Trying to Undo: Veterans of Conscience in Viet Nam

Unbeknownst to most Americans, even on the Left, there are a significant number of US-Viet Nam War veterans who have returned to live full or part-time in the country in which they had fought, to devote themselves to undoing some of the war’s devastation -– in Viet Nam* and in themselves. These men began their resistance to the war at widely varying times, some while in the military, others immediately afterwards, and still others years later. Membership in veterans’ organizations like VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War), participating in anti-war actions, and testifying at the 1972 Winter Soldier hearings, helped tens thousands to come to grips with their painful experiences. Many describe protracted struggles with the VA (Veterans’ Administration) for benefits and treatment for physical and psychological ailments stemming from the war. The great majority of these vets live in the United States, but scores have returned to South East Asia to volunteer. Today, with a contact-list and some luck, one can meet with and talk to these men, to learn their stories, motivations and actions to live out their collective consciences. The following are just eight of these men whom I encountered during a three-month visit to Viet Nam in early 2008.

Suel Jones can be found most every morning around 8:30 in his favorite café on Nha Tho Street, in the quiet part of Ha Noi’s Old Quarter, just west of Hoan Kiem Lake. For the last 10 years the former Marine from East Texas has lived in Viet Nam’s capital and aided, both with his own money and with countless volunteer hours, the tragic young victims of America’s chemical weapon –- the infamous defoliant Agent Orange. Suel’s friendly, straightforward manner and his charming Southern drawl make him a favorite interviewee of the likes of BBC News and Agence France Press, though few Americans will have heard of him and his fellow vets who live and volunteer in the land of ‘the enemy.’

Suel says he’s “one of the lucky ones,” because he fought only against other combatants: the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and the VC (Viet Cong of the south). He has not known the particular kind of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) suffered by other GIs who had to destroy villages and kill women and children. He ‘only’ saw his buddies die, like a blond, downy-cheeked, sweet-faced young man -– “just a kid” -– blown to pieces by a landmine the second he stepped to catch a cigarette Suel had tossed to him. Called “The Old Man” by his Marine buddies (he was 24, much older than the others whose average age was 19), Suel was lucky a second time, being sidelined with malaria when many of his squad were killed on a jungle patrol.

Suel has just finished writing a book, “Meeting the Enemy,” about his year in combat, his return home (hiding his military service and never joining anti-war protests), his personal rage and struggles, and his return to Viet Nam to volunteer at the Friendship Village, an internationally funded center founded by another American war vet for Agent Orange (AO) victims. “Gooks” become “Vietnamese” in his autobiographical tale of fighting, dying and transformation –- Suel meeting his own internal “enemies” along the way. He frequently cites his strong traditional East Texas family as a source of his mental and emotional survival. Proud, working-class Southern Baptists, his parents gave him a rock-solid foundation, even though they later could not comprehend nor support his dissent.

One story in Suel’s book stands out. On a trip to Hue in central VN, he ran into a group of American veterans -– “you can spot ’em a mile away” -– on their first trip back. Since Suel spoke the language and was an old hand, he showed them around. During the night one of the men suffered a heart attack and died in his hotel bed. His friends were distraught, so Suel helped out, particularly because he also knew that the hotel staff would not want to return until a Buddhist priest came to perform a ceremony for the departed soul. This Asian religious ceremony had a profoundly calming effect on the group of American war veterans, who then took their friend back home. The vet who died had often spoken of his survivor’s guilt, and of his buddies who were killed as he fought alongside them there in Hue against the 1968 Tet Offensive. Perhaps he found peace in coming back to ‘rejoin’ them decades later at their battle site. Who can say?

A similar story comes from the Viet Namese veterans Suel got to know at the Friendship Village project. Because nearly half of the residents of the Village are AO-sickened former NVA and VC, Suel was able to participate in many exchanges and workshops with them. They told him that sometimes before a major battle or campaign their commander would show them the coffins that were prepared to take casualties. This was extremely reassuring to these soldiers -– knowing that if they were killed in battle, their bodies and souls would be properly cared for in the Buddhist tradition. Suel was astonished to learn this, and to see, at the end of one writing workshop, the Viet Namese veterans perform songs and read poetry that they’d composed for their farewell meeting.

Suel Jones’ kind but direct personality extends to all he meets, as when he confronted Viet Namese veterans who initially told him, “We cannot forget, but we can forgive American soldiers. We are not angry with you.” “Bullshit,” Suel replied. “We raped your mothers, killed your babies, made your sisters into whores and destroyed your country.” “Yes, you are right.” conceded one Viet Namese vet. “It was like being occupied by Nazi Germany.” Suel plans, after publication of “Meeting the Enemy,” a second book -– about his friendships with these men and women. Perhaps he’ll call it “Voices of the Enemy.”

Chuck Searcy, a vet from Georgia, is the consummate Southern Gentleman. Tall and soft-spoken, he receives many international delegations in his Project Renew office in Ha Noi, a de-landmining program funded by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (the organization that built The Wall monument in Washington, DC). Many years of perseverance, along with a dedicated Viet Namese staff, has spread the project’s meager budget to two districts of Quang Tri Province, along the 17th parallel’s DMZ (De-Militarized Zone). The province’s eight remaining districts are also in desperate need of clearance of both landmines and unexploded ordinance in this most heavily bombed area of this most heavily bombed country. The explosive power of 450 Hiroshimas was dropped on tiny Viet Nam in the form of conventional bombs.

Chuck also has many stories to tell, not so much about combat, but about his return home to Georgia. He remembers attending a party with his former high school friends, and speaking to a young woman there. “I just got a new car,” she said, “hey, where have you been for so long?” “In the war in Vietnam,” he answered. “Oh,” she said. “Did I tell you about my new car and how much I love it?” After his ‘turning against the war,’ Chuck’s own father told him he feared he was being “duped by the Communists.”

Since Chuck’s de-landmining program is funded by the Washington, DC-based Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, he has many contacts in our nation’s capital. Living in Chuck’s neighborhood was the man who pulled Senator John McCain out of a Ha Noi lake in 1967, saving McCain’s life, first from drowning and secondly from a mob intent on killing the stricken US bomber pilot. Mr. Mai Van On was able to meet McCain in 1995 thanks to arrangements made by Chuck, but as he tells it, “Mr. On was never contacted again by McCain on the senator’s many return trips back to Ha Noi. Neither was a letter of condolence ever sent to his family when Mr. On died in 2006.”

Chuck Searcy is waging a valiant fight to deactivate just a fraction of the deadly explosives that hide in Viet Namese soil. With only $200,000 a year, Project Renew is up against more bombs than were dropped in the First and Second World Wars combined (including the explosive power of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Education of farmers and their families is key to preventing more deaths and injuries. Providing artificial limbs and some modest clinics for amputees are all part of Chuck’s dedication.

Lewis Puller, who lost both legs and most of both hands to a landmine, founded the Vietnam Children’s Fund –- a non-profit that has so far built more than 50 schools since its founding in 1995. “In the year before his death,” reads the Fund’s brochure, “Lew Puller returned to Vietnam seeking ideas for the living memorial he and several friends had decided to build to honor the Vietnamese men, women and children who died in that country’s long war.” The Children’s Fund’s goal is to have 58,000 Viet Namese kids in new schools, one child for every American killed whose name is on The Wall.

Sam Russell now heads up the in-country program of the Fund and works pro bono. His small, sunny office overlooking Ha Noi’s lovely West Lake is mostly supported by modest donations from state-side vets, their families and friends. It neither solicits nor accepts funding from any government. Sam is not a veteran, but was touched deeply by the war, as were later generations of Americans. The organization’s brochure does not soften any truths: “300,000 Vietnamese children suffered from war accidents or were orphaned,” it reads, “1,000,000 were disabled and 50,000 still live on the streets.” But the most damning statistic of all from the Children’s Fund is perhaps this one: “300,000 children are still MIA (Missing In Action).” With the number of US soldiers missing no higher than 3,000, can anyone ever look at that American “MIA/POW” flag again in the same way after reading this??

Tom Leckinger was one of the first veterans to return to Viet Nam and Cambodia in the early 1980s. He was appalled by the devastation and human misery he witnessed, and deeply troubled by the fact that the US embargo was the primary cause. Some political analysts are even of the opinion that the 20-year American embargo against Viet Nam (from the end of the war in 1975 until the Clinton administration’s lifting in 1995) was as destructive as the war itself! Certainly tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands continued to die as a result. On Tom’s second mission back to bring medical supplies, he learned that the death at birth of his first son in 1976 was likely related to his own exposure to Agent Orange during his time in the infantry, as the symptoms observed by Viet Namese doctors were identical to those suffered by his infant son. He became a relentless and outspoken advocate for reconciliation, a very unpopular stance in those early days.

After many visits over the decades, Tom finally made it back to South East Asia full time, spending two years running a prosthetics clinic for landmine victims in Cambodia, and then to Viet Nam in 2006, when he was selected to head up the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s efforts to assist some of the hundreds of thousands of disabled –- many with illnesses directly linked to Agent Orange contamination –- with a series of medical and social programs. Used to kill surrounding jungle cover, the AO herbicide contained dioxin – the most toxic substance known to science, and a source of birth defects and numerous illnesses. Millions of gallons of AO were sprayed from 1961 to 1971, 70% of it on southern Viet Nam. But dioxin has a half life of 10 years -– only when exposed to the sun. No one knows how long it will remain buried deep in the soil, water, and fatty tissue of humans and animals.

“It will ‘sear your soul’ to see those Agent Orange kids,” said Tom, over lunch in Ha Noi. A veritable encyclopedia of history about the war and a hub for contacts in Viet Nam, Tom is the ‘go to’ person for anyone wanting to learn about the country, the war’s legacy and present rebuilding programs. He is now the president of the non-profit organization, Vietnam Veterans in Vietnam, many of whose members are also starting the first overseas chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Vet Ken Herrmann lives part-time in central Viet Nam, in the city of Da Nang, and works with the Quang Nam Fund. A SUNY (State University of New York) College at Brockport professor, he helps direct aid to local families with disabled children. Since a blood test to determine possible AO poisoning costs $1,000, it’s difficult to know with certainty which of the disabled children have been specifically harmed by America’s chemical warfare –- either from the damaged DNA of their parents, or even grandparents, or from simply living in an area that was literally saturated with dioxin. What is indisputable is that Da Nang, with its huge deserted American base, is perhaps the most heavily dioxin-contaminated of the many “hot spots” all over central and southern Viet Nam today.

Ken’s SUNY/Brockport connection offers students from any academic major the chance to spend several months in Da Nang volunteering with the Danang/Quang Nam Fund. VAVA, the Viet Namese Association of Victims of Agent Orange, has two day-centers in Da Nang that provide care and educational activities to mentally and physically disabled children and teenagers who cannot attend school, thus giving their parents a chance to work outside the home to support their families. The American students go out once a week to visit families in the rural outskirts of Da Nang, bringing a modest amount of the Fund’s money to help with special-needs kids. They then spend most afternoons with children in the urban centers.

Nothing can prepare one to actually enter a home and sit next to children with AO birth defects, whose twisted arms and legs do not allow them to even sit up, let alone stand –- ever. The mother in one Da Nang family says she has mental problems due to her situation. Small wonder, with a 17-year-old girl and a 15-year-old son, when she will never be free to work outside the home to help her husband support the family, never see her children grow up to run and learn, never see them married, never have grandchildren, never have adult children to care for her when she grows old. Tom Leckinger’s words “sear your soul” could not be more apt.

Kathleen Huff and her veteran husband, who work closely with a Christian-based organization called Partners in Compassion, left Alabama years ago to raise their young children in Viet Nam. Now married young adults, the Huff children speak fluent Viet Namese and help their parents to manage the family business in Da Nang, Pizza Plus Restaurant and Bread of Life Bakery, whose staff are exclusively young deaf Viet Namese. Profits are used to provide job skills education, a staff dormitory, and other deaf training activities.

Veteran George Mizo died of AO/dioxin exposure in 2002, but not before he started the Friendship Village project, an internationally funded residential care and employment center outside Ha Noi for more than 100 AO victims –- aging Viet Namese war veterans and their young afflicted children and grandchildren. In a unique collaboration between American and Viet Namese vets, Mizo actually worked closely with the general who commanded an attack on his battalion during the war. It is in the Friendship Village where Suel Jones, and many other American veterans, volunteered for so many years.

John Berlow never fought in the war, but was kicked out of Harvard in 1969 for resisting it. He too has decided to devote his energies to undo. Gathering donations from his former classmates (he would have been in the class of 1971) and using his own savings, he’s started a tree-planting enterprise called Green Vietnam. Fast-growing fruit and timber trees, for reforestation and income for the local people, are going into the soil on the hillsides of a remote village 5 hours outside of Ha Noi. John’s goal is to plant one tree for every Viet Namese killed in the war -– that’s 4 to 5 million trees, by most estimates.

Of the many US vets who live in-country today, working to undo, most live emotionally healthy, productive lives, but each grapples still with his own demons from the war. The men are highly competent and functional, motivated to give back precisely because of their deep humanity and painful war traumas, but some keep hidden scars which surface in bouts of drinking, failed relationships, and lonely dedication to the Viet Namese people.

“There is no such thing as a good war, nor a bad peace,” said Benjamin Franklin. And many of the 3 million men and women from our country who served during Viet Nam quickly found that this war was not at all like World War II (the “Good War”) of their fathers and uncles. A 1995 Viet Namese estimate of 5 million dead (1 million military and 4 million civilians -– 10% of the war-time population) is a lot of anguish for veterans of conscience to bear. Add to this the hundreds of thousands of other South East Asians (Cambodians and Laotians) who died from US bombing, then all the death and suffering after the end of the war in 1975 from the embargo, the devastation, landmines/unexploded ordinance, AO/dioxin, starvation, disease and destabilization. Finally add the nearly 60,000 American war dead (average age 21), plus the tens of thousands of US vets who have died from service-related causes (illness, suicides, substance abuse, etc.) since the war –- then the burden of sorrow carried by these veterans is truly staggering.

Some vets have found that the land of “the enemy” is the only place where they feel comfortable and ‘at home.’ For many their feelings about America were and still are too conflicted: they could not reintegrate into ‘normal’ society, they were often not listened to, or worse, shunned. Many had to fight all over again to get care for their physical and emotional problems, and still others just withdrew into anger and depression. “Only” an estimated 16% served in actual combat, and the repercussions from their service vary greatly. But for some, plotting targets safely behind the battle lines for the carpet bombing of civilians can be as deeply guilt-inducing as face to face killing. Some vets who have returned have happily married local women and have raised families. Of course there are other US war vets who live in Southeast Asia only for the beautiful women, low prices and cheap beer. However these men do not engender the trust and respect shown to the veterans of conscience.

Unknown to most Americans, more than 300,000 South Koreans fought in Viet Nam as essentially colonial troops for the US. In return, S. Korea benefited greatly from massive infusions of US aid and investment. But Korean soldiers also suffered the consequences of their participation, and have likewise established non-profit projects, development programs and businesses in Viet Nam. A new hospital for Viet Namese AO patients will be completed by S. Korea by the end of 2009. Australia and New Zealand sent a few thousand men to the war effort, as part of an earlier version of “the coalition of the willing.” Citizens, veterans and even the governments of these past war-time US allies feel their share of responsibility to Viet Nam for “the American War.” The US government does not.

The lifting of the punishing 20-year embargo in 1995 was conditioned specifically on Viet Nam’s waiving of any demand for war reparations. Likewise, the US chemical corporations who made the dioxin-laden Agent Orange refuse all responsibility and are today fighting a class-action lawsuit brought against them in 2004 by their victims: Viet Namese, Viet Namese-Americans and US veterans. There are an estimated 3 to 4 million AO victims now living in Viet Nam; many of them are children. Even the South Korean courts have ruled that the major corporations –- Dow and Monsanto -– who manufactured AO are responsible for compensating their victims, including Korean soldiers.

Foreign veterans from before the period of US involvement are also committed to helping Viet Nam rebuild. The Frenchmen who were enlisted right after World War II to recapture their Indochina colonies from Japanese occupation are active in supporting the work of their fellow vets to undo in Viet Nam. Since all colonial wars are unjustifiable, even some French veterans of the Algerian War (of the late ’50s and early ’60s) live in-country to direct relief funds. Some of these French veterans were to be seen at the March, 2008 10th anniversary celebration of the Friendship Village.

There also seems to be a strange, but then again not so strange, brotherhood of nations who were victims of war. It’s well known that the former Soviet Union was a critical ally of the Viet Namese in their war of independence from foreign domination, aiding them during the American War, and later (after 1975) in the face of attacks by Cambodia and China, then literally preventing mass starvation during the US embargo. The vanquished of WW II, Germany and Japan, are today major funders of Viet Nam’s rebuilding. Both these defeated countries benefited greatly from America’s Marshall Plan to rebuild them after 1945. Not so the “victorious” Viet Namese.

Much of American society remains conflicted to this day about this war and its veterans. To say it haunts us is an understatement. Some refuse to condemn the war as a crime, or at the very least a mistake, and still vilify those who served for “losing.” (The first Persian Gulf War was supposed to have dispelled “The Vietnam Syndrome” for any Americans who felt we’d been defeated in the ’70s.) Others feel some compassion for the past, but do not oppose new American military invasions and occupations -– assured that these are “different.” But for still other Americans, the Viet Nam War deeply horrified and radicalized them for life, clarifying an understanding of American Imperialism as no coup or proxy war ever could. Obviously, the way America views our largest war of the past 60 years, determines how it views today’s military aggressions in the name of “Freedom.”

For the men and women who participated directly in the Viet Nam War, only they know their reality. Some, apparently, can truly “put it behind them” and forget, others are crushed by the burden of memory, and still others have grown past guilt and anguish to turn their involvement to a humanitarian healing. For those who have decided to “give back” and “help” their former enemies/victims, each would say that it is they who have received so much more in return.

Related Organizations

Veterans for Peace: http://www.veteransforpeace.org/

Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign: www.vn-agentorange.org

The Friendship Village: www.friendshipvillage.org

Project Renew: www.landmines.org.vn

The Vietnam Children’s Fund: www.vietnamchildren.org

Quang Nam Fund: www.danangquangnamfund.org; www.agentorangechildren.org

Bread of Life Bakery: www.partnersincompassion.org

Green Vietnam: www.greenvietnam.org

Notes

*This is the historically correct spelling of the name of the country, ‘Viet Nam,’ and people, ‘Viet Namese.’ These will be used throughout this article. However, the Westernized versions, ‘Vietnam’ and ‘Vietnamese’ (a creation of US media during the war) are now commonly used in overseas organizational names and will be retained for accuracy.

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