The DMZ: Part Two

Humanitarian, Photograph, Veterans, Vietnam
An exhibit of unexploded ordnance in the parking lot of Huu Nghi Hotel, where I was staying in Dong Ha. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An exhibit of unexploded ordnance in the parking lot of Huu Nghi Hotel, where I stayed in Dong Ha. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

After visiting the former demilitarized zone in Vietnam in June, I spent some time with the staff of Project RENEW in Quang Tri Province. RENEW — which stands for Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of the War — was co-founded by US Army veteran Chuck Searcy and works today on the issue of unexploded bombs in the region just south of the DMZ.

Due to heavy fighting in the area during the war, Quang Tri is the province most affected by unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Vietnam today. Project RENEW believes that 60 to 65% of the province’s land is contaminated with UXO. These bombs, which failed to explode when they were first dropped in the ’60s and ’70s, have become de facto land mines and can be incredibly dangerous when discovered.

The US military estimates that 10 percent of the bombs they dropped during the war failed to detonate. Considering that the US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than what was dropped on Japan and Germany combined during WWII — the explosive equivalent of 450 Hiroshima-size atom bombs — this is no small number.

A discarded UXO is used as a flower pot in the garden outside of the Project Renew office. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

A discarded UXO is used as a flower pot in the garden outside of Project RENEW’s office. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

With support from Norwegian People’s Aid, Project RENEW is working to make Quang Tri Province safe by educating the public about the dangers of UXO and systematically finding and destroying ordnance.

To understand more about their work in Quang Tri, I met Nguyen Thanh Phu at the organization’s Mine Action Visitor’s Center in Dong Ha. RENEW opened the center in August 2011 and offers school groups, tourists and visiting dignitaries educational tours on UXO.

Project Renew's Nguyen Thanh Phu shows me the remnants of a cluster bomblet. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Project RENEW’s Nguyen Thanh Phu shows me the remnants of a cluster bomblet. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The center showcases a wide variety of unexploded bombs, including the dangerous bomblets that are packed into cluster munitions. Phu told me that cluster munitions and M79 40 mm rifle grenades cause 45% of the injuries and deaths in Quang Tri today. Both the bomblets and grenades are small and can look like toys to any children who find them.

A child's drawing shows the discovery of UXO in a field. Students who come to Project Renew's Visitor Center are asked to draw something that they learned on their field trip. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A child’s drawing shows the discovery of UXO in a field. Students who come to Project RENEW’s Visitor’s Center are asked to draw something that they learned on their field trip. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The Vietnamese students who visit the center learn how to identify unexploded ordnance and what to do if they find any wartime bombs. The education program seems to be working: RENEW runs a hotline for reporting discoveries of UXO and has seen calls substantially increase in recent years.

A diorama at the Project Renew Visitor Center shows how UXO is cleared near people's homes. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A diorama at the Project RENEW Visitor’s Center shows how UXO is cleared near people’s homes. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Visitors to the center also learn about RENEW’s bomb disposal work, which is led by their explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams. When a piece of UXO is discovered, one of the teams is dispatched to the area to assess whether the ordnance can be safely removed. If they decide it is too dangerous to touch, the team will destroy the ordnance on site, as depicted in the diorama above. If it appears relatively stable, however, the team will move the ordnance to their central demolition site where it will be destroyed at a later date.

Old and new prostheses are displayed at the Project Renew Visitor Center. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Old and new prostheses are displayed at the Project RENEW Visitor’s Center. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Since it was founded in 2001, RENEW has also worked with the survivors of bomb explosions to regain their mobility and financial independence. RENEW provides survivors with 2,000 to 3,000 prostheses each year. The organization also started a mushroom farming program that gives survivors the equipment and skills necessary to grow mushrooms at their homes. The mushrooms are later sold at market.

Project Renew's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team Leader Mai Van Viet shows me a map of the detonation site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

Project RENEW’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team Leader Mai Van Viet shows me a map of the central demolition site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

After visiting the Mine Action center, I went with Phu to RENEW’s central demolition site to see the work of an EOD team first hand. Last year, RENEW’s EOD teams safely removed and destroyed 2,882 UXO in Quang Tri and cleared ordnance from 133 acres of land.

At the site, team leader Mai Van Viet showed me the many precautions the team takes before a demolition. All visitors must sign in when they enter the site and provide the team medic with their contact information and blood type. An emergency response vehicle is on hand in case there are any problems. And all cell phones must be put in airplane mode in case the cell signal accidentally triggers one of the old bombs.

Viet shows me the dump where they store conventional UXO before they destroy it. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Viet shows me the dump where they store conventional UXO before they destroy it. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

All ordnance brought to the site is stored in a dump until they are ready to be destroyed. Conventional UXO are stored in a dry dump, while phosphorous bombs are stored underwater to prevent any accidental explosions.

Phosphorous bombs must be stored in a special water-filled dump to prevent them from exploding. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

Phosphorous bombs must be stored in a special water-filled dump to prevent them from exploding. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

Once the team is ready to destroy the UXO, they move the ordnance from the dump to the center of the demolition site.

When an EOD team is ready to destroy ordnance, they move the bombs to a special sand-filled staging area. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

When an EOD team is ready to destroy ordnance, they move the bombs to a special sand-filled staging area. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Multiple bombs are destroyed at once. On the day I visited, the team was detonating several naval artillery shells and white phosphorous bombs (like napalm) — all of which were launched by Americans during the war.

Sandbags are then placed on top of the UXO to prevent debris from flying when they are detonated. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Sandbags are then placed on top of the UXO to prevent debris from flying when they are detonated. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Sandbags are used to muffle the explosion and prevent debris from flying when the bombs are detonated.

Finally, the EOD team lays down the explosives that will destroy the ordnance. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Finally, the EOD team lays down the explosives that will destroy the ordnance. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

While I was there, the EOD team set up two detonations — one for conventional bombs and one for phosphorous bombs. The phosphorous bombs in particular require a lot of high explosives, since the teams must destroy both the bomb’s casing and booster.

Once the explosives have been laid, everyone moves to the set watch posts which are 500 meters away (1/3 mile) away from the planned demolitions.

The detonation of the phosphorous bombs releases a cloud of dust and fire. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The detonation of the phosphorous bombs releases a cloud of dust and fire. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Even from such a distance, however, the demolitions are impressive. When the phosphorous bombs are detonated, they shoot clouds of fire into the sky.

The EOD team and I stand behind the crater that formed from one of the detonations. (Photo by Nguyen Thanh Phu, June 2014)

The EOD team and I stand behind the crater that formed from one of the detonations. (Photo by Nguyen Thanh Phu, June 2014)

After the demolitions, we wait for the all clear before moving to the center of the site. In the distance, I can hear the booms of other explosions. RENEW’s Colonel Bui Trong Hong tells me that it’s the Vietnamese military practicing nearby at one of their bases. With the recent fracas between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea (or as the Vietnamese call it, the East Sea), the military is preparing for the possibility of an armed conflict.

“The Vietnamese are peace lovers, but we are always ready to fight,” Hong says with a grin.

Hong is the most experienced deminer at the site today — he is certified to level 3 in the International Mine Action Standards and replaced RENEW’s international technical advisor. He is also a veteran of the Vietnamese military and fought with the North Vietnamese military near the DMZ during the war.

When Saigon fell in 1975, Hong was one of thousands of people recruited to clear land mines and bombs from much-needed farmland. Their methods were primitive by today’s standards: often they would just stand in a line and use long bamboo poles to poke the land in front of them to find ordnance.

The difference between those early efforts at clearance and the work at Project RENEW is stark, with everything from the technology to the people involved changing.

“Today at Project Renew, we have North Vietnamese veterans working alongside the children of Viet Cong vets – like myself – and an American veteran,” RENEW’s Phu tells me. “All of us are working together.”

Do Thien Dang and I pose in his front yard. Do lost both of his legs when he stepped on a landmine in 1980. (June 2014)

Do Thien Dang and I pose in his front yard. Do lost both of his legs when he stepped on a land mine in 1980. On the left is one of the bamboo stands he built for floral arrangements. (June 2014)

After the demolitions, I go with Phu and Hong to visit a UXO victim who was one of the first people to receive help from Project RENEW. Do Thien Dang lost both his legs when he stepped on a land mine in 1980 while gathering thatch in a field. Dang says that he was traumatized by the accident, which occurred when he was just 20 years old, and it took him a full three years to recover. He eventually got married and got a job selling lottery tickets on the street, but it was difficult work because he had to travel everyday.

Then, in 2003, RENEW gave him a “hanging house” to grow mushrooms on his property. The house has given him some financial independence and he can now work from home. RENEW has provided 194 families with hanging houses since they began their mushroom farming program.

Last year, Dang was able to bring in 5 million dong ($236) from his mushroom-growing business. In the dry season — when growing mushrooms is not possible — Dang builds bamboo stands for floral arrangements, which he sells at $1 a piece to local florists.

Do Thien Dang's hanging house, where he grows mushrooms during the wet season. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Do Thien Dang’s hanging house, where he grows mushrooms during the wet season. It was the dry season when I visited, so Dang was storing his bamboo stands there are the moment. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

When I ask Dang if he remembers meeting US veteran and RENEW cofounder Chuck Searcy, he smiles and nods.

“I really appreciate and am thankful for what Chuck as a vet has been doing here for our country and especially Quang Tri,” Dang says. “Chuck brings support for me and for others who are very much in need in Vietnam.”

The DMZ: Part One

Photograph, Veterans, Vietnam, War sites
A map of the former DMZ, which separated North and South Vietnam.

A map of the former DMZ, which separated North and South Vietnam.

When I was in Vietnam in June I visited the former demilitarized zone, which once separated North from South Vietnam. The DMZ would have turned 60 this year with the anniversary of the 1954 Geneva Agreement, which divided Vietnam into two states and laid the groundwork for the Vietnam War.

During the war, the region saw fierce fighting including the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. By the time Saigon fell in 1975, only 11 out of the 3,500 villages in Quang Tri Provence south of the DMZ remained intact.

Today, monuments, museums, and rubber plantations have sprouted in the former battlefields. In order to get a better sense of what the DMZ was once like, I hired a tour guide to take me the length of the zone — from Dong Ha in the east to the Laotian border in the west. My guide, Tran Hoa, was a veteran himself. He was conscripted into the South Vietnamese military and served there from 1974 to 1975.

Over 12,000 North Vietnamese fighters are buried at the Route 9 National Cemetery. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Over 12,000 North Vietnamese fighters are buried at the Route 9 National Cemetery. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Our first stop was the Route 9 National Cemetery, which houses the remains of over 12,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters. Many of these fighters died while traveling down the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, the clandestine network of roads used by the North to infiltrate the south.

Tran Hoa, my guide, shows me one of the hundreds of graves for unknown soldiers at the Route 9 Cemetery. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Tran Hoa, my guide, shows me one of the hundreds of graves for unknown soldiers at the Route 9 Cemetery. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

There are 72 war cemeteries in Quang Tri Provence alone and many of the bodies buried there have yet to be identified. Since the fighters died far from home, there often wasn’t family members or friends around to claim the dead. Hoa told me that some families have now decided to use DNA analysis to find their deceased relatives. Others resort to more ancient techniques and consult psychics to tell them where their family members are buried.

A monument marks the entrance to Camp Carroll, a Marine Corps artillery base. (Photo by NIssa Rhee, June 2014)

A monument marks the entrance to Camp Carroll, a Marine Corps artillery base. (Photo by Tran Hoa, June 2014)

West of the cemetery lies the remains of Camp Carroll. The US Marine Corps used the camp as an artillery base during the war since it had a clear view of the nearby hills and valleys. Today, however, you can’t see much from the camp — trees from a rubber plantation obscure the view.

Toady, the only remnants of Camp Carroll are some scraps of sandbags. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Some scraps of sandbags near the cement platforms that used to hold large artillery. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The cement platforms on which the artillery used to stand remains at the base, as do scraps of sandbags from the war.

The Rockpile, an important US military outpost used between 1966 and 1968. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The Rockpile, an important US military outpost used between 1966 and 1968. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Further west along Highway 9 is The Rockpile, also known as Thon Khe Tri. The Army and Marines used it as an observation post during the war. Because of its steep sides, the only way on or off The Rockpile was by helicopter.

During the war, Viet Cong forces had to ford the Han River as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

During the war, Viet Cong forces had to ford the Han River as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The Han River travels from the South China Sea westward along Highway 9. During the war, North Vietnamese forces had to ford the river in order to continue southward on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Hoa Tran, my guide, shows me the Dakrong Bridge that   crosses the Han River. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Hoa shows me the Dakrong Bridge that crosses the Han and Dakrong rivers. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Today, however, the Dakrong Bridge makes crossing the river easy. Cuba initally funded the building of the bridge in support of North Vietnam’s war efforts.

An ethnic minority village in the valley near the former Khe Sanh combat base. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An ethnic minority village in the valley near the former Khe Sanh combat base. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Before the war, the region south of the DMZ was home to abundant wildlife and natural forests, as well as a strong ethnic minority population who built their homes on stilts to protect against tiger attacks. The fighting during the war, however, killed or scared off the native tiger population and the environment was further decimated by the use of defoliants like Agent Orange.

The forests are now growing back — though they are not nearly as lush as they once were — and ethnic minorities have returned to their traditional homes. Hoa tells me that the village in the valley near Khe Sanh got electricity only three years ago.

The Khe Sanh Combat Base museum and an American helicopter brought in for curious visitors. (Photo by NIssa Rhee, June 2014)

The Khe Sanh Combat Base museum and an American helicopter brought in for curious visitors. (Photo by NIssa Rhee, June 2014)

Near the western edge of the DMZ are the remnants of Khe Sanh Combat Base, a Marine Corps outpost. After the brutal 1968 battle here, in which North Vietnamese troops surrounded the base for 77 days, the US abandoned Khe Sanh and destroyed or removed all of their equipment and buildings.

When American veterans started to return to Vietnam in the 1990s and asked to visit Khe Sanh, the Vietnamese government realized the value of the old base. They transformed the abandoned piece of land into a tourist destination, building a museum and bringing in old American tanks and helicopters.

A diorama at the Khe Sanh combat base museum shows how Viet Cong forces traveled along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

A diorama at the Khe Sanh combat base museum shows how Viet Cong forces traveled along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014).

Veterans who visit the base might be disappointed to learn that the museum is filled mostly with propaganda; one photo from the 1968 battle is captioned “US marines shutting themselves in bunkers for fear of their own shadows.” Like at so many war museums in Vietnam, it’s clear here that history is written by the victors.

Hoa tells me that he’s taken many American veterans to the former DMZ since he became a guide in 1992. He says that he was surprised at just how emotional a journey it is for some former soldiers.

“Many Americans are scared of the Vietnamese people,” Hoa explains. “But when they come here, they find out that the Vietnamese are friendly. When they learn how much the Vietnamese suffered during the war, they often apologize for the war. But I think that’s just war. People suffered in World War I and II and in Korea and Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“We have had too many wars with too many countries,” he continues. “Before the US, we fought France, and before them, we fought the Japanese, Chinese and Mongolians. And it wasn’t just the US who participated in the 1965-1975 war, there were also the Australians and South Koreans. So we think the US war is just one small war and that the US is just one of the many countries we have fought.”

An American tank brought in by the Vietnamese government sits on the former Khe Sanh combat base. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An American tank brought in by the Vietnamese government sits on the former Khe Sanh combat base. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Across the street from the former Marine base, is one of Khe Sanh’s many coffee farms. The arabica beans grown in the region have transformed the former conflict zone into a booming coffee town. Still, the war is never far from the farmers’ minds. Just this April, a coffee farmer lost both his hands when he found a leftover bomb from the war and it exploded at his touch.

In my next blog post on the DMZ, I’ll look at one of the organizations in Quang Tri addressing the issue of unexploded bombs and landmines today. Project RENEW was cofounded by American veteran Chuck Searcy and is a great example of how former enemies are working together on a deadly legacy of the Vietnam War.

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.

Chicago Public Radio interview

Poetry, Press Coverage, Vietnam

WBEZ screenshot

I was on Chicago Public Radio’s “Worldview” program this past Friday to discuss my research on veterans. American veteran Don Blackburn joined me on air to talk about his own experiences returning to Vietnam and to read some of his poetry. You can listen to and download the audio from the show here.

Stay tuned: Interview on WBEZ Friday

Press Coverage, Veterans, Vietnam

avatars-000089598312-m76e4e-t500x500

 

I’ll be interviewed on Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview program on Friday about my research on American veterans in Vietnam. You can listen live to the program at noon CST on 91.5 FM if you’re in Chicago or on their website: wbez.org.

In keeping with the Vietnam War theme, Worldview did an interesting segment yesterday with the authors of Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American bombs in Laos. Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern described how bombs dropped during the United States’ covert air campaign in Laos during the war are still killing and maiming people in today. You can listen to their interview here.

Painful Past, Promising Future

FIlm, Veterans, Vietnam

Life Reimagined has produced a nice, short video about three American veterans living in Vietnam today. If you’ve been following this blog or reading my magazine articles, you will probably recognize their names. You can read more about Chuck Searcy and Chuck Palazzo’s work in Vietnam here and here.

Vets working together in Israel/Palestine

News, Veterans, Vietnam

In this blog and the book I’m working on I look at how veterans from both sides of the war in Vietnam have come together to work for peace. These Americans and Vietnamese who once tried to kill each other are now working hard to address the legacies of the war, like unexploded bombs, Agent Orange, and PTSD. Their transformation from soldiers to peacebuilders is a glimmer of hope in this world where war often looks more like the norm rather than the exception.

Recent days have brought increased fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. What began as revenge killings over the deaths of children on both sides has quickly escalated to an all-out war. Yet, even in this dark time there are groups of Israelis and Palestinians working hard for peace.

One of these groups is Combatants for Peace, which brings together former soldiers and combatants from both sides to encourage reconciliation and understanding. You can learn about their programs in the video above. In recent days, they’ve been holding demonstrations against the violence and talking to the press about how the conflict hurts both Israelis and Palestinians. As with Vietnam, the vets in Israel/Palestine are proving that former combatants can play an important role in ending cycles of violence.

Event at National Veterans Art Museum on Aug 2

Vietnam

FINAL poster for NVAM eventThe National Veterans Art Museum has invited me to speak about the return of veterans to Vietnam on Saturday, August 2. If you’re in Chicago, I hope to see you there!

Also, if you missed it … Narratively featured my profile of Don Blackburn — the vet who will be joining me at NVAM — on their Facebook page yesterday for Throwback Thursday. You can read my piece here.