My essay on traveling was published in the online journal The Coven this week. You can read it here.
Tomorrow is the 47th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, in which American soldiers killed 500 unarmed Vietnamese in 1968. Every year at this time, US veteran Mike Boehm plays his violin at My Lai as an offering to the spirits of the dead and for those still living in the area.
While Boehm was not involved in the massacre during the war, he says that My Lai represents the darkness of the whole American conflict in Vietnam. Since 1994, his organization MQI has been providing support to the people of My Lai and Quang Ngai Provence in central Vietnam. In honor of the anniversary, I’m posting a Vietnamese documentary about Boehm and the legacy of the massacre. You can watch the first part above and the rest below.
I was sad to learn that Vietnam War veteran and activist Kenneth Herrmann died recently. Ken was a Social Work professor at SUNY Brockport in New York, but I knew him from his work as the founder of the Da Nang/Quangnam Fund and the Brockport Vietnam program. The program and fund brought university students from the United States to Vietnam for a semester to work with victims of Agent Orange and to learn about Vietnamese culture. Ken believed that by “working alongside our Vietnamese staff in Danang, students act as ambassadors of goodwill, repairing relationships and learning about a nation both villainized and victimized by the American government and media.”
I was able to meet with the fund’s staff and some of the students studying in Vietnam when I was in Da Nang last year. After chatting in their dorm, I went with them to a school for children affected by Agent Orange. The American students spent a couple hours helping the kids with arts and crafts projects and playing with them in the school’s courtyard. The visit ended with a dance party featuring Psy’s 2012 hit “Gangnam Style.”
When I asked American college student Felisa Erway what she knew about Vietnam before she began her study abroad program, she said “not much.” She said that some of her peers at the university warned her not to go, however.
“They said, oh you’re going to get shot,” she recalled. “They’re going to kidnap you. The people are going to see you as the enemy. You know, being suspicious about being an American in Vietnam.” She said that some other university students even told her that Americans had won the war in Vietnam. “A lot of people have false ideas about Vietnam,” she said.
While no one in Felisa’s family served in the Vietnam War, she talked with some veterans her mother knew before coming to Vietnam. She was surprised to learn that some of them actually served in the area she was going to live.
“A couple of my mom’s coworkers did serve in Vietnam and they said they actually were in Da Nang. And they told me it was beautiful. And a lot of veterans that my mom talked to wanted to come back. Or they thought it was really pretty, they wished it was someplace they could see again.”
Felisa said that when she returned to the United States she was going to try to convince some of the veterans and her fellow students to come to Vietnam. She also wants to tell people about the victims of Agent Orange she met in Da Nang and how the war of the 1960s is still affecting people on the ground in Vietnam.
Spreading the word about Agent Orange among young people is one of the fund’s main goals, says the fund’s Vietnamese head Nguyen My Hoa.
“Young americans live in the states and they take everything for granted,” she told me. “When they come here, they see people living in hardship. These are the innocent people. They didn’t do anything to threaten Americans. They didn’t do anything to cause any harm to Americans. But then they have to live the rest of their life with a disability caused by the war. So this is a lesson for the students.”
Hopefully the Da Nang/Quang Nam Fund will survive the loss of Ken Herrmann and continue doing good work in Vietnam. You can learn more about the fund here and read some of the 4,000 letters the fund collected from Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange over the years.
I just finished reading Dana Sach‘s 2000 memoir “The House on Dream Street.” The book looks at Dana’s experience in Vietnam as an American in the early 1990s. While Dana was just a child during the Vietnam War, her curiosity about the people we once called enemies draws her to Vietnam and she spends much time in the book reflecting on the war’s legacies. During her year in Hanoi, she meets many individuals who were affected by the war — North Vietnamese veterans who lost limbs during battle, families whose homes were bombed during American air raids, and even a man who claims to have rescued John McCain after his plane crashed in a Hanoi lake.
Like so many veterans who return to Vietnam, Dana is constantly surprised by how Vietnamese people treat her as an American. Where she expects hate, she finds sympathy and respect. Where she expects conflict, she finds humor and good will.
In the following excerpt, Dana recalls a night out with two Vietnamese friends in Hanoi and how her understanding of Vietnam and the war changed during the time she lived there:
For those of you interested in reading more on Vietnam from Dana Sachs, she’s also published a volume of Vietnamese folktales and a nonfiction book about Operation Babylift and international adoption in Vietnam.
When I was in Hanoi this summer, I visited Friendship Village, a community founded by an American veteran in the early years after the war as a symbol of peace and reconciliation. Thanks to the continuing support of American veterans and their families, the village has since grown into a large residential school and medical center that serves 70 Vietnamese veterans and 120 children affected by Agent Orange.
The village is run by Director Dang Vu Dung, a North Vietnamese Army veteran of the US-Vietnam War. He served in Quang Tri Province starting in 1972 and was tasked with ensuring that the North Vietnamese troops had enough food. After retiring from the military, Dung came to Friendship Village and met American veterans for the first time.
“I discovered that American veterans are very friendly,” he told me when we met. “American veterans and North Vietnamese vets now work well together. We’ve closed the door on the past and opened the door to the future, and we have become friends with each other.”
When I asked Dung if he had any negative feelings toward the American people after the war, he said no.
“During the war, I knew that there were people in the US protesting the war in Vietnam. The US veterans were very young and forced to come to Vietnam by the American government. But they didn’t understand much about Vietnam.”
One of those Americans protesting the war was George Mizo, the American veteran who first conceived of Friendship Village in 1988. George volunteered for the Army at age 17 and became the youngest sergeant in the US military by the time he was 19. He eventually made his way to Vietnam, where he was wounded three times. George became disillusioned with the military’s mission in Vietnam and the Army’s treatment of Vietnamese civilians. After recovering from his battle injuries, George refused to return to Vietnam and was court-martialed. He spent the next two years in a military prison.
But George’s experience in Vietnam was far from over. Thirteen years after the fall of Saigon, he made his way back to Vietnam, determined to make a positive difference there. He said of the trip: “The horrible experiences during the war and the suffering of everybody on all sides inspired me to do something that would be a living symbol of peace, reconciliation and hope.”
After extensive discussions with Vietnamese veterans along with peace activists from France, Germany, Japan and the United States, George’s “living symbol” — Friendship Village — finally opened in 1998.
Sixteen years on, the students and veterans at Friendship Village are thriving. Three students have gone on to college after graduating from the school. Despite the challenges the students face in getting admitted, one student I met told me that he hopes to go to university and become a writer someday. Others will use their new skills to find jobs as hair stylists and artisans in their communities back home.
While George passed away in 2002 from an illness linked to his wartime exposure to Agent Orange, American veterans and their families continue to be involved in the village today. Veterans like Don Blackburn are members of the village’s international board and spend time raising money for the Vietnamese students and veterans who rely on the village for support. Additionally, the village hosts a large roster of international volunteers and interns who do everything from paint murals in the classrooms to teach the students math and photography.
When I met up with Don last summer, he read for me a poem he wrote after visiting Friendship Village for the first time in 2005. “In this village, humanity makes a stand,” the poem goes. “Here, in the eyes of the stricken who survive, / in the hearts of those who work and give, / I see a reason to hope, dream, and live.”
The poem — entitled “For Friendship Village” — can be found in his book “All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace & Reconciliation.” A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Friendship Village.