Of all the interviews a reporter can conduct in their career, there are always a few that stick with you long after you’ve put away the pen and paper.
For me, my interview with Vietnam veteran Dan Larson is one of those. It’s because I wasn’t prepared to ask him the tough questions the first time we visited. I instead concentrated on his 2014 return visit to Vietnam for the first time since the war. Larson had a memorable trip. It was the first opportunity he had to truly enjoy the country’s people, culture and landscape.
But his return was also bittersweet. The war has deeply affected him. Not just mentally and emotionally, but also physically.
He estimated his unit lost 15 to 20 soldiers. There were three occasions where he somehow survived being in a vehicle that blew up. He was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used on the jungles but later found to be highly carcinogenic. He had to retire from supervising asphalt paving and construction after suffering three mini-strokes. He also has diabetes and nerve damage in his legs.
I didn’t get to the heart of that story until I returned the following day, feeling brave enough to ask the questions that make a grown man cry.
So I felt like I was re-opening a wound when I showed back up at Larson’s door more than a year later, and a day before Veterans Day. But the paper was highlighting the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary and I wanted Larson to be part of the story. So without Larson’s phone number, I had no choice but to show up out of the blue.
Larson remembered me and immediately invited me inside. And again, I had to ask those questions that bring tears and memories flooding back.
But this time, when it was time for me to leave, Larson gave me a hug.
And I felt a little bit better about asking those difficult questions again.