It was 2002 and I was preparing for a visit to Vietnam in pursuit of a license for New York Life to do business in the country. As was customary, one of our local government relations employees made the arrangements for my various meetings and then accompanied me throughout my stay in the country. On this trip, my New York Life contact and guide was a lovely young Vietnamese lady named Erin Pham. It was my first visit to the country, and as I prepared, I couldn’t help thinking about one of my best high school friends, Arnie Sarna. Arnie lived in my neighborhood, and during our junior and senior high school years we were inseparable. There were several other boys in the neighborhood with whom I hung around almost daily playing baseball, basketball, or football, but I had a special connection with Arnie. In addition to our regular talk about sports and girls, Arnie frequently engaged me in discussions about current events, politics, and even spiritual matters. We often pondered the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the mysteries of the universe and of creation. My fondest memories of Arnie were not the daytime athletic games but the evening walks around the neighborhood when we would ponder and debate more meaningful topics.
Arnie’s passing was my first experience with the death of someone so close to me. I vividly remember my prolonged pain and grieving and the empathy I felt for his family when I attended his funeral. Just weeks before his death, he sent me a long, hand-written letter expressing his gratitude for our friendship and recalling many of the more memorable experiences we’d shared. He wrote that he couldn’t wait to visit with me. I’ve kept that letter and still read it from time to time. Arnie did return to us—in a black body bag sent from Vietnam.
Even now, decades after the war ended, the very mention of “Vietnam” conjures up painful memories and thoughts for anyone who lived through that period: the daily body counts on both sides that were reported every evening on the network television news; the funeral processions; and the pain of losing a friend or family member for a cause that probably had more protestors than proponents in the United States. The war was very divisive on the home front, and that divisiveness made it particularly difficult for servicemen and women to return to a normal and productive life in the United States after completing their assignment in Vietnam.
And now, almost thirty years since the war officially ended, I found myself wondering: What would Arnie look like had he survived? What career would he have pursued? Would we have remained friends and shared the wonderful experiences of raising families and having grandchildren? What would he think of me going to conduct business in Vietnam?
I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the Vietnamese landscape and the friendliness of the people. Evidently the scars of war and the devastating human losses suffered on both sides had largely healed but most certainly still resided in the hearts and minds of those most personally and directly affected, like those Vietnamese (North or South) who lost family members among the thousands of military or civilian casualties so coldly reported on the evening news every day.
Throughout my first day in Vietnam, Erin was by my side, briefing me on the key governmental and regulatory officials we would meet in each of several scheduled sessions. In all the rushing about to make our appointments, there was no time to discuss the history of the country, the war, or even her personal recollections of the aftermath.
However, that evening, after a long day of meetings, we had an hour or so to chat during the ride to the airport. Though I had met with Vietnam’s Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister earlier in impressive ceremonial surroundings, the most memorable and inspiring discussion of the day took place during that drive.
After talking briefly about my own family and the adoption of my three daughters, I asked Erin about her background. What she told me moved me so much, that all these years later I asked her to share it with you through this book. Here is her response:
With her permission I have reprinted it here without embellishment. I am convinced God brought us together again so that Erin might inspire thousands of others with her miraculous story.