Speaking at the National Veterans Art Museum

Art, Talks, Veterans, Vietnam
I tell the story of one veteran who has returned in my talk at the National Veteran Art Museum on August 2. (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Me telling the story of one veteran who has returned to Vietnam in my talk at the National Veterans Art Museum on August 2. (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Vietnam War veteran Don Blackburn reads from his book of poetry "All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace and Reconciliation." (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Vietnam War veteran Don Blackburn reads from his book of poetry “All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace and Reconciliation.” (Photo by Mike Rhee)

We had a great turnout for “Back to the Battlefield” at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago on Saturday. I opened the event with a presentation about the Vietnam War veterans who are living in Vietnam today and talked a little about the impact of unexploded ordnance on the country. Then, veteran Don Blackburn spoke about his life in Nha Trang, Vietnam and read selections from his books of poetry and essays.

The audience was enthusiastic and asked some great questions about the impact of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance on Vietnamese people and how returning to Vietnam affects a veteran’s mental health.

Speaking at Quest Academy on Veteran’s Day

Chicago, Talks, USA, Veterans, Vietnam

Photo taken by Sharon Rockhill (Quest Academy)

On Veteran’s Day, I spoke to the middle schoolers at Quest Academy in Palatine, Illinois about my research on veterans and peace. It was great to be back at my alma mater and spend time with the 80 or so students. Despite the snowstorm happening outside, the students were really engaged and had some interesting questions about the work being done in Vietnam, particularly with the remediation of the Da Nang Airport.

I was pleased to find out that the students already knew a little about the Vietnam War, since it’s so rarely taught in schools these days. Young people’s lack of knowledge about the war and its consequences is one of the reasons I decided to write this book. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Already, we are seeing the effects of this amnesia. Gallup has found that young people are the only group of Americans today that think fighting in Vietnam was not a mistake. I am hopeful, however, that young people like myself can help teach the past to those to young to have lived it.

Shadows of Vietnam in the suburbs

Art, Chicago, PTSD, Rotary, Talks, USA, Vietnam
Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

I visited Palatine, Illinois today to speak to the local Rotary club about my research on Vietnam veterans. After the talk, one of the club members told me about a man in his woodworking group who was greatly affected by the US-Vietnam War.

Binh Pho is a Vietnamese artist who was imprisoned in a re-education camp for refusing to accept the Communist government after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He spent a year in the camp, as he writes, “to supposedly get my brain-washed.” After four failed attempts to escape Vietnam, he and 38 other “boat people” made it to Malaysia on September 29, 1978. It wasn’t until another eight months that he was reunited with his family, who had successfully escaped Vietnam and were living in the United States.

Binh Pho now lives in Maple Park, 60 miles west of Chicago, where he creates wooden sculptures and furniture. His artwork is heavily influenced by his experiences in Vietnam and as a refugee. In one piece the Rotarian told me about, Binh Pho recreates the view he saw from his prison cell to the outside world. Four seasons pass; the weather changes, but the landscape stays the same. The artist writes:

There was a period of time that I looked through the window and asked myself the question,”What is it like on the other side of that window?” I then just let my imagination go.

The shadows of the Vietnam War stretch far. They reach well beyond the families suffering from dioxin poisoning in Vietnam to the shores of this country and into its quietest of suburbs.

An investigation conducted by the Orange County Register found that 1 million people were imprisoned without formal trials after the fall of Saigon, with one in three South Vietnamese families having a relative in a re-education camp. The US State Department reports that 34,641 former prisoners found a new home in America after leaving the camps. Others were not so lucky. Studies have estimated that 165,000 people died in the camps.

Speaking at Veterans for Peace Convention in Madison, Wisconsin

Talks, Veterans, Vietnam
Nissa with veterans Mike Kerber and Don Blackburn

Nissa with veterans Mike Kerber and Don Blackburn


The convention program’s description of our session.

Convention t-shirt and name badge

Convention t-shirt and name badge

I was selected to speak at the 28th annual Veterans for Peace convention held in Madison last week. The convention brought together veterans and their allies from across the US, UK and Vietnam who are working toward peace. I was honored to be part of the convention and to share the stories of some of the American veterans working in Vietnam.

While I was in Madison, I interviewed four more veterans who have returned to Vietnam. One of them was Mike Kerber, who recently visited Vietnam on a peace tour arranged by VFP. Mike and I spoke in the session called “Veterans Building Peace in Vietnam.”

I also got to interview Don Blackburn, a Vietnam-based writer who’ve I’ve long admired for his book of poetry “All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace and Reconciliation.” Don just came out with a second book, “Into the Heart,” which he dedicates to Giang and Huong — the “spirit sisters.” Don met the girls at Friendship Village in Hanoi, where they were receiving help for their dioxin-related health problems. Huong succumbed to those health issues last year and is survived by her sister Giang.

Don is working alongside other veterans in Vietnam and the US to bring assistance to victims of Agent Orange like the spirit sisters. That work includes campaigning for the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2013 (HR2519) which was introduced in the House of Representatives by Barbara Lee in June.

Founded in 1985 by 10 American veterans, Veterans for Peace has over 140 chapters with a total of 4,000 members. The organization’s mission is to build a culture of peace and seek justice for victims and veterans of wars.

Speaking at Runcorn Heights State School in Runcorn Heights, QLD

Australia, Talks

kids at school

For the second year in a row, I visited the Year 6s at Runcorn Heights State School to talk about peace and conflict resolution. After telling them about my experience as a rape crisis counselor in Chicago and a journalist in the US and South Korea, we brainstormed ways that they could build peace in their homes and school. It was such a joy to hear their positivity and creativity when it comes to transforming conflicts.

Speaking at Rotary Foundation Dinner in Cleveland, QLD

Australia, Rotary, Talks, Veterans, Vietnam

Foundation Dinner 1 Foundation Dinner 2I was invited to speak at a dinner for 95 people near Moreton Bay to raise money for the Rotary Foundation. The foundation supports Rotary’s international aid work and education grants for programs like the Rotary Peace Fellowship. In addition to talking about the Peace Fellows program, I spoke about my research on American veterans who are building peace in Vietnam.

Speaking at Peace Fellows Seminar in St Lucia, QLD

Australia, Talks, Veterans, Vietnam

P1010680 P1010683


The graduating fellows at the University of Queensland presented their research on peace and conflict resolution on April 20 at the annual Rotary Peace Fellows Seminar. Attended by over 150 students, professors and Rotarians, the seminar highlighted the work done by the peace fellows over the past year and a half.

I spoke during the seminar’s session on Asia about the efforts of American veterans to address the legacies of the war in Vietnam. My presentation was based on the research I did in Vietnam over the summer break (November to January), which was supported largely by the fellowship’s “applied field experience” funding. While I interviewed over a dozen American veterans in Vietnam, during the session I only had time to share the stories of two of the men, who as it happens, are both named Chuck.

Chuck Searcy was an intelligence officer in Saigon during the war and was one of the first veterans to return to Vietnam after normalization. He has spent the last two decades living in Hanoi, working on everything from landmines to diplomacy.

Chuck Palazzo was a Marine based in Da Nang during the war, where he witnessed American troops spraying Agent Orange and other “rainbow” herbicides. At the time, his superiors told him that the chemicals were harmless, and it wasn’t until years later that he learned what damage they could cause. He became an anti-Agent Orange activist and in 2008 moved back to Vietnam to better assist the 4.8 million Vietnamese that the Hanoi government estimates were exposed to dioxin.

I am now writing a nonfiction book based on the stories of hope and reconciliation I have gathered from veterans like Chuck Searcy and Chuck Palazzo. I hope to share more of their stories on this website in the coming months as I sort through my research and get deeper into the writing process.