For my latest article for The Christian Science Monitor, I went to a Black Lives Matter rally and march on Saturday and then a giant conference of police chiefs on Monday. You can read about the competing events here.
My story on Chicago’s crime spike was published today in The Christian Science Monitor. You can read it here.
My latest article in The University of Chicago Magazine is out. It’s a profile of Ryan Lugalia-Hollon and Eddie Bocanegra, the heads of the Chicago YMCA’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Program. They’re doing some incredible work with young people on the South and West sides, including getting war veterans to mentor kids involved with gangs. You can read the article here.
I was on Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview program yesterday for the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. You can hear the interview here. I was joined on air by Dung Nguyen — a South Vietnamese veteran and refugee living in Chicago — and John Riordan — the “Oscar Shindler of the Vietnam War.”
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 just finished reading a fascinating article by Marine Corps veteran Benjamin Busch about his return to Iraq a decade after he served there. Busch first went to Iraq in 2003 to lead a light armored reconnaissance company. He served as provincial military mayor of the desert town Jassan, near the Iranian border, and was part of some early democratic efforts in the region. After leaving Iraq, Busch had a successful career as an actor and writer, penning a memoir about his time as a solider called Dust to Dust in 2012. Throughout his ten year absence, however, he wondered what had happened to Jassan and the people he had come to know there. So in December 2013 he returned to Jassan to find out, a trip that the US State Department emphatically tried to dissuade him from taking.
He told The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry what it was like to go back to Iraq:
It was very interesting, because driving through the country in 2003 I had been way up on top of a light armored reconnaissance vehicle. I kind of had viewed even the road from a position of height. And now I was in the back of a cab. I had lost all of my authority. I had grown a beard and I had gone in disguise as much as I could. I wanted to find out what they thought of me and us. The sad thing about Iraq, of course, is that they kind of have come to a point where the future is an impossible world. No one gets to live there. They’re living day to day. They really feel that as bad as things are right now, it will get worse.
Busch said that by returning to Iraq, “I realized finally my place in history.” I hope that other Iraq War vets will have the same opportunity in the years to come.
With the birth of my daughter at the end of October and the cold weather here in Chicago, I haven’t been getting out of the house much these days. Luckily, I received two books in the mail recently to keep me busy indoors.
The first is by Chicago author and veteran Rory Fanning — “Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.” The book chronicles Rory’s journey by foot across the United States to raise money for the Pat TIllman Foundation and to find peace after fighting in Afghanistan. Rory was so moved by what he saw in Afghanistan that he become a conscientious objector to the war, so his perspective as a returned veteran is particularly unique.
The other book I’m currently reading is also a peace odyssey, but one set in Vietnam. Kent Hinckley’s novel “Hearts, Minds, and Coffee” takes place during the war and follows the story of one American soldier sent to a dangerous Viet Cong stronghold as punishment for his anti-war views. The soldier must “wage peace” with the Vietnamese people in the area in order to survive. Kent was so kind as to inscribe the book he sent to me:
What books are you reading this December? Are there any veteran or Vietnam-centered books you’d recommend?
I was interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune recently for an article about an American veteran who reconnected with his wartime friend when he returned to Vietnam. You can read the article here.
General Mike Neil was just 26 years old when he went to Vietnam as a Marine in 1967, but he became a father figure to the 12-year-old Vietnamese boy he nicknamed “GTO.” After Gen. Neil’s tour was up, he left Vietnam and for years wondered what had happened to his young friend. Finally, in 2009 he returned to Vietnam on a battlefield tour and was able to track down GTO. The two have kept in touch since then and GTO recently visited the United States to see Gen. Neil.
But Neil’s return to Vietnam and his reunion with GTO is about more than a decades-long friendship. As one U-T San Diego reader put it, it was about finding peace after struggling for years with a difficult war.
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.
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.