This is Vietnam as seen through the lens of five American ex-soldiers: They returned to their former battlefield, where three saw fierce fighting, to live full time among and to aid the people burdened by two terrible legacies of that war. These tragedies are the thousands of children and farmers who still are blown up or injured by bombs dropped half a century ago that didn’t explode back then. And the chillingly large number of children and adults who suffer from the effects of the world’s most poisonous defoliant, Agent Orange; today fourth-generation children continue to be born with twisted and useless limbs.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Throughout Vietnam today, this band of brothers in peace, travel and work tirelessly to help these victims of a war long past. The group includes a poet, a psychiatric social worker, a former aide to a United States senator, a former cop and a long ago gang member who found peace and purpose back here, in Vietnam.
They came here as innocent young soldiers but returned to the United States shattered. They never unpacked their pain, anger, sorrow, sense of betrayal, guilt and disillusionment about what had been done to the people of Vietnam. They returned, burdened with memories and driven by a mission. They live from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and points in between — Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, Nha Trang.
Whitewashing a War
Not only are they fighting for the lives of modern-day Vietnamese victims of that old war, they are — like fellow members of the 3,300 Veterans for Peace (VFP) around the world and a large contingent of distinguished Vietnam scholars, historians and peace activists — outraged at the whitewashing they see in a mammoth Department of Defense 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War that will soon saturate the media and the public.
The Pentagon material, which will be disseminated to schools and the public, even includes the ancient lie about the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” which pushed the United States into full-scale war in 1964. The Department of Defense Commemorative website states that the Gulf of Tonkin incident began with “The U.S. response to the North Vietnamese attack on USS Maddox (DD 731) in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. [This] marked the beginning of the Navy’s air and surface bombardment against North Vietnam.”
However, for decades it has been known that the North Vietnamese attack never happened; this false allegation incited Congress to give the green light to go to war. As one retired Capt. Carl Otis Schuster, U.S. Navy (ret) wrote “the string of intelligence mistakes, mistranslations, misinterpretations and faulty decision-making that occurred in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964 reveals how easily analysts and officials can jump to the wrong conclusions and lead a nation into war.”
“We will not leave it to the government and war hawks to tell a one-sided tale of guts and glory,” blasts the VFP organization in its Full Disclosure Campaign. After protests in January, commemoration officials said they were backing off disseminating educational materials or curricula containing solely the Pentagon’s views and would seek outside review. However the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” lie, as of now, remains in their website time line.
“The DOD commemoration of our war is a farce,” explodes Chuck Palazzo, one of the former combat veterans who lives in Da Nang. “A waste of money [taxpayers cost will run into the millions of dollars] and a feeble attempt to brainwash the younger generation as well as the rest of us, that what we did was right – it was, of course so wrong!”
The complexities of this war make it difficult for many who served; VFP members respect the idea of honoring veterans who were shunned on their return but denounce a fictionalized version of the war itself.
Bombing ‘Back to the Stone Age’
We are in Quang Tri Province at the DMZ, the former demilitarized zone that once separated South and North Vietnam. “You are standing in the most heavily bombed area in the history of warfare,” said Vietnam veteran Chuck Searcy, the American voice of Project RENEW [“Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of the War”], a humanitarian organization he co-founded 15 years ago that helps victims of unexploded bombs the United States dropped during the war.
Today lush foliage belies the past. One has to look at war photos to understand such pulverizing devastation when this province was destroyed — gray, bomb-blasted fields and land, village huts incinerated, civilians racing for their lives as fighter jets screamed overhead and B-52s marauded silently at 30,000 feet, dropping bomb after bomb after bomb. Some15 million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam — more than all of World War II — much of it here. An estimated three million civilians were killed during the decade of war.
The serenity of a sunny day makes it equally hard to imagine the lethal presence of unexploded bombs still lurking nearby.
“To me the U.S. bombings were an ultimate mass torture delivering fear, trauma, injuries and death,” remarked Californian Sally Benson, who, along with her husband, Steve Nichols, funded the Mine Action Visitor Center here in Quang Tri to teach awareness of the 300,000 plus tons of unexploded ordnance remaining in the province. Nichols and Benson met in Vietnam as civilian teachers during the war, returned anti-war and maintain close ties with the five veterans, visiting Vietnam often.
How could anyone possibly survive, one wonders, imagining a daily hailstorm of bombs. We find out. We crawl deep into the Vinh Moc tunnels, moving slowly on slippery stones, hunching in the engulfing walls of earth, so close that one did not need to extend arms to feel them, cold to the touch. As we inch our way through the dark, tiny lights on our foreheads dimly pick out the winding narrow strip of earth as we go further and further down.
Suddenly a small cramped space dug out of the wall is illuminated. We gasp. A body is lying there and another crouching next to her. But they are models; a woman lying down and a woman leaning over her, holding her baby. On the wall is an incongruous sign, “maternity ward.”
It is hard to imagine even one baby born there, and yet 17 Vietnamese women had given birth deep in the soil during the years of “search and destroy” when millions of bombs pummeled their peasant huts and land constantly. Villagers lived underground for months on end; children, babies, mothers, elderly parents, ancient aunts and uncles: eating, sleeping, enduring. From 1966 to 1972 when the bombing stopped 300 Vietnamese lived in their mole-like world, digging nearly 100 feet underground.
The Loss of Limbs
Back out of darkness, squinting in the sun, we walked to meet a nearby villager. His family thought him out of harm’s way; he was only four when the war ended in 1975. The man scooted over the ground like a crab, using his strong arms, pads protecting his knees. His legs ended in stumps just below. One hand was missing. He was not wearing his artificial legs, the ones he had to sell a cow to pay for. They were too cumbersome for the work he was doing, dragging pieces of used lumber to build a chicken coop. He was 20 in 1991, out looking for scrap metal, when an unexploded bomb, dropped 25 years before, blew up.
“He knew the risks, but he also knew he could sell the metal for cash income. It was purely economics,” said Chuck Searcy,
Cluster bomb dug six feet circle indentations that can still be seen as dips in the green land. They contained hundreds of small but very lethal bomblets that were supposed to have exploded on impact. Only thousands did not, about 10 percent, Searcy says, citing an old Pentagon estimate. All these years later, they bring the war home again, exploding in fields and villages, killing and maiming curious children, farmers tilling their fields, poor peasants searching for scrap metal to sell. Official estimates put the number of casualties from unexploded bombs in Vietnam at around 100,000, including 34,000 killed. The true numbers are probably higher, says Searcy.
Newspapers in the province attest to the horrible ordinariness of such accidents; a recent account of a 17-year old boy riding his bike: “The blast cut off Hoan’s left hand, ripped his head from the forehead to the nose. The boy also suffered injuries to his left shoulder and nose and lips.”
We travel further south, to Nha Trang. This fashionable resort mecca — with high-rise hotels, turquoise bay and sandy beaches — is in wild contrast to another world that tourists do not see. We visit a spotless home filled with family mementos; photos everywhere, stuffed toys near a Buddhist shrine. Lying flat on a brightly colored mat are two sisters with horribly twisted limbs, spines too weak for them to sit up, ravished by Agent Orange birth defects, carried to them genetically through a Vietnamese soldier father.
Their mother, with a smiling face and pleading eyes, moves them to a wall and props them up. Their bodies are so small that they look far younger than their ages. One is 30 and her sister is 20. An awkward silence envelops the room as visitors stand, helpless.
Don Blackburn, another Vietnam Veteran who works non-stop to aid Agent Orange victims, plunks himself down between the two, as casually easy as a comforting friend. The sisters smile gratefully at him. Their father has left the family and the mother is frantic with worry about who will care for her daughters when she becomes too old or ill.
It would be hard to underestimate the damage Agent Orange dioxin caused. Between 2.1 million to 4.8 million Vietnamese citizens were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other poisonous chemicals, according to the American Public Health Association. Agent Orange poisoned the soil where Vietnamese grow crops, the rivers and streams where they fish, and created cancer, illnesses and birth defects, now into this younger generation.
A Poisonous Herbicide
From 1961 to 1972, U.S. aircraft sprayed poisonous herbicides, until this lush country looked as grey and denuded as the moon. In all, more than 19 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed over 4.5 million acres of land. However, the United States questions the Vietnamese Red Cross projections of the numbers of victims linked to Agent Orange cancers, birth defects and other chronic diseases.
Americans who view Vietnam as an ancient war stare in shock when visitors returning from this country tell them that the dioxin affects children born today. While American veterans who suffer from Agent Orange diseases had to fight governmental denial and scorn — President Ronald Reagan’s Veterans Affairs director Robert P. Nimmo dismissed Agent Orange as causing no more than a little “teenage acne” — recognition of related illness and compensation, although often inadequate, has finally happened.
But the United States still refuses to attribute Agent Orange to diseases, illness and defects among the Vietnamese, questions Vietnamese figures and says more study is needed. (The U.S. said it has provided $54 million since 1989 to help Vietnamese with disabilities, but also stressed that such assistance was “regardless of cause.”)
“It is hypocritical for the U.S. to place this unnecessary burden of proof on the Vietnamese while it does not do so for its own veterans,” says Palazzo, who works here with Agent Orange victims. He cites international and Vietnamese studies linking dioxin to health and birth defects here.
The United States bristles at Vietnam claims that half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many as 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange. There is no measure to prove they are Agent Orange victims but some studies estimate that the rate of birth defects here in Vietnam has quadrupled since the war, and that most of them occur where Agent Orange was sprayed or stored.
Brothers in Peace
Like the other veterans who have returned to help victims, Chuck Palazzo’s past has very much informed the present. He came from a rough section in the Bronx and joined the Marines as a family tradition and to escape “from a very dysfunctional family.” His often absent father was abusive when around and his mother drank heavily.
“My brother was the brains and an aeronautic engineer and I chose the gangs, stealing cars and all that,” Palazzo said.
He lied about his age, joining at 17, and at 18 was a squad leader. “From 1966 to 1967 I was with the 3rd Marine Recon Battalion with stints with both the 1st and 3rd Force Recon Companies.”
Today, Palazzo talks easily about his passion for the Vietnamese people, but it takes him a long time to reveal a haunting moment in the war that left him with survival guilt. One dark night in early 1971 in Phu Bai, “my best friend was in the same unit as I was. We were on a reconnaissance mission between Phu Bai and Hue and were ambushed.”
Palazzo’s friend saw an “NLF fighter [or Vietcong] and some NVA [North Vietnamese Army] regulars, in a tree line, very close. One was taking aim at me and instead of trying to destroy him, my friend decided the quickest and safest thing — for me — was to shove me out of the way. He saved me but took a round in the back, which hit his spine. He was paralyzed and like so many, was treated with morphine for the pain. He was flown out after the fight to the Naval field hospital in Da Nang then eventually back to the States and eventually discharged.”
Palazzo recalls the sad disintegration of his friend. “I think the psychological damage [of being paralyzed] was more than the physical. He went through rehab for years, but at the same time he became addicted to heroin. Many overdoses later, he finally ended it all. “
He paused, “I think that probably has had a greater impact on me than all the PTSD combined.”
Burning Down ‘Hooches’
In Vietnam, Palazzo and six others, “would receive intel reports and go confirm exact ordnances, identify air to missile sights that were shooting down our planes. If there was some movement we would blow ’em up ourselves. We saw lots of movement, NVA regulars, battalions.
“I didn’t have anti-war feelings when I was here,” he says as we ride in a bus through beautiful mountainous country, “but morally I knew what was wrong. I was supposed to be part of a mop-up crew, hooches torched, that sort of thing. We never killed civilians, women or children, but kids would be running out screaming, and parents running out, before the hooches were burned down. We felt they were the VC; that is what we believed. I felt it was wrong but you kind of get caught up in the mob mentality.”
Living with survival guilt and his PTSD nightmares, his nervousness in crowds, and experiencing a failed marriage, Palazzo filed a claim for PTSD and received help.
Today he smiles ruefully as he recalls his nonchalance of being in “an area that was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange. We were told it was harmless, to kill mosquitoes and to keep malaria down.”
Later, realizing the full impact of Agent Orange, Palazzo recalls, “The best day and the worst day of my life was the day my daughter was born. Waiting for her to be born, the anxiety was killing me; I literally popped an ulcer eating so much Excedrin. Luckily Agent Orange did not manifest itself in her or me. So it became the best day of my life.”
Palazzo did not return to Vietnam for 30 years, not until 2001, “but then I was hooked. Five years later I formed a software development company, set up shop in the United States as well as Vietnam, and in 2008, made the move. My software career has paid the bills to allow me to focus on activism — for all victims of Agent Orange as well as UXO [unexploded ordnance], and more recently, anti-GMO.”
Genetically modified foods remain controversial; they are produced from organisms that have had specific changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering. GMOs are developed by Monsanto, which also produced Agent Orange.
Software expert Palazzo is a one-man information bureau, blasting off emails by the second on any news about Agent Orange or UXOs and also attacking Monsanto, the makers of Agent Orange, along with Dow.
“The same company that even today, denies they or the Agent Orange they produced was and is responsible for so much death and destruction. The same company who REFUSES to pay any compensation to the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam and throughout the world. And now, they are brainwashing the youth of Vietnam in the form of scholarships to convince them and the rest of the people in Vietnam that GMOs are safe. This is outrageous! There is something very, very wrong with this picture.”
Today there are still two Vietnams, but not north and south. They are the prosperous and the impoverished; the beautifully healthy young people riding motor bikes, break dancing in a bustling city, talking on cell phones — and those who have blown off limbs or lie immobile on mats or are grotesquely misshapen, such as a woman whose hands have several fingers and legs that end at the knees with flipper like feet attached. Only the thalidomide babies of the early 1960s mirror these flipper-like defects — those subjected to the chemical thalidomide while in the womb — taken by unsuspecting pregnant mothers to alleviate anxiety — experienced under-developed limbs, deformed eyes and hearts, and deformed alimentary and urinary tracts.
“I have dedicated my life to raising awareness of the plight of the AO victims here,” said Palazzo. “And assisting as best as I can, to put smiles on their faces – even when they are looking death in the eye, they manage, somehow, to smile.”
Rebelling Against the War
Unlike Palazzo, Don Blackburn’s rebellion began in Vietnam.
“I thought I could serve my country without sacrificing my morality — a very naïve notion. But I fought harder to keep my morality/humanity than I fought the ‘enemy’. It cost me. I was under near constant harassment — two article 15’s, the threat of imprisonment, many restrictions and odious (literally, burning shit,) details, guard duty, K.P. When I returned from Viet Nam, I was a private E-1, the lowest rank possible. But I never tried to get out of the service, and this, I think, pissed the army off even more.”
After the war, Blackburn became a teacher in Oregon and, while battling PTSD, wrote searing poetry, now in a book called All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace & Reconciliation. Like many veterans who came back troubled from a war fought in and around civilians, this aspect was the most disturbing. Two of his disorderly conduct actions were for refusing to go on “search and destroy” missions and to burn hooches.
Napalm was dropped from planes and shot from guns for no other use than to incinerate; bright orange walls of intense fire that spared no one and stuck to skin, impossible to shuck off. Victims were embodied in the 1972 Pulitzer Prize iconic picture of a nine-year-old girl running naked in terror, her body still burning, having torn off her clothes to escape the pain.
No doctors thought she would survive but she did and after years of surgery Kim Phuc now lives in Canada. She was a carefree child when four napalm bombs were dropped on her village. As she and her family ran for their lives, several of them died that day. Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer, scooped her up and rushed her to the nearest hospital. Today Kim calls him Uncle Ut, the man who saved her life and whose graphic photo became a rallying point for ending the war.
Like many Vietnamese, Kim Phuc astounds Americans by saying she has forgiven those who caused her excruciating pain: “It was the hardest work of my life, but I did it.” In the end, “I learned that forgiveness is more powerful than any weapon of war.”
Napalm also spawned a gruesome nihilistic cadence that remains on You Tube.
We shoot the sick, the young, the lame,
We do our best to maim,
Because the kills all count the same,
Napalm sticks to kids.
Chorus: Napalm sticks to kids,
Napalm sticks to kids…
Children sucking on a mother’s tit,
Wounded gooks down in a pit,
Dow Chemical doesn’t give a shit,
Napalm sticks to kids.
Don Blackburn’s desire to save civilians was shatteringly personal. “There was a lot of napalm used where I was.” He recalls in poetry a still haunting incident:
Fire in the Village near Ben Cat, 1967
With all my strength I hold onto you.
I will not, cannot, let you go.
Together we tremble in fear and sorrow.
Our eyes bitten blind by swirling smoke.
Our faces stung by wind-blown, fried sand.
The conical hat, ripped off your head,
bursts into flame a few feet in front of us.
In tortured anguish, you scream at the sky:
With all my strength I hold you.
Your heart pounds fierce through your chest.
You kick, try to bite, strain against my arms,
You try to pry and squirm loose.
You yell at me to let you go.
But I cannot, will not.
You will run back into your fire-engulfed house.
Try to save, or be with, whatever/whoever
Is still inside.,,,
Together, we tremble in fear and sorrow,
And cry, cry, cry until there is no sound.
At first light tomorrow, you will return,
to see what can be found.
Forty years later, Blackburn returned to this woman in a poem.
To the Village Woman Who
Lost Everything in the Fire (America 2010)
Now I know there will never be enough tears
To put out those flames.
Still I will not, cannot,
let you go.
I am sure you know.
Blackburn talks of his conflicted feelings as a 19-year-old. “I volunteered for the draft in 1966. I wanted to honor my parents by serving as they did. My dad was at Normandy and was a concentration camp liberator. My mother was a WAVE. They were believers in America — big believers in Lyndon Johnson and his hopes to end poverty in America.
When I was threatened with jail time at LBJ — Long Binh Jail — I told my superior officers that my parents would probably be pissed off to find out we considered LBJ to stand for Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“I was sent to Viet Nam in late 1967 with no specific M.O.S. [Military Operational Specialty] and no training beyond basic. I had never held an M-16.”
Most of his year was on the Cam Ranh Peninsula, spent “unloading ordnance from ships, building bunkers, going on occasional patrols, etc. A group of us did a slow down. Finally we said we were not going to unload any artillery. Refused to do anything. We were getting high almost all the time. One guy was reading Malcolm X.”
Blackburn left his post to visit a friend who was in the mental ward at Cam Ranh Hospital. For this and other acts, Blackburn feels he would have been court martialed “if it wasn’t for a couple of real humanitarian sergeants I knew.” When he was discharged, “One of them personally drove me to the airport.”
Back home in Oregon Blackburn drifted, flunked courses in college, married and divorced twice. Finally in counseling he realized his denial and seething anger. He “suddenly got interested in college, got really good grades and started writing poetry.” He found out he had a knack for teaching. But he still had problems.
He recalled: “I was great during the week with the kids teaching, but I would spend weekends in isolation. I never discussed the war.”
When he became eligible for retirement, Blackburn stopped teaching. “They didn’t tell me that when you retired it would leave a big vacancy in your brain. With nothing to fill the void, all my PTSD came back.”
.In 2002, Blackburn returned to Vietnam for a visit and stayed for good in 2004: “I went all over looking for a place to get involved. There were all kinds of crooked shit going on, people taking money, scams. Then I found Friendship Village, which was on the up and up… The first time I was at Friendship Village, I broke down completely…It was something I needed to do for myself as well as for the kids. It filled an incredible hole.”
Blackburn pauses, reflecting on the war: “Children died and we were unable to help them. An orphanage got hit by artillery. .We didn’t do anything to help them…”
The Vietnam Friendship Village, outside of Hanoi, was begun by an American veteran in 1988 and is now supported by international groups. It provides therapy and medical care for 150 children with mental and physical conditions, as well as education and vocational training. No one can say for sure that any of their defects were caused by Agent Orange.
Some stare blankly, others greet visitors with smiles, handing them poems and giving them hugs. Some walk and talk awkwardly. Each year some North Vietnamese soldiers return for R&R and stay at Friendship Village. One day, when we left the village, a handful of them greeted our group that included visiting American veterans.
Soon the names of combat sites were flashed back and forth. “Were you in A Luoi?” “Phu Bai?” Yes and smiles. They had been in the same areas, fighting on opposite sides. Americans and Vietnamese men reached out and hugged one another. One Vietnamese took off his medal, reaching high up to pin it on the tall, lean chest of Chuck Searcy.
A Rebellious Marine
Another rebel both during the war and after was Manus Campbell, who saw fierce fighting from June 1967 to July 1968.
“I served with 1st Battalion 4th Marines in Quang Tri, Dong Ha and Con Tien,” he says. “I got drafted and joined the Marines because I didn’t want to go in the Army. I felt the Marines were more challenging. When you come here you don’t know how to act or how to be.”
Struggling with “100-degree humidity, you go out with 50-60 pounds, ammo, food, water, hide behind some vegetation and wait for the enemy to come. We had a lieutenant, fresh to Vietnam, brainwashed to be aggressive. But one thing you don’t do at night is move; you set up an ambush and wait for them to come to you. He moved us, upsetting everybody. We could see the VC, crawling along in black pajamas. The Lieutenant shouted ‘Let’s go, charge!’ and was shot in the head.”
One time Campbell’s squad was sent to secure an area following fierce fighting where Marines had been pinned down in a stream.
“The stream was filled with 30, 40 guys missing limbs, with gunshot wounds, screaming ‘I want my mother’ ‘I’m too young to die.’ It was hell. We chopped down the trees and helicoptered them out. We dropped off the body bags and sat around them. All night we were shooting illumination flares and the next morning got out.”
Campbell speaks of the survival guilt and numb inaction back then: “I had all kinds of feelings about failing, not holding these guys when they were dying or doing first aid. I felt frozen. I made the decision that if ever I was in charge I would not do something I felt was crazy and stupid that would jeopardize others.”
His horror and final disillusionment was the body count, as it was with so many combat veterans. Counting dead bodies became a perverted measurement for “winning” in a war of attrition with no fixed goals. (Remember the cadence line above: Because the kills all count the same…)
Squads were even given ice cream and beer for the most kills counted. A priest who worked with PTSD patients in Vet Centers once remarked, “You send Boy Scouts into war and you tell them the more people you kill the more you’ll be rewarded. Including civilians. What do you think that does to their minds?”
Campbell said, “you knew you were being used; a couple hundred would get killed taking a hill and in a few days we’d leave. They didn’t really care about you. But the body count number! That’s what was important.”
He reflects in his low voice, “If some colonel or general found it more important to send men into harm’s way just to kill some people they would do it. After B-52 strikes we were told to dig up graves of the NVA who had been killed and buried. A lot of times it was like mass graves.”
With two months left in Vietnam, Campbell refused to send men to meaningless possible death. His commanding officer backed him and told Campbell to ignore a Colonel’s repeated requests to go out and “find bodies.”
Returning to Bayonne, New Jersey, “was just total shock. I had no preparation either for war or for going back. I felt so crazy, mixed up and afraid. I was downing half a bottle of gin.”
He decided to become a cop “because it was exciting. As veterans we seek stimulation. Chasing a criminal 100 miles an hour seemed pretty stimulating. I became successful at what I did, It’s about learning about people; how to read people, how to react to a situation.”
During rehabilitation after a severe car accident Campbell started reading about meditation. Back on the police force, he thought, “My God, I don’t want to be here. This sucks. Having to deal with the dark side of life everyday; murderers, children being wounded. They tell you in the Police Academy that you deal with stress two ways — alcohol and women. I did both.”
Two marriages came and went following the tension of nightmares and flashbacks. He stopped drinking “for good” in 1986 and retired after 19 years as a New Jersey trooper. He then taught at-risk children and alcohol and drug prevention and recovery. He said he did that “part time and full time I struggled with PTSD.”
In 2007, Campbell returned to Vietnam for the first time and visited a Pagoda in Hue where the Buddhist nun had founded a school for disabled children and an orphanage. (Poor families still have to give up their babies to adoption.) “I started to support the school financially; every month I would wire money and receive photos from the nun about her work,” he said.
Campbell started his own NGO — Helping Invisible Victims of War — lived in Hue and now in Hoi An, continuing to help buy food and blankets for two very poor minority tribes who live near Khe Sanh and A Luoi. He also buys artificial legs for bomb victims, supports several children at the Khanh school for the disabled.
(Palazzo and Blackburn work with VAVA-Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange; a new project for Blackburn is building a new house for a Rag Lai ethnic minority family in the mountains; “three generations of this very poor family have been effected by Agent Orange Dioxin poisoning.”)
Recollections of Saigon
Chuck Searcy, a lanky Georgian with a Southern drawl dwarfs the Vietnamese with whom he spends his days. One night, sitting in the rooftop bar of Saigon’s storied Caravelle Hotel, he remembers the night in 1967, dancing his last dance with his former fiancée, who had just arrived in Vietnam as a Red Cross volunteer.
“We could see rocket flares and hear distant artillery fire. The band was playing old Glenn Miller tunes. It was surreal.”
The Caravelle, now in the renamed Ho Chi Minh City, was famously home for war correspondents; some trying to be the new Hemingway, downing drinks, watching air strikes across the Saigon River from the roof, so close but so safely removed.
Because of his role as an enlisted intelligence specialist in Saigon, except for the 1968 Tet Offensive that reached the southern capital, Searcy felt he had been untouched by PTSD in comparison to Blackburn, Campbell and Palazzo.
However when he returned to Georgia this patriotic son of a World War II POW faced a “devastating awakening. All of my values, everything I had been taught and had come to believe seemed to be nothing. The United States government was not only lying to us, but perpetrating actions that were absolutely criminal. It was an awful personal trauma for me.”
Searcy returned to the University of Georgia in Athens and helped form a contingent of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). After the war, Searcy “got married and divorced a couple of times.”
In 1986, Searcy helped Wyche Fowler win an incredible upset victory to become the U S Senator from Georgia. Searcy became Fowler’s press secretary for two years.
“I was not happy with staff work in the Senate – it was static, institutionalized, frustratingly non-productive, everyone was too fawning toward the Senators. Although it was a remarkably eye-opening experience and I made many lasting friendships.”
In 1992, Searcy visited Vietnam as a tourist for 30 days: “By the end I knew that I wanted to come here and try to make a small contribution to the healing and the recovery that was slowly, but clearly, underway.”
Fighting ‘Combat Fatigue’
The last of the five, Mike Cull, was a “social work technician” with the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang.
“I joined a bizarre Mental Health Team” whose job was to prevent what was then called combat fatigue as experienced in the Korean War, he said. Cull’s cushy quarters were “near a beautiful beach and too many bars and brothels. It was the HQ for Special Forces, MACV, and USAID with a very busy Air Force base.”
It was jarringly different when he went weekly by chopper to other hospitals to evaluate patients near the battlefields: “The worst were suicide cases, violent criminal types, and many psychotic patients (including one psychiatrist).”
Cull’s job was to help with what would later be known as PTSD patients. “We failed miserably,” Cull said.
An angry Cull returned as an “unofficial Vietnam Vet Against the War in class, in bars, on the streets and in jail for a few overnight stays.” Following an ashram sojourn in India and a spiritual commune in Oregon, Cull taught Urban Studies and Sociology at five universities for years. He quit to work in VA Vet Centers, “once again working with combat PTSD vets in Alaska.”
Cull returned to Vietnam in 1998 to work for seven years for Vietnam Friendship Village, with Suel Jones (who was not in Vietnam during this interview.) After retirement, Cull became a volunteer teacher at Nha Trang University and recently celebrated his marriage to a Vietnamese, assisted by the other American veterans in a joyous ceremony. Cull and his wife, Lan, operate the Vietnam Advanced Language Center for 150 students.
So many visitors to Vietnam remain startled at the friendliness of a people who were so bombed and burned out of their homes and lost family. “They love to say ‘the past is the past,'” says Campbell.
Tourism is the coin of the realm in a country that swirls with constant action. Google Vietnam and tourist sites clog the screen — offering lush beach hideaways, silk clothes made overnight, restaurants galore, combined with trips to battlefields and museums that show graphic pictures of war crimes. Motorbikes piled with parents, children, food and live ducks surf through Hanoi at a pace that makes crossing the street feel like running with the bulls in Pamplona. It is nigh impossible to find a bad meal in the restaurants throughout Vietnam (although one sees signs for Texas-style burgers). An upscale restaurant in Hue, a city so bombarded during the 1968 Tet Offensive, has risen out of wreckage to splendor, complete with an award-winning concert pianist playing background music.
There is a tolerance for different life styles as well as religion; gay clubs outside Ho Chi Minh City are ignored by authorities, Miss Universe contestants are celebrated, Vietnamese who have become rich crowd a beach resort near Hoi An that charges close to $2,000 a night for two bedrooms and a private pool. Rumors abound that the Russian and Ukrainian mafia have been involved in Vietnam’s tourism; until recently there were daily non-stop flights from Moscow.
Vietnam remains Communist, but Buddhism is powerful, recognized almost as a national religion, with colorful ceremonies seen in temples everywhere and Vietnamese visiting at all hours of the day, just as they do Ho Chi Minh’s Tomb. Smoking barrels are ever ready at the North Vietnamese equivalent of Arlington Cemetery, where Vietnamese light incense sticks and place them on graves. We found the grave of a boy of 19, like so many of those on the side of the United States, and placed an incense stick.
Successful younger Vietnamese, heavily into tourism, have only distant memories, if at all, of the Hunger Years following the war, when the Communist regime passed a moribund Five Year Plan of Recovery, forced those who fought for the South into “re-education camps” and the United States imposed a trade embargo.
President Bill Clinton lifted the embargo in 1994 and normalizing of relations began in 1995 with Douglas “Pete” Peterson as the first U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. As a former P O W in Vietnam, Peterson brought great symbolism to this reconciliation.
Capitalism has come to Vietnam just as it had in China and some, like Searcy, an influential voice in U.S.-Vietnam relations, bemoan that it has gone too far: “It’s almost impossible to explain what’s going on. The economy is probably a mess, in reality, though superficial indicators look good. The Vietnamese leadership has really embraced crony capitalism, greed based on corruption and inside deals” that spawn “overnight millionaires.”
Searcy says the authorities neglect environmental hazards as they fill beachfronts with fantastic hotels and ignore earlier promises to keep access to these beaches for Vietnamese families.
“Brilliant people here have explored alternative economic systems, including a healthy mix of socialism and market competition, but they are either dismissed or become threats to the ruling oligarchy,” Searcy says, adding a bit sardonically, “There was a significant change when the leaders announced publicly that it was okay to be rich.”
Searcy is the unofficial good-will ambassador for visiting Americans and gets American press for his Project RENEW. Its “goal is to make Vietnam safe – not to ‘clean up every bomb and mine’ which is a misleading and distracting, and unrealistic, aim,” says Searcy, the only American advisor.
He touts his team of young, educated and highly committed Vietnamese who live in Quang Tri Province: “Their families experienced the suffering of war and now live with the threat of explosives. They understand Vietnamese culture and traditions, local laws and regulations, how to get things done.”
These 30 somethings, like Ngo Xuan Hein and Luong Tuan Hung, whip- smart on computers, bilingual, at home in blue jeans like their American counterparts, tell the Internet world of projects to aid poor families, like growing mushrooms and buying cows.
The Vietnamese teams are also the ones who take on the dangerous job of locating and detonating bombs, responding to daily call-ins from local residents of cluster bombs and other munitions found in their gardens and along roadways. Within hours the teams destroy or safely remove the lethal threats.
These five American Veterans in Vietnam have become adept beggars, in the noblest sense in their sometimes futile pleas to raise awareness and money to aid this hidden side of Vietnam. Searcy returns to Congress, pressing for humanitarian aid, and though the U.S. government has provided significant funding, most of Project RENEW’S recent support has come from other governments — Norway, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland and assistance from Australian veterans. Modest funding has come from private U S donors.
Easily found on line, Project RENEW notes that for the price of an upscale dinner for two or three, one can buy an artificial limb (about $200-$300) for children and adults on a waiting list; getting this to happen is not easy in a complacent America.
Incensed after a trip to Vietnam in 2014, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, made a successful plea — asking congressmen to imagine how they would feel if their grandchildren risked death or maiming by merely playing in a field. Congress nearly tripled the small amount of funding for UXO removal projects throughout Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.
But humanitarian funding remains an uphill battle. For pennies a day from Americans a full year’s education for an Agent Orange child could be achieved also on the web. Activist Michael Moore honored his late father by recently giving money to the VFP Agent Orange effort.
Burying Lethal Dirt
Da Nang: In intense heat we climbed a ladder reaching to the top of cement blocks, piled 20 feet high, which would become part of a giant mausoleum to bury deadly Agent Orange contaminated soil. From the top we could see the houses of Vietnamese close by.
Estimates of the amount of dioxin in the soil at Da Nang are staggering. A general standard is that dioxin levels must not exceed 1,000 ppt (parts per trillion) in soil .Dioxin levels of up to 365,000 ppt were found at Da Nang, Dioxin at this level calls for “immediate” remediation, experts say.
Forty years later, the U.S. government has finally begun to try to clean up this contaminated soil in Da Nang, near the airport, one of three most heavily sprayed hotspots. (The others are Bein Hoa and Phu Cat.)
The structure we visited earlier is now covered and, inside this large space, deadly dirt is being treated. The project is jointly implemented by USAID and the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense. The initial cost was estimated at $41 million, but has reached $84 million, and may grow as the project is now expected to last until 2016.
Poisoned soil and sediment is placed in this enclosed above-ground structure. Heating rods, operating at approximately 1400 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit , raise the temperature of the entire dirt pile to at least 635 degrees. At that temperature, the dioxin compound is supposed to decompose into harmless substances.
Chuck Palazzo is hopeful but not certain it will work: “It’s hard to convey this, but the looks in the contractors’ eyes when I asked the question about this being a success, are ones of, lets say fear. Let’s hope it works, but I think Bien Hoa will go full bore only if Da Nang is a success.”
Meanwhile the five Vietnam Americans living here concentrate on giving their all to help victims of Vietnam War’s lasting legacies — and fighting any whitewashing by the Pentagon of that war.