Several of the reading assignments in Professor Elizabeth Mill's first-year composition and literature course, "The Hero's Quest" course concerned the Vietnam War. Ashleigh Finn '05 and her classmates read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, Phil Caputo's A Rumor of War, and Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army.
The readings led Finn to think about the uncle she had never known. Her mother's brother, Eric P. Muller, served as a U.S. Special Forces soldier during the Vietnam War, and was killed on patrol in the Central Highlands in 1967. When Professor Mills asked her students later in the course to write up their own hypothetical "hero's quest," Finn wrote that her quest would take her to Vietnam to find out more about her uncle's experiences there.
Then, to Finn's surprise, "Professor Mills encouraged me to make it real," she said. Mills urged Finn to apply for a grant from the Rusk Program, and the pieces began to fall in place. Finn planned to study during the fall semester 2003 in Sydney, Australia, and realized she could visit Vietnam in connection with that experience.
She received the Rusk Program grant, and got in touch with a tour company that arranges Vietnam trips for veterans. She was able to book a two-week tour for late November, coinciding with her travel way back to the U.S. from her semester abroad. Finn began preparing for her quest by contacting veterans who had served with her uncle, reading letters he wrote to his family from Vietnam, and reading other literature about the war. The more she thought about it, the more she realized her mother should accompany her on the quest. "I thought it would be important for her to see where brother died," Finn said. Jan Muller Finn had been fifteen-years-old when her twenty-one-year-old brother died.
Ashleigh and Jan met in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) on November 26, 2003, and spent the next two weeks immersed in a culture that both fascinated them, and evoked strong personal emotions over its tragic effect on the fabric of their family.
The Rusk Program asks students to write a brief description of the travels that Rusk grants afford, but Finn was inspired to write in detail about the real-life quest that led her and her mother to a better understanding of their personal hero.