Mission to atone: Former US servicemen move to Vietnam

IT’S not easy to find a turkey dinner in Hanoi, but a handful of Americans and their Vietnamese friends gathered on Thanksgiving over an imported bird cooked for them at a fancy restaurant in the capital’s old quarter, and they gave thanks.

Mission to atone: Former US servicemen move to Vietnam

One of them was Chuck Searcy, who was a US army intelligence analyst in Saigon 45 years ago. Another was Manus Campbell, who survived some of the war’s bloodiest fighting as a Marine draftee in Quang Tri Province. Both are nearly 70.

While hundreds of Vietnam vets have come back for brief, melancholy visits to the old battlefields to heal their psychological wounds, Searcy and Campbell are different: They and a handful of other former US servicemen have moved to Vietnam more or less permanently to help clean up the deadly mess left by American bombs and Agent Orange, the widely sprayed defoliant linked to birth defects and cancers.

“Everybody at the table was asked to talk about why they live here,” says Searcy.

“And everybody said it was mostly the people and the unique experience of being friends with people who had survived a devastating war.”

Hanoi’s two-decades-long war with the US-backed Saigon government, which peaked in 1968 with over 500,000 US troops in South Vietnam, caused upwards of 1.5m Vietnamese casualties, an untold number wrought by US air strikes.

Years later, landmines and bombs, buried mostly in the south, “have killed or maimed more than 100,000 Vietnamese since the war ended” in 1975, says Searcy. And Agent Orange is still taking its toll, now on a fourth generation of Vietnamese.

In September, Searcy, Campbell, and other veterans visited Washington DC to lobby for increased humanitarian aid to Vietnam but left empty-handed.

“What we spend in Afghanistan in a week could go a long way to making Vietnam safe for the next 50 years,” says Searcy, decrying the trickle of money Congress has appropriated for cleaning up the lethal mess left from the decade of direct US combat operations.

As a Hanoi-based representative of two humanitarian foundations — Project RENEW and the New York–based Humpty Dumpty Institute — Searcy has been helping the Vietnamese recruit, train, and deploy teams to defuse unexploded ordnance and treat the wounded.

Campbell, who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder for decades, after his 1967–1968 combat tour, freely admits he was driven to visit Vietnam in 2007 out of remorse and guilt.

“That 40 years later, children, farmers, and people living their daily lives could be killed by bombs used during the war... causes me pain,” he says.

He felt ashamed. He needed forgiveness, and to his surprise — and everlasting gratitude — the Vietnamese gave him that. In 2012, after visiting an orphanage and spending time in a Buddhist pagoda in Hue, a 700-year-old city that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war, he founded the charity Helping the Invisible Victims of War out of his own pocket.

“I came here to help disabled and orphan children at first,” he says. But then decided to stay, “to help families who were victims of recent explosions.” He eventually chose Hoi An, a market town on Vietnam’s central coast where old landmines and bombs lurk beneath the saw grass and rice paddies. But he’s also supporting a clinic for Agent Orange sufferers in the bustling port city of Da Nang.

A sorrowful, slow-talking man, Campbell lives in a modest cement house. A typical day begins with a bowl of pho, Vietnam’s legendary spicy beef broth, followed by “reading and study” and an afternoon visiting his projects.

“I like to visit children at the orphanage or schools,” he says in an email from Hoi An. He keeps his stateside friends and supporters up to date by phone and email. Life is simple. But tragedy is never far away.

“Living here, I hear about these accidents, and it still causes me pain,” says Campbell.

“That is why I decided to help some of the families of the survivors whose husband or fathers were injured or killed by the bombs. The shock of losing a father or husband is one thing, but how do the families eat after the accident? I provide funds so they can put food on table for a few months.”

Searcy, who worked for the US Small Business Administration under president Jimmy Carter, moved to Vietnam in 1994.

On what was Thanksgiving morning back in the States, about 800 representatives of international humanitarian organisations and Vietnamese officials gathered in Hanoi to talk about the continuing crisis of war casualties. The upshot was no surprise: While Vietnam’s export economy is thrumming, it’s still one of the poorest countries in the world and struggling to finance ordnance removal and medical projects.

At least 11m gallons of cancer-causing defoliants were sprayed on Vietnam for more than a decade and now afflict a third generation born since the war.

HANOI, and the American veterans working in Vietnam, feel that Washington is obligated to pay a bigger share of the remedial work, but US officials say they are wary of government corruption siphoning off aid money. Hanoi’s jailing of dissidents and independent journalists doesn’t help, either.

“Ironically, we get more support from the government of Norway than we do from the government of the United States,” says Searcy.

It’s not that Washington has completely turned its back on Vietnam. Relations have slowly warmed over the years, propelled by a mutual interest in countering Chinese hegemony in the region. In 2013, US government aid, “dominated by health-related assistance”, crested at $100m (about €73m), according to the Congressional Research Service. The defence department, pleased by its former enemy’s continued assistance on recovering MIA remains, has fostered military co-operation with Vietnam and built health clinics and dispatched medical instructors to the country.

In 2012, the US kicked off a four-year, $43m programme to clean up a particularly toxic Agent Orange site in Da Nang — which quickly ballooned to twice that, much of it hoovered up by American contractors.

But along the bomb-cratered rice paddies in hamlets far from Da Nang, where the elderly and children alike struggle to get around without prostheses for crippled and missing limbs, the needs remain acute. Some veterans can barely stifle their disgust.

“Agent Orange is killing Vietnamese people gradually and killing the future generations,” Chuck Palazzo, a straight-talking Bronx native, charged in an interview on the TalkVietnam web site two years ago. In 2007, the former recon Marine moved his thriving internet technology business to Vietnam so he could be close to projects working on the issue.

“I focus on the remnants of the war,” he told Newsweek, “but mostly Agent Orange.”

On a website for a fundraising event last summer, Palazzo raged that “the Agent Orange victims throughout Vietnam received nothing from the manufacturers of this poison, and the US government has given Vietnam next to nothing”. The event, hosted by the Crazy Coffee Bar in Da Nang, raised $1,412 in local currency — a pittance in a country where, according to the Red Cross, 3m people were affected in some way by Agent Orange, including at least 150,000 children who suffered birth defects.

In 2011 the elite, New York–based Aspen Institute, a thinktank which fosters “ideas that define a good society”, launched an Agent Orange remediation effort called the Hope System of Care in the Cam Le district of Da Nang.

In October, it reported that “all 165 children and 27 of the 124 youth with disabilities in Cam Le are now in the Hope System of Care. We are looking for additional funding so we can also enrol the remaining 97 youth with disabilities.”

The US Agency for International Development is not involved. About $9m appropriated by US Congress for such projects remain in the pipeline as USAID’s private contractor carries out study after study at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“There’s just a huge gap between USAID, which has the money, and people on the ground who can use it,” says Richard Hughes, whose humanitarian efforts in Vietnam date to the war years, when the aspiring young actor put his career on hold, moved to Saigon, and launched the fabled Shoeshine Boys Foundation to help war-orphaned street kids.

The key to success, he says, is dropping all the consultants and contractors USAID traditionally hires and putting money directly into the hands of small NGOs in Vietnam who have shown they know what they’re doing.

In recent months he has lobbied hard in Washington for direct humanitarian assistance to NGOs in Vietnam, and come away frustrated. “Agent Orange victim relief is now in free fall,” says Hughes, who has starred in The Departed, Law & Order, and Hostages.

“USAID might as well stay in Washington for all the impact they’re having,” he says.

Some experts say Washington is right to be cautious, given Vietnam’s record of corruption, but these vets say such fears are overblown. The local Vietnamese they work with just want to get the job done — and they can, efficiently and honestly.

Myra Macpherson, a former Washington Post reporter and author of the 1984 book, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, calls these vets unsung heroes of a forgotten war. “They came as innocent young soldiers and left shattered. Their return, years later, is, in part, atonement for what their country did, as well as a personal heartfelt humanitarian apology,” she says.

“They are truly a courageous band of brothers.”

* Jeff Stein, a Newsweek contributing editor in Washington DC is in recovery from cancer contracted from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam during 1968-1969

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