Time heals all wounds

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Retired Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry signs a copy of his book titled “My Enemy….My Friend” here June 4, 2010. General Cherry, along with former Vietnamese pilot Nguyen Hong My, hosted a book signing and presentation following their tour of the base. General Cherry hails from Bowling Green, Ky. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Gino Reyes)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Retired Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry signs a copy of his book titled “My Enemy….My Friend” June 4, 2010. General Cherry, along with former Vietnamese pilot Nguyen Hong My, hosted a book signing and presentation following their tour of the base. General Cherry hails from Bowling Green, Ky. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Gino Reyes)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Retired Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry lowers his visor after suiting up in life support here June 4, 2010. General Cherry invited the base to share his unique story of befriending the former Vietnamese pilot he shot down during the Vietnam War. General Cherry hails from Bowling Green, Ky. (U.S Air Force photo/Senior Airman Gino Reyes)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Retired Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry lowers his visor after suiting up in life support June 4, 2010. General Cherry invited the base to share his unique story of befriending the former Vietnamese pilot he shot down during the Vietnam War. General Cherry hails from Bowling Green, Ky. (U.S Air Force photo/Senior Airman Gino Reyes)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Nguyen Hong My poses in front of an F-15E Strike Eagle here June 4, 2010. Mr. Hong My toured the base with retired Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, who shot down Mr. Hong My’s MiG 21 during the Vietnam War. Mr. Hong My, a former lieutenant in the Vietnamese Air Force, hails from Hanoi, Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Gino Reyes)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Nguyen Hong My poses in front of an F-15E Strike Eagle June 4, 2010. Mr. Hong My toured the base with retired Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, who shot down Mr. Hong My’s MiG 21 during the Vietnam War. Mr. Hong My, a former lieutenant in the Vietnamese Air Force, hails from Hanoi, Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Gino Reyes)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- What started as a simple trip to a museum with friends turned into an emotional journey for a Vietnam veteran taking him across the globe, linking four men together through chance encounters that occurred nearly 30 years before.

As retired Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry stood in front of a neglected, bird-infested F-4D Phantom, he knew he had to return the jet he had once piloted over Vietnam to its former glory.

He and his friends decided the worn warbird with a red star embossed on the side, signifying the general's aerial victory over an enemy pilot, deserved to be properly memorialized. As the group began the process of fundraising to acquire the aircraft and proudly display her to the public, General Cherry began to ponder the fate of the MiG-21 pilot the red star symbolized.

After his search for the pilot only generated several dead ends, General Cherry took a chance and contacted a producer of a Vietnamese TV reunion show. The producer of "The Separation Never Seems to Have Existed" tracked down former Lt. Nguyen Hong My in merely two weeks. In a whirlwind of events, General Cherry traveled to Vietnam for a live reunion on the show with Mr. Hong My.

"When I had the opportunity to meet Hong My for the first time I wondered what kind of person he was and if we could possibly become friends," the general said. "But my intuition told me that as fighter pilots, we would have far more in common than we ever had different. And that is the way it all worked out."

Mr. Hong My showed no animosity toward the man he last saw through a cloud of smoke as he parachuted from his destroyed MiG-21.

The first words Mr. Hong My said to General Cherry were ones the general still remembers, "Welcome to my country. I'm glad you are in good health. I hope we can be friends."

Mr. Hong My later told General Cherry, "He thought we were never really enemies. We were just, as he puts it, Soldiers doing the best we could do for our two countries."

Like General Cherry, Mr. Hong My was curious about the fate of the man he had shot down during the war. So, as General Cherry was preparing to return the United States, Mr. Hong My asked him to research the pilot's fate. In working with the Air Force History Research Agency, the general discovered the pilot survived the incident and continued his military career. The three Vietnam War pilots made plans to meet in Washington D.C. shortly after and once again conflicting loyaties were put aside and friendships quickly formed.

Retired Lt. Col. John Stiles, a Goldsboro native, said the reunion lifted a huge weight off his shoulders.

Soon after, the trio expanded again when Colonel Stiles was reunited with Bob Noble, the man who rescued him from enemy territory. Mr. Noble was not an Airman, Soldier or even a servicemember. He was an Air America helicopter crew member. Air America was a U.S. passenger and cargo airline covertly owned and operated by the CIA.

"That was a normal day for me," he said. "From 1962 to about 1966, there were no rescue forces, we were it."

Nearly four decades after these men served in Vietnam, creating preeminent but nameless marks on one another's lives, they came together to share their stories of courage and friendship with the Seymour Johnson community.

"This whole thing has been great fun for all of us," General Cherry said. "We do have a message: First and foremost we hope to help other Vietnam War veterans. And we have seen instances of this already; telling the story has brought closure to some very difficult times for a lot of people. We also certainly hope to show the strength and power of friendship."

(Editors note: For the complete story of General Cherry and Mr. Hong My's reunion, read the general's book "My Enemy ... My Friend.")