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.
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.
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 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.
To remember the days of war
We have come to you this afternoon
Our old battlefield still here.
Yet how do we find your graves
Now hidden by 30 years of growth.
In your youth like the leaves so green
Your blood soaks the earth red
For today’s forest to grow.
Words cannot describe how we miss you
Our fingers trace the bark for clues of days past.
We imagine you resting for a thousand peaceful autumns
Feeling the loss of each of you.
We come to rejoin a span of bridge
For the happiness of those living.
On a calm autumn afternoon in Ia Drang
Veterans join hands.
After 30 years we relive that battle
Between two sides of the frontline.
Now we stand at each other’s side
Remembering generals and soldiers of years past
Bring back the months and years of history
Untroubled by ancient rifts
We look together toward the future
Hoping that generations to come will remember.
Our people know love and bravery
We leave old hate for new friendships.
Together we will live in peace
So that this land will remain ever green
Forever in peace and harmony.
– A poem composed by NVA veteran Col.Tran Minh Hao upon meeting American veteran Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore in Vietnam, as translated in We are Soldiers Still
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once the team is ready to destroy the UXO, they move the ordnance from the dump to the center of the demolition site.
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 used to muffle the explosion and prevent debris from flying when the bombs are detonated.
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.
Even from such a distance, however, the demolitions are impressive. When the phosphorous bombs are detonated, they shoot clouds of fire into the sky.
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.”
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.
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 National Veterans Art Museum has posted more photos from my event there earlier this month. Check out the images here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The cement platforms on which the artillery used to stand remains at the base, as do scraps of sandbags from the war.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.