Reader Letters: Joe Sciacca

Reader Letters, Veterans, Vietnam

In the latest installment of Reader Letters, I’d like to introduce you to Vietnam War veteran Joe Sciacca.

If you would like to share your story of the war or returning to Vietnam, send me an e-mail at nissarhee {at} gmail.com.

Joe Sciacca embraces two children he helps in Vietnam. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie site)

Joe Sciacca spends time with children he helps in Vietnam. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie website)

Joe Sciacca is a US Army veteran who served as an orderly in the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang, South Vietnam from March 1968 to April 1969. After returning to the United States and pursuing a career as a roofer on Long Island, Joe made his way back to Vietnam in 1998.

Joe contacted me earlier this summer and sent me a documentary about his charity efforts in Vietnam. The short film is called “We Do What We Can” — a fitting title for his work over the last 15 years to help poor and sick families in the Southeast Asian country.

Joe Sciacca in Vietnam during the war. (Photo from  Ordinary Joe movie site)

Joe Sciacca in Vietnam during the war. (Photo from Ordinary Joe movie website)

Joe first returned to Vietnam in 1998 as a tourist hoping to visit his old hospital. In the film, he describes how that trip led to his humanitarian work:

“[My friend] and I were down here just on vacation. We were going to take a couple of boat rides, but the weather was bad. We went back to the hotel and waiting for us in the hotel was an old nun. I don’t know how she knew we were there, but she knew we were there and she wanted to us to go visit 500 families in Hue — sick, elderly, poor and lepers. I agreed to go to five and we did. And then I came back the next year by myself and we visited 10 more houses. The year after, because of generous donations from back home, we were able to visit 30 homes.”

He now spends a couple months each year in Vietnam handing out donations he has gathered in the United States. Those who donate can ask Joe to give the money to a particular family or someone struggling with the effects of a certain medical issue, like Agent Orange or leprosy. Joe doesn’t run an official nonprofit or charity for his work; instead, he prefers to facilitate person-to-person giving by carrying money from the US to people in Vietnam.

Joe visits a boy in Hue in 2009 who is struggling with the effects of Agent Orange. (Photo from Newsday)

Joe visits a boy in Hue in 2009 who is struggling with the effects of Agent Orange. (Photo from Newsday)

In 2012, Joe told Newsday, “I live in the United States, but I’m alive in Vietnam.” For this reason, Joe says he will continue to travel to Vietnam for as long as he’s able to.

For more on Joe, check out the feature-length documentary “Ordinary Joe.” You can contact him with questions or for more information on donating at ongjon11@yahoo.com.

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.

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.

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.

My Lai: Part 2

Humanitarian, Photograph, Veterans, Vietnam
An MQI-funded well in Nghia Tho village in Quang Ngai Provence, Vietnam. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An MQI-funded well in Nghia Tho village in Quang Ngai Provence, Vietnam. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Nearly fifty years have passed since the My Lai massacre, but many Vietnamese in Quang Ngai Provence are still suspicious of or even hate Americans today. US Army veteran Mike Boehm‘s Madison Quakers, Inc organization is trying to overcome those negative feelings and build friendship and understanding between Americans and Vietnamese in Quang Ngai.

Mike started working in the provence 20 years ago when the Quang Ngai Women’s Union asked for his help in starting a micro-credit loan project. He partnered with English professor Phan Van Do and together they have developed a wide range of humanitarian programs in the provence. Mike estimates that MQI has raised and donated over $1.5 million to projects since the organization began.

When I visited Quang Ngai last month I got to see some of their work, including a series of water wells in Nghia Tho village. The people who live in the village are from the H’re ethnic minority and more than 69% of the population live in dire poverty.

An MQI-funded well in Nghia Tho village in Quang Ngai Provence, Vietnam. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An MQI-funded well in Nghia Tho village in Quang Ngai Provence, Vietnam. The well provides water year around. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Previous attempts by groups to build wells in the area failed because of the hard bedrock, which kept the wells empty during the dry season from May to August.

A woman living in Nghia Tho village in Quang Ngai Provence shows me the water that now flows into her house thanks to the well. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A woman living in Nghia Tho village in Quang Ngai Provence shows me the water that now flows to her house thanks to the well. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Through hard work and persistence, MQI was able to overcome this problem by drilling through nearly 300 feet of granite to reach a constant flow of water. Do says that thanks to the wells, thousands of people now have ready access to clean water.

Children play at a center for victims of Agent Orange run by VAVA in Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Children play at a school for victims of Agent Orange run by VAVA in Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The United States sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides in Quang Ngai during the war, and these chemicals are continuing to affect the people living in the provence today.

MQI is raising money for an outdoor playground for the children at the VAVA center in Quang Ngai. (Photo by NIssa Rhee, June 2014)

MQI is raising money for an outdoor playground for the children at the VAVA school in Quang Ngai. (Photo by NIssa Rhee, June 2014)

I visited a school run by the local branch of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), which MQI has donated to in the past. The school currently has an indoor playground with physical therapy machines, but MQI is trying to raise money to build them an outdoor play area as well.

The MQI-funded My Lai primary school. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The MQI-funded My Lai primary school. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A Vietnamese proverb states: “For a profit in ten years, invest in trees. For a profit on a hundred years, invest in children.” MQI took this to heart when they built the My Lai Grammar School. When MQI first visited the site where the school now stands, it was just an empty field with a few houses. Now, it it home to the most popular primary school in the area. It has three buildings with a total of 16 classrooms. US Army veteran Hugh Thompson — who helped stop the My Lai massacre — donated money so the school could have indoor bathrooms.

The entrance to the My Lai Peace Park in Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The entrance to the My Lai Peace Park in Quang Ngai, with trees planted by US veterans and survivors of the My Lai massacre. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

While there are many war memorials in Vietnam, until recently there have been no places dedicated to peace and healing. MQI worked with the Vietnamese government to build the My Lai Peace Park so that people had a place “to visit and remember the past and hope for the future.”

Mike Boehm along with veterans Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn at the groundbreaking ceremony for the peace park. (Photo courtesy of MQI)

Mike Boehm (2nd from left) with veterans Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn at the groundbreaking ceremony for the peace park. (Photo courtesy of MQI)

Hugh Thompson along with Larry Colburn — a member of Thompson’s helicopter crew who intervened in the My Lai massacre and helped save civilians — attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the peace park. Along with some of the Vietnamese survivors of the massacre, the veterans planted the trees that line the road to the peace park.

Mike Boehm with a family in Tinh Giang commune, Quang Ngai. MQI is working on getting this family a compassion house. (Photo courtesy of Phan Van Do)

Mike Boehm with a family in Tinh Giang commune, Quang Ngai. MQI is working on getting this family a compassion house. (Photo courtesy of Phan Van Do)

One of MQI’s biggest projects has been building “compassion houses” for very poor families in Quang Ngai. These simple cement houses often replace ramshackle structures, which would fall apart during typhoon season.

I sit with the same family inside of their home in Tinh Giang commune, Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

I sit with the same family in their home in Tinh Giang commune, Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

I visited one family who is in need of a compassion house in Tinh Giang commune. The head of the family is a single mother and she told me that she’s worried that her house might collapse and hurt her two children. MQI is now working with her and they hope to build her a new, safer house soon.

A family shows me their old house in Tinh Giang commune, Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A family shows me their old house in Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The difference between an old house and a new compassion house is stark.

The same family with their new house in Tinh Giang commune, Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The same family with their new house in Quang Ngai. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Where wooden planks and corrugated metal once provided shelter, new homes have cement walls with separate rooms, glass windows, and metal doors.

A woman feeds her water buffalo, which she was able to purchase through a microloan from MQI. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A woman feeds her water buffalos, which she was able to purchase through a micro-credit loan from MQI. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

MQI still works closely with the Quang Ngai Women’s Union, who help Mike and Do identify families in need. I visited one family identified by the Women’s Union that was able to purchase a female water buffalo through a micro-credit loan from MQI. The buffalo has given birth to a calf and is pregnant once again. The family told me that if they sold the buffalos today, they could get $1,500 for the mother and $700 or $800 for the calf. The is a substantial amount of money for the family and will make a major difference in their lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mike and Do’s work in Quang Ngai, please visit their website. There, you’ll be able to watch the award-winning documentary The Sound of the Violin in My Lai, which features Mike, and learn how to donate to their projects.

My Lai: Part 1

Photograph, Veterans, Vietnam

Note: This post contains some graphic descriptions and artist renditions of the My Lai massacre.

The biggest memorial sculpture at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The biggest memorial sculpture at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

While in Vietnam, I visited the My Lai massacre site in Quang Ngai Provence, central Vietnam. The site is now home to a large complex of gardens, sculptures, graves, remnants of homes, and a museum.

Along with the Tet Offensive and battles at Khe Sanh and Ia Drang, the My Lai massacre is one of the most well-known events of the Vietnam War. On March 16, 1968, a task force of the Americal Division of the US Army marched into Son My Village and killed between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians.

Much of what we know about the massacre today comes from helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson who, along with his crew, tried to stop the killing and saved the lives of at least 10 civilians. While Thompson reported the massacre to the US military, it wasn’t until November 1969 that the American public learned about the atrocity through the reporting of Seymour Hersh. The village was marked as My Lai on US military maps, so the atrocity became known as the My Lai massacre.

In their excellent investigation Four Hours in My Lai, writers Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim describe the importance of the My Lai massacre as such:

The massacre at My Lai and its subsequent coverup stand in the history of the Vietnam War at the point where deception and self-deception converge. If the Tet Offensive of 1968 had mocked America’s complacent expectation of an imminent victory, My Lai’s exposure late in 1969 poisoned the idea that the war was a moral enterprise. The implications were too clear to escape. The parallels with other famous massacres were too telling and too painful. My Lai had been on the same scale as the World War II atrocities at Oradour in France, and Lidice in Czechoslovakia, outrages which had helped diabolize the Nazis. Reports now suggested that, if anything, the behavior of the American troops had been even worse. Americans, who at Nuremberg had played a great part in creating the judicial machinery which had brough the Nazi monsters to book, now had to deal with a monstrosity of their own making. (1992, pg 23)

 

A detail from a mosaic at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A detail from a mosaic at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The different manner in which Americans viewed the World War II and Vietnam “monstrosities” was apparent in the months following Seymour Hersh’s articles. While the media focused on the “very normal young men”  — average age 20 — who had been transformed into heartless killers by the war, not much attention was given to the Vietnamese killed in the massacre. As journalist Jonathan Schell explained in the The New Yorker in December 20, 1969:

When others committed them, we looked on the atrocities through the eyes of the victims. Now we find ourselves, almost against our will, looking through the eyes of the perpetrators.

 

Today, the My Lai site in Quang Ngai looks at the massacre through the eyes of its victims. Walking past the foundations of homes and the famous ditch from Ron Haeberle’s photograph, you can almost imagine what the village looked like immediately before the massacre took place.

The ditch from Ron Haeberle's famous My Lai photograph. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The ditch from Ron Haeberle’s famous My Lai photograph. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The foundation of a house owned by Mrs Truoung Thi Le that was destroyed in the massacre. Three of her family members were killed in the massacre, ages 8, 17 and 64. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The foundation of a house owned by Mrs Truoung Thi Le that was destroyed in the massacre. Three of her family members were killed in the massacre, ages 8, 17 and 64. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An example of the kind of houses which used to fill My   Lai village. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An example of the kind of houses which used to fill Son My village. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A museum at the site showcases some of the belongings of the villagers who died and dramatic dioramas of the massacre. The Vietnamese claim that 504 civilians were killed (the US Army says 347), and a marble plaque near the museum’s entrance lists each and every victim’s name, age, and gender.

A memorial plaque in the My Lai museum lists the names of those killed in the massacre. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A memorial plaque in the My Lai museum lists the names of those killed in the massacre. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A life-size model of the My Lai massacre at the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A life-size model of the My Lai massacre at the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A sweater owned by one of the massacred children that was recovered from the My Lai massacre site is displayed in the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A sweater owned by one of the massacred children that was recovered from the My Lai massacre site is displayed in the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The My Lai site is not solely focused on the past, however. Outside the museum sits a large bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Boehm. The tree hints at the recent work of Boehm and his organization MQI to improve the lives of Vietnamese living near My Lai and to build friendships between Americans and Vietnamese 46 years on.

A Bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Bohem sits at the entrance of the My Lai massacre museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A Bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Bohem sits at the entrance of the My Lai massacre museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Later this week, I’ll describe some of MQI’s projects in Quang Ngai, including building water wells, “compassion” houses, a school, and a peace park.