WASHINGTON — In 1979, when Dean Phillips was 10 years old, his mother told him a story while driving home from hockey practice that would change him forever: His biological father, a man he had never seen before, had died in The vietnam war. when Phillips was 6 months old.

From that day in 1979, Phillips vowed to learn as many details as he could about Army Captain Arthur «Artie» Pfefer, and one day visit the place where his father spent his last moments.

This spring, Phillips, now a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, fulfilled that lifelong mission and embarked on a pilgrimage to Vietnam to visit Dragon Mountain, the site of the helicopter crash that killed Pfefer. and seven other soldiers 54 years ago.

“It was scary and exciting, and something I probably could have done much sooner. Maybe I didn’t have the courage at the time,» Phillips said in his first extended televised interview about the trip.

“It had become a mission,” he continued. «And when I got there, I remember thinking, ‘This is where he took his last breath.’ And to me, it felt like a place where I could have my first.»

Arriving in Vietnam in March, Phillips drew strength from a group of fellow travelers that included his close friend, actor Woody Harrelson, who once rented Phillips’ home while filming the movie «Wilson» in Minnesota.

“Just seeing how that impacted him, seeing one of your dear friends have that kind of huge emotional catharsis was so powerful,” said Harrelson, who hugged Phillips on the mountain and cried with him.

«‘After trade after trade, we’re more or less the same,’ as Paul Simon says, but I think it changed him,» Harrelson said.

Good things come in threes

Phillips had hoped to pick sunflowers, a symbol of peace and the 1960s era, to bring to the site, but the group was late as they rushed from their hotel to Hanoi airport to catch a flight to central Vietnam. However, at a traffic light, an elderly woman on a motorcycle pulled up next to the group’s van with a bouquet of sunflowers. Phillips jumped in and bought them.

Just outside Pleiku on the way to Dragon Mountain, members of the group, which now included Vietnamese and American officials, had no idea where the crash site was. But they met a man coming down the road named Pyek Rocham, who told them that he had lived on the mountain for 60 years and had scavenged for scrap metal and MRE (meals ready to eat) at the crash site with his brothers in 1969. He pointed out exactly where it was, now part of a coffee plantation.

Walking towards the site, they came across two red peppers on the way. They picked them up and Phillips’s friend reminded him that pepper in German is “Pfeffer”, his father’s last name.

Sunflowers. Coffee. Peppers.

“Strange things happen in groups of three. And this was a perfect example,” Phillips said.

At Dragon Mountain, not far from the former Camp Enari US Army base, Phillips left his sunflowers and buried a Congressional coin in the red dirt where his father’s Huey helicopter crashed many decades ago. He saved part of the land as a souvenir and bought a 50-kilogram bag of coffee beans.

“It was a beautiful sight. … It was full of pine trees. And it felt like Minnesota, like our home, where my dad was raised, where I was raised and still is my home,” Phillips said during the interview overlooking the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC “And instead of being heavy and sad and heavy, it was just the opposite.”

Captain Arthur Pfefer was one of the more than 58,000 American service members who died in the Vietnam War, their names are engraved on the black granite monument that offers views of the US Capitol, where his son now works . Up to 2 million Vietnamese civilians died in the long and bloody war.

Phillips said he understood how lucky he was to have made the trip, which he personally funded, and now he wanted to help other Americans visit the places where loved ones served and died.

Before Memorial Day, Phillips teamed up with Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, and introduced a bill, the Love Lives on Act, that would allow deceased military spouses to keep their survivor benefits after that they remarry. Phillips’ mother lost hers.

‘Both loss and possibility’

DeeDee Phillips said she always thought it would be too painful to visit the Vietnam Memorial. But this month, she met her son there for the first time, they walked along the wall and carved the name on the 20W panel: ARTHUR T. PFEFER.

Although he would never meet his young son, Pfefer had heard Phillips’ voice, babbling on reel-to-reel tapes that his mother and Pfefer exchanged during their deployment.

Half a century later, Phillips would hear the voice of his birth father for the first time. A few years ago, Phillips discovered the tapes, including one in which Pfefer sings a 1965 hit by The Animals that became a hymn for soldiers in the Vietnam War. “We have to get out of this place…”

“I longed to hear his voice, to see a video of him. In my whole life I never had it,» said Phillips, who quipped: «I was going to be a better lawyer than a singer.»

DeeDee Phillips said she initially decided not to tell her son about his biological father. “It was a tragedy and so devastating,” she said. «I just didn’t know how I would handle it.»

But his friends told him it was the right thing to do, and Phillips would later spend time with his grandmother, Pfefer’s mother, who taught him to play the piano, made him matzah ball soup and shared photos and stories about his father.

However, Phillips’ presence also reminded friends and family of Pfefer’s absence. Phillips is the spitting image of his father. His grandmother, Ruth, cried every time she saw him, and strangers who knew his father stopped him at the airport.

“It’s a paradox because I represent both loss and possibility,” Phillips said.

Seven other Army service members lost their lives in the helicopter crash: Chief Petty Officer Stewart B. Goldberg of Baltimore; Specialist Fourth Class David M. Valdez of Los Angeles; Captain Elvernon Peele of Williamston, North Carolina; Capt. Vincent F. Sabatinelli of Southbridge, Massachusetts; Sgt. 1st Class Jay L. Everett of Latrobe, Pennsylvania; Sergeant Gerald E. Du Beau of Springfield, Illinois; and Specialist 4th Class Ronald K. Dycks from Cleveland.

‘The impact of what we do’

In 1972, DeeDee married Eddie Phillips, son of «Dear Abby» advice columnist and heir to a wine and spirits fortune. She would take the future congressman under her wing, raise him as her own son and install him as head of Phillips Distilling before the young Phillips ran for office in 2018.

At 54, Phillips is now more than twice the age his father was when he died. He said learning of Pfefer’s service, and ultimate sacrifice, to his country «absolutely changed my trajectory,» stressing that «every day is a gift.» Phillips never got the chance to meet the war’s most famous prisoner of war, the late Sen. John McCain, but during a bicycle trip through North Vietnam, Phillips, Harrelson and others visited the lake where McCain’s plane was shot down. and the «Hanoi Hilton,» where McCain and other American prisoners of war were tortured.

Phillips, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a new member of the Democratic leadership team, said he thinks of lawmakers who served in Congress during the 1960s every time he pulls out his ballot card.

“In the case of my dad, Artie, this Congress at that time gave him the opportunity to go to college to get his law degree. He never would have been able to do it without the support of the federal government,” Phillips said, pointing to his father’s Army ROTC scholarship.

“And those same men in Congress…also voted to send young people to war, including my dad, and it cost him his life. … I realized the impact of what we do,” he said. “It is not trivial; It’s really significant.»