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Local View: Peace within war occasionally can be found

Back in 1997 when I was in Bosnia, a fellow soldier joked there is no peace in war. In the broad, political sense, that's true. But at the personal level, it's not.

Another veteran recently told me there was indeed peace within war. Both he and I experienced it, though in different ways. Like me, he had a vivid dream about his military service and a person who brought peace within war.

This vet is Bob Woods, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam back in 1972. At the age of 23, he was stationed at the Air Force base in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, working in aviation supply, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. His main function was keeping ground-support equipment for aircraft functional. He lived in an open-bay barracks with a corrugated steel roof and partially screened louvered walls. Similar to other living arrangements I had in my career, but Bob's was a bit different.

Bob, like other Marines, was assigned a "Mama San" to care for his linen, uniform, and general bunk area. Each Mama San was only allowed eight Marines at a cost to each Marine of $7 per month, which was increased to $8 after a few months. Even at the time, it seems a pittance, but Bob said his Mama San kept the place spotless. His Mama San was 28, married to a wounded Vietnamese airman, and had four children.

"In the beginning I didn't think too much about it as it seemed almost as if we were staying at a hotel and these ladies were just the maids," Bob said. "I'd get up, go to work, go to lunch, take a nap, come home, go drinking at the club, and continue the cycle seven days a week. Clothes were washed, (my) rack was made, floors were swept, and (the) house was clean. Not to forget, the boots were shined."

After a time, Bob and his comrades felt comfortable with the "maids," and realized they were real people. Communication was initially awkward, with finger-pointing followed by slowly understanding each other

"You look forward to talking to them, getting to know about them and their lives," said Bob. "As time passed I was able to better understand her, and she I, so we talked like old, lifelong friends, her telling me of her family and I telling her of mine. She never seemed too interested (in) the U.S., as she was always happy just wishing the war would end so people would stop dying."

His Mama San brought Bob fresh fruit almost daily, which was a welcome relief from the usual military fare. She worked five days a week, so Bob said it was somewhat lonely on Saturdays and Sundays. He looked forward to seeing her smiling face come Monday mornings.

"Mind you, we had no relationship other than she was there as the maid," said Bob. "Truthfully, never once (did I think) of her beyond that and being a friend. Some mornings, if we had casualties, they would not allow the civilians on base until damages (were) cleaned up. Occasionally, all day, (there was) no entrance. Mama San was always concerned and did shed tears more than once."

Bob regrets not remembering her name now, but he did get a chance to say goodbye the morning of his departure from his tour of duty.

"We cried, hugged, and went on with our lives," he said. "I know what mine was. I hope she and her family survived peacefully with the love she showed for me. She was a flower in the insanity."

Or, as he told me decades later, she was "peace within war."

Given my own experience, I couldn't agree more.

Dave Boe of Duluth is a communications professional and 20-year veteran. Bob Woods of Duluth served four years in the U.S. Marines, from 1970 to 1974.