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Vietnam Veteran Pedals Through His Past, One Mile at a Time

Gimbel Photo-01.jpg

As the sun cast a golden hue over miles and miles of the Vietnam’s countryside, a group of cyclists bike through the serene landscape of rolling fields and rows upon rows of coffee crops. Suddenly, clusters of delicate white dots – formerly mistaken for flowers – start to rise and flutter, revealing themselves as hundreds of butterflies. The air comes alive with their shimmering wings, transforming the scene into an unreal beauty. While it may sound like fiction, this was just a single day in the life of veteran Marc Gimbel’s two-week mission to cycle through Vietnam – the very country he served in over 50 years ago.

Gimbel spent one year serving in Vietnam as a U.S. Army long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) from 1969-1970. He was only 22 years old. Now 77, he banded together a small group of family, friends, and fellow Veterans to return to the country – cycling a total of 390 miles from the northern coast to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

“I wanted to see Vietnam — the real Vietnam – through my 77-year-old eyes. I spent most of my time [while deployed] hiding in the jungle trying not to get killed. I returned to see Vietnam’s true beauty, interact with its people, and honor those who served alongside me,” Gimbel explained.

His Time at War

Marc Gimbel posing in front of the Mekong River in 2024 and 1969.
Marc Gimbel

Gimbel still remembers when his draft notice arrived in the mail. It was 1968, and he was a college student in New York City. One year later he was deployed to Vietnam’s jungles, a completely different – and dangerous – environment.

Gimbel’s main task in the U.S. Army was reconnaissance. His unit scouted unknown areas for four days at a time, reporting any suspicious activity to base upon their return.

“I wasn’t scared when I served. I was just incredibly aware of my surroundings,” Gimbel clarified. “It took an invasion from the Northern Vietnamese army for me to realize my situation was extremely serious. I felt as if I was in a movie at first, but then suddenly people started losing their lives.”

Signs of Gimbel’s deployment remain with him. A piece of shrapnel, too small for removal, resides in one of his wrists, and he recently battled prostate cancer, a condition the Army attributed to exposure of Agent Orange – a chemical mixture used during the war.

And his adjustment to civilian life proved its own battle.

“I remember, after returning home [from Vietnam,] a former girlfriend invited me to a party. To say I stood out like a sore thumb was an understatement. There I was in the 1970s with a very short haircut and sun-exposed face, and, when I told everyone that I served in Vietnam, the entire conversation changed,” he explained. “I didn’t want a welcome parade. I just wanted to get back to my normal life.”

After moving into an apartment in Queens, New York, Gimbel applied for a job at Saks Fifth Avenue and remained with the company for 40 years in managerial roles across the country. He’s now retired and lives with his wife of 52 years in Winter Garden, Florida.

“My wife changed my life. She gave my life the purpose I had never had after Vietnam,” said Gimbel.

A Trip of Reflection

Highlander's Tour Vietnam Facebook Page

However, planning a 390-mile bike ride through Vietnam gave Gimbel a different sense of purpose. After planning the trip’s logistics, Gimbel posted online ads and met a fellow Vietnam veteran – and former AARP Iowa State Director – Kent Sovern. The two recruited their family and friends on the journey, and off they went on an adventure of a lifetime.

The group made dozens of unforgettable memories. In Central Vietnam, the group stopped in Pleiku – home to the Landing Zone (LZ) Oasis where both Gimbel and Sovern served. The jungle terrain was extremely familiar to Gimbel, who even brought military rations to eat in the area, but what really made the experience special were the locals.

“While our group was walking through the streets, two older women in their 70s approached our tour guide and began talking with him. It turns out they were sisters and remembered the American soldiers during the war. They would sell cold sodas to us when we came out of the helicopters,” Gimbel expressed. “I remember buying a Coke…or two…or three…after my missions. It was so ironic to actually meet others who were there, and who I may have even purchased a beverage from!”

The group also delivered school supplies to children and stopped at My Lai, site of the infamous massacre, where they placed incense in the temple for all who lost their lives that day.

“That was the saddest moment of the trip,” he reflected.

His favorite moments were learning about Vietnam’s culture. Trying local delicacies, chatting with locals from each city, meditating through the beautiful landscapes, and simply paying in the country’s currency.

Now, back home in Florida, Gimbel is grateful for this trip of a lifetime, and plans on attending annual reunions with his fellow soldiers.

“This was my last time in Vietnam,” he said. “And I am so glad I returned. Because of this trip, I got to travel the roads and climb the mountains I only saw from the window of a helicopter or military convoy.”

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