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For veteran, study abroad trip brings memories of war

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Fred McCoy Courtesy of Jennifer NesslarIt was about midnight on a day in early June when a group of USF St. Petersburg students landed at Hanoi International Airport in Vietnam.

For Fred McCoy, a senior citizen auditor at USFSP, this wasn’t just an airport — it was a battlefield, and a runway he had bombed.

Hanoi International was once Phuc Yen airfield, North Vietnam’s largest airbase during the Vietnam War.

“It was a little eerie,” McCoy said of his return, having served two tours in Vietnam in 1967 and 1970. During the latter, he flew aircrafts from a Navy carrier.

McCoy became a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force in 1964. His nearly 30-year career took him across the world to stations in Japan, Thailand, Spain and Italy. In the 1980s, McCoy flew F-16s at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. He retired in 1990 as a colonel while living in Italy and moved to St. Petersburg where he worked for Jabil Circuit, an international electronics manufacturing company.

In 2010, McCoy began taking advantage of the senior auditing program at USFSP, which allows Florida residents who are 60 or older to enroll for free in certain classes

Frank Biafora, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, asked McCoy join him on a study abroad trip to Vietnam that he leads every year. He agreed.

“I wanted to go back,” McCoy said, explaining that he wanted to see how the country had changed since the war. He was glad to be on the trip, but admits the experience was difficult.

“In my mind it was the enemy’s capital,” he said.

Biafora intentionally takes students to North Vietnam because it’s culturally different than the South — a division made after World War II. While the South still retains the influences of capitalism, the North is clearly communist and Biafora wants students to experience that. During the Vietnam War, the United States fought communists in the North, essentially fighting Russia through Vietnam, Biafora said. He says the war still resonates with the country.

But McCoy was surprised by how friendly and welcoming the Vietnamese people were.

“They seemed to love Americans,” he said, explaining that the Vietnamese trust the Americans to be their ally because they are afraid of China.

The students visited the Hanoi Hilton, which used to be a prisoner of war camp.

“I had many friends that had been incarcerated there,” McCoy said. At the former prison, he showed the students maps of the routes he had taken during the war.

The group also traveled to the Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi, which crosses the Red River.

“There were numerous times I bombed that bridge,” McCoy said. “Our primary mission was to stop the flow of goods from the North to the South.”

The group took a train to Vinh University, about five hours away from Hanoi. Each USFSP student, with the exception of McCoy, was paired with a student from Vinh.

At the university, McCoy gave a presentation on the war to the USFSP students and the Vietnamese students and professors. He traced events from World War II through the 1970s.

As McCoy spoke, Biafora noticed a Vietnamese student crying. Her name was Mai and she was paired with Patrick Mannion, a USFSP MBA student.

Mannion and McCoy teamed up to buy Mai a plane ticket to Ho Chi Minh City, the capital of South Vietnam. Mai, who grew up on a farm growing rice, had never been on a plane before and had never seen the South. They took her to the Jabil Circuit site there, to show her what business is like in a more capitalist-leaning society. McCoy said the company treated them well and even set Mai up on a dinner cruise on the Saigon River.

“She got to see what it’s like living on the other side,” he said.

Now that McCoy is home in St. Petersburg, he is able to reflect on his return to Vietnam.

“I appreciate the fact that the students accepted me,” he said. As a senior auditor, McCoy is used to sitting in the back of USFSP classrooms and remaining quiet. But in Vietnam, he was more than an observer; he was a participant, even earning the nickname “Grandfather” from his fellow USFSP travelers.

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