, that is exactly where he found himself-traveling back to Vietnam.

Hunter has written a moving personal tale weaving together two eras and the friendship of two men, with almost 30 years in between of seeing each other, which shares his personal account of war, friendship, faith and raw human emotion. Raised as a fundamentalist Christian, Hunter saw the world and all its good and evil in black and white shades only. Through a friendship and war, he discovered areas of gray that changed his life, and his view of his faith.

When Hunter served in Vietnam as part of the Special Forces during the war, he befriended Y-Blit Thon, a Montagnard tribesman from a remote and primitive village in Vietnam, who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Not understanding cultural imperialism, but only understanding his faith, Hunter converted Thon to Christianity and funded college for him in both Saigon and the Philippines.

But in a country of communism, education was the enemy, and Thon returned to Vietnam after school only to be arrested.

“When Y-Blit returned, they thought he was an American spy. They raided his home and took his Special Forces ID card from the war, his English-speaking Bible and dictionary and his college certification,” Hunter said. Thon told Hunter that the government said to him, “Americans have stuck their mind on your head.”

Thon spent 10 years in a re-education camp. Later, he penned a letter to Hunter that brought Hunter back to Vietnam to help his friend.

“He was asking for help,” Hunter said. “With his request … I felt like I owed him.”

Hunter hired a driver and an interpreter and spent two weeks in the country helping his friend re-build his home and his life. “I found a very broken man,” Hunter said.

But Hunter had to help his friend in secret, for if Thon were found connected to Hunter, it would bring more trouble. This posed an ethical dilemma to Hunter, “We had to lie to help him.”

Hunter said he sees what war and the belief in Christianity has done to change the lives of the two men.

“I am still centered in Biblical faith in a Christian God and Christ. But I think I used to see the Bible, the story… where you could plug in and get a black-and -white answer,” Hunter said. “And now I see the stories as an over-arching viewpoint that requires decisions and choices, and tinges of gray.”

He has learned to be open to hear other points of view. “We can’t just draw a line in the sand and say ‘this is where I stand,'” Hunter said. “Some ideas are better than others; in this politically correct world, we value feelings more than truth-but it is when stories interact, we gain perspective.”

For all the persecution that Thon has endured for his beliefs taught by Hunter, Hunter struggles with reconciling those feelings. “Y-Blit has a core of faith, but he, too, understands that my involvement has changed the course of his life. But he is not angry, he is my friend.”

The book, which talks of the faithful journey and friendship, also gives a concise history of the Vietnam War; but also of war as a whole. “I learned war may [sometimes] be necessary, but sooner or later it becomes unjust because it spills out on innocent people,” Hunter said. “This book can be read by young and old alike, and inform about the history of Vietnam, the choices we make, the culture of war and the culture of evangelism and ethics.”

Hunter wants the details not to be forgotten by those who can remember the war, but also learned by those who don’t know anything about it.

When he returned from the emotional trip, he networked to find six friends he served with in the war for a reunion. He said he hears of World War II vets getting together, but Vietnam is not a war of “reunions.”

Hunter created his own. “There is a myth in the country that Vietnam vets are homeless, sociopaths, losers and failures,” Hunter said. He said Hollywood has created that myth; all six of these men, including him, are successful businessmen. “We’re solid people who served our country well.”

Hunter may never see Thon again. He doesn’t know. But he shares the story of the two lives intersecting that are forever changed. Hunter said when he left Vietnam, Thon said, “I’m going to hate to miss you.”

Hunter is scheduled for a book signing Feb. 20, 3 p.m., at Diesel, A Bookstore in the Cross Creek Shopping Center. Hunter, who was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Purple Heart and Vietnamese Gallantry Cross, lives in Malibu part-time and also lives in Arizona, where he continues to practice medicine part-time.