Thursday, July 04, 2013

After Action Report: Veterans For Peace 2013 Vietnam Tour


Everyone has their story; it is unique only to them. It is the combination of many experiences that make them who they are today and what they will be tomorrow. I traveled recently with a group of thirteen Americans to Viet Nam on a journey organized by Veterans for Peace, Chapter 160; some of the group was returning and some were visiting for the first time. There were teachers, writers, a lawyer, nurses, wives, a flight attendant, and veterans. We each made a $1,000 donation to be divided among different causes in Viet Nam to be decided by us at the flight attendant for Braniff International based out of Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield, CA. I was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Air Force and flew on planes carrying troops to Viet Nam by way of Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Japan, and Okinawa. We would drop them in Saigon, Da Nang, or Cam Ranh Bay stay an hour to refuel and bring the returning troops home. On the flights over the GIs’ would be full of themselves and ready to kick butt. But the return was a quiet end of our journey. We each had our reasons for going and we each had life changing experiences that will remain with us. I was going for a very selfish reason. My husband had died on April 19, 2012, and I would be in Viet Nam on this one year anniversary of his death accomplishing something good in his name. This is my story.  
In 1966-67 I was a flight attendant for Braniff International based out of Travis AFB, near Fairfield, Ca. I was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Air Force and flew on planes carrying troops to Viet Nam by way of Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Japan, and Okinawa. We would drop them in Saigon, Da Nang, or Cam Ranh Bay stay an hour to refuel and bring the returning troops home. On the flights over the GIs’ would be full of themselves and ready to kick butt. But the return was quiet.My guess; they just couldn’t believe they were really going home. Little did I realize this airplane was the start of a nightmare for these young men and women and that I was part of it?
The Viet Nam war was the loss of innocence. I thought as so many others did that I was doing a service for my country by volunteering to move to California and fly troops overseas. I was shielded by the horrors of war because I never stayed in Viet Nam, and I never brought the wounded home. I was only guaranteed 72 hours off between trips in the United States so scheduling would keep us out of the country flying. I never watched the news on TV in English, there was no CNN at the time, so I was unaware of the protests against the war. On the return flight the soldiers were so happy to see a round eye they treated us as goddesses. The flight crews were having a blast, seeing exotic places, eating strange foods, and partying like crazy. This moment in time is when I learned to drink alcohol, discovered birth control pills, but it was also the start of a new belief system that has stayed with me and has guided my life. No longer did I believe that you had to be baptized or be a Christian to go to heaven. I witnessed in these strange countries other religions just as holy as the religions in the United States so I became more tolerant of others and their belief systems and to treat others with respect and honor. Later in life I was lucky enough to find a partner that shared my beliefs and we spent the last fifteen years trying to make a difference in our community. When the trip to Viet Nam with Veterans for Peace presented me with an opportunity to make a difference for this country I could not wait to go and with the hope of a new direction in my life.
Upon arriving in Hanoi we had the pleasure of meeting our hosts, members of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160, Chuck Searcy, Don Blackburn, Manus Campbell, and later during the trip Chuck Palazzo and Mike Cull would join us. These men have chosen to return to Viet Nam and have dedicated their lives to working with victims of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance (UXO). All of us though would consider our hero to be the incredible tour guide Truc who kept us on track, kept our luggage from being lost, and rescuing us from what could have been disasters. The code word in crossing a street was “Safety in Numbers.” When we stepped off the plane it became a whirl wind of action with every moment and meal planned and eaten. Our first stop was a quick shower at the hotel and then three meetings; one right after the other.
We presented our credentials to VAVN, Veterans Association of Viet Nam, second former Ambassador to the US, Nguyen Tam Chien and Bui Van Nghi representing Vietnam Union of Friendship Organization, our third meeting was at the American Embassy with Ambassador Shear. Chuck Searcy was our representative at these meetings and most of the other meetings on the trip. I cannot state how special I felt to be a part of this group of people. It was requested at these meetings that we be allowed to witness the cleanup of Agent Orange at Da Nang Airport which was eventually granted.
In Hanoi I was touched by the courage shown at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum where women are honored for their commitment to their country. I was humbled by the simple life of Ho Chi Minh and his dream for freedom for his country, enlightened and stressed by learning the horrors of Agent Orange. We spent an afternoon visiting Friendship Village, envisioned and founded by the late Viet Nam veteran George Mizo and now supported by former veterans and several countries. I met Mr. Long who is the size of an eight-year-old who teaches computer skills to students suffering from Agent Orange. We visited class-rooms where they were teaching children and adults’ subjects to survive and support themselves in their world with their many disabilities. You wanted to hold and comfort each one as your heart was breaking knowing that our government dropped this horrible poison causing such grief. From 1961 to 1971 80 million liters of toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange containing Dioxin was sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam causing unprecedented disaster to humans and nature. It is now in its fourth generation of causing birth defects.
I was honored to witness the veterans of both sides of this war meet each other for the first time with no malice or anger. I watched a North Vietnamese veteran take one of his medals’ off, prick his finger, place a drop of blood on Chuck Searcy’s shirt and then he pinned it on Chuck and shook his hand. They looked each other in the eye with only goodwill. This was the beginning when I felt a shift in the atmosphere and a sense the nightmares were just beginning to fade as each of us were confronting the past.
We flew out of Hanoi and took an airplane to Da Nang. Forty-five years does make a difference since I was there, a modern airport with a lobby and jet ways, but off in the distance you could still see the Quonset huts where we landed years ago.  Da Nang Airport, Bien Hoa, and Phu Cat have been identified as hot spots for Agent Orange. When an aircraft would take off with their load of Agent Orange, spray their target, and then it would return dumping any excess into the lakes and fields that were surrounding the airport. The locals would eat the fish and animals that lived in the areas changing their DNA, producing children which would be born with birth defects.  According to the LA Times May of 2013, the government has now said all military on the ground in Viet Nam may be affected by Agent Orange. USAID from the American People and Viet Nam are spending over $80,000,000 to clean up the land surrounding this airport. They are building a giant oven pyramid to cook the contaminated earth which will then be safe to use in construction projects, but will not have the nutrients to grow food.   
While in this area we visited the towns of Hue, Dong Ha, DMZ area, Quang Tri, A Luoi, Hoi An, tunnels of Vinh Moc, and the cemetery Truong Son National Cemetery. We met with many incredible organizations Hearts for Hue, Project Renew, VAVA, and DAVA. All are doing work that is so important such as micro financing of cat fish, cattle, pigs, mushrooms farms and furniture factory helping victims of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnances. After the war, Viet Nam has: 600,000 tons of bombs left behind, 6.6 million hectors of land area contaminated with bombs and explosives, 9,284 communes polluted by bombs and explosives. People killed and wounded by bombs or explosives from 1975 – 2002: 42,135 people killed and 62,143 people wounded. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I discovered I knew the couple from Palm Springs, CA who sponsored the Mine Action Visitor Center in the middle of the jungle at Quang Tri, Steve Nichols and Sally Benson. This center helps to educate the children and locals on what not to touch or play with while out in the fields. We were able to join a retired colonel from Project Renew as his team searched for ordnances with plans to return the land to the community, free of explosives in order to farm. 
As we traveled in some areas, our veterans who were with us faced their return to old battle grounds; you could feel the emotions that they were going through. We returned to a bridge that Chris Jamison had fought to guard, an airfield where Mike Kerber was based, and shared with them their amazement at the return of civilization. You felt their relief as we saw the greenery of the jungle and communities happy with their lives. Once again you had a sense of old nightmares beginning to fade.
During this period of time we had Drew Brown and his companion join us. We hit the jack pot; Drew just arrived from Afghanistan, being a war correspondent since we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, he shared with us his experiences and his knowledge of today’s war and the question was -  is it still the same? Yes, we are leaving explosive ordnances in these countries also affecting the future of these countries and their citizens.
We land at Cam Ranh Bay on April 28th and it is still as beautiful as I remembered. We take a short ride into Nha Trang where we are guests of Mike Hull and Don Blackburn as this is where they live and teach. Nha Trang is being groomed to be the paradise resort for Russia. Signs are printed in Vietnamese and the Russian for the future tourists. The march of the resorts buying up the beaches from the north to the south of Viet Nam barring the locals from their own natural resources is the same all over the world – follow the money and it is always King.
We have not forgotten our purpose and have once again presented our credentials to VAVA and the Vietnam Advanced Education Center. As their guests we visited a family with two sisters with dire disabilities of Agent Orange. They were born normal but by the age of 12 their bones began to crumble; being unable to support their own torso they crawl everywhere they need to go. The sad part is in their 30’s they have the same dreams of any normal young women, writing their hopes in dairies caught in bodies broken by Agent Orange. 
Our journey is coming to a close as we fly into Saigon the airport I flew into so many times with so many young soldiers. I loved Saigon it is still the Paris of the Orient – lovely. We attended the War Remnants Museum where nightmares are stored. This museum is not for the fainthearted as it houses displays of prisons, weapons and photographs from both the French and the American Wars. I am happy we started in Hanoi first and witnessed the healing of this country as we made our way south leaving the memories to the past for I am filled with shame for what we did to this country in the name of power. I am amazed that they welcome us to their country with forgiveness.
I have never met Mother Teresa but I met my Mother Teresa; Dr. Nguyen Thi Phuong Tan and her assistant Dr. Ta Thi Chung of Tu Du Hospital. The hospital will deliver 60,000 babies this year and 500 will be affected by Agent Orange which may or may not leave the hospital because of many reasons – resources, family, or money. I could feel her holiness of her gifts to her people and the children just by being in her presence. She gave up her life in California as a doctor to return to Saigon to take care of women and children affected by Agent Orange. We visited these young children and adults locked in the world of pain and problems we cannot imagine. I was speechless but I was also crying. I went to Dr. Tan and held her in my arms and thanked her for giving her life to caring for these babies. She is my saint and I will never forget her.
Heroes come in all sizes and all colors but the veterans in Viet Nam who are dedicating their lives making amends for the crimes of this country are giants and the other twelve on this trip are all my heroes. It was a rough ride but we made it home with hopes to make a difference in the lives of the people we encountered.  I salute each and every one of you, thank you for being part of my journey and part of my story. Special thanks go to Nadya Williams for organizing this trip; for without her skills I don’t think it would have happened, and thanks goes to the giving heart of Chuck Hodges for giving me the means to following our dreams.

For more on VFP activites  and projects in Vietnam:
Veterans For Peace in Vietnam
Hoa Binh Vietnam, VFP Chapter 160