On return to Vietnam, war vet John Kerry says his dark memories don't 'imprison' him

Martha Raddatz, Richard Coolidge & Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

On the Radar

Forty-five years after he fought in Vietnam as a naval officer in the midst of an intractable war, Secretary of State John Kerry said his fighting experience informs his worldview today but does not “dominate” him during an official trip to the country.

“One thing I'm very careful -- very, very careful -- not to do is see everything through the lens of Vietnam,” Kerry said. “That would be a huge mistake. It's informative, but it doesn't imprison me. It doesn't dominate me.”

During his visit to Ho Chi Minh City, the secretary of state sat down with “On the Radar” to discuss his memories of Vietnam, including the time he killed a man in combat -- an experience he said he still "inevitably" thinks about from time to time.

“I always refuse to get stuck there, kind of a purposeful decision,” he said. “It happened, it's what it was. We were in a war, and it ended. And my goal became the future. My goal became how do we take that and make something better out of it?”

Kerry, a devout Catholic, said that fighting in the war shook his faith temporarily. But then he had an epiphany, he said, that helped him move beyond the war and return to his faith.

“I just thought about it a lot,” Kerry said. “I think I had a sort of epiphany, a moment where it just occurred to me that, there still is a purpose in God's work that defines itself, sometimes differently than the ways one might superficially think.”

Upon returning from Vietnam, Kerry became active in the anti-war movement for a time. That activism, he said, was a first step in his healing process.

“I spent some time protesting the war, and a lot of people didn't like that, obviously,” he said. “And, in a sense, I put some of that energy into trying to end the war. But once the day-to-day fighting had ended and America was out of Vietnam, then I felt there was something more we had to do.

“We wanted to get to the day when we could say the word 'Vietnam' and people would think about a country, not a war,” he said. “And that's where we are today. I think it's very exciting.”

Kerry said that while he has had memories of the Vietnam War during his visit, those memories have not hindered his perspective of the modern Vietnam and its present challenge in combating climate change.

“Occasionally, I see a place and I say, ‘Oh, yes, I remember that or this’ but … you think about this vibrant, energized country that's dealing with a lot of problems,” he said. “What we're going to focus on is the Mekong Delta, not in terms of my war, but in terms of global climate change and the threat to the environment, which is critical for all the people who live here.”

To hear more of John Kerry’s memories of Vietnam, including his reflections on his first visit back to the Mekong Delta since being stationed there during the war, check out this episode of “On the Radar.”

ABC News’ Brian Hartman, Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Marc Laban, Somyot Pisapark, Mike LaBella, Chi Ton, Melissa Young, Nick Greiner and Tom Giusto contributed to this episode.