Today half the 94 million Vietnamese are under 29 years old. They were not alive during what they call the American War. For the younger generation, that’s ancient history. They are focused on the future. But, for a significant number of other Vietnamese, the war goes on. It persists in the dangers of so-called UXO (unexploded ordnance), cluster bombs and landmines, and the effects of toxic herbicides the United States dropped on the country to destroy food crops and defoliate the jungle, making it harder for the enemy to hide.
First, the landmines and unexploded bombs. The United States dropped about 8 million tons of ordnance during the Vietnam War. (That’s roughly three times what the Allies dropped on Germany in WWII.) The Defense Department estimates that some ten percent went unexploded. Since the war ended in 1975, more than 100,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO. In Quang Tri province alone, the central band of the country around the DMZ, there have been 8,256 casualties, including 3,425 deaths, a third of whom were children. It’s particularly shocking except if you understand that Germany has been quietly dealing with UXO left from World Wars I and II, 5000 bombs last year alone.
Enter Chuck Searcy. Chuck is a silver-haired gentleman from a military family in Georgia. His father had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII and was a POW. Chuck enlisted in the army in 1967 and was assigned to military intelligence in Vietnam. The Combined Intelligence Center, he said, was a hotbed of skepticism about the war, and, by the time of Chuck’s departure, he and his buddies were flat out against it. He said at the time he no longer knew what it meant to be an American. “Everything I had believed about America and decency and honor and truth was shaken to the core,” he told us.
Eventually Chuck returned to the University of Georgia. He and eight or nine other vets found each other and started a chapter of Vietnam Vets Against the War. His parents kicked him out, saying they didn’t know who he was. They didn’t talk to him for two years. Eventually they reconciled, when his parents acknowledged he had been right about the war.
Over the ensuing years, Chuck went on with his life. Different jobs, two marriages, two divorces. But he always knew he wanted to return to Vietnam. When he and an army buddy visited there in 1992, he was stunned that the Vietnamese people were overwhelmingly positive, warm and friendly. Searcy moved to Vietnam in 1995 and, with other Americans living there, started pressuring the American government do something about cleaning up unexploded mines and bombs. He solicited funds from vets who had become highly successful in business, including Vietnam Vet Marsh Carter, former head of State Street Bank and of the New York Stock Exchange. Working with the Vietnamese and friends in Quang Tri Province, they came up with Project Renew. With the help of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, they finally got serious money for the purpose.
Nearly 900,000 square meters of land have been cleaned up and released for agricultural production. More than 50 million square meters of hazardous areas are slated for clearance. But it’s impossible to eliminate every mine. So Project Renew and others have established a school curriculum on how to recognize the danger and whom to call. Risk education has been provided to nearly 350,000 children and adults. Technical teams are available to go out and defuse bombs. 48,379 cluster bombs, grenades and other ordnance have been safely removed and destroyed. Between 2001 and 2016, 1200 amputees injured by UXO have been provided artificial limbs and other assistance; 700 families disabled by UXO accidents are supporting themselves by raising cows and pigs, growing mushrooms and making brooms and other products.
Despite that progress, the problems left by herbicides like Agent Orange have yet to be dealt with. Agent Orange is perhaps the most notorious of the toxins, the effect of which is now felt by two subsequent generations of victims. Since the war ended, the trees and grasses have grown back, but the poison remains in parts of the food supply. Mental and physical disabilities, now carried genetically from one generation to another to another, have scarcely been addressed. An estimated three million Vietnamese have health problems linked to Agent Orange.
Project Renew wants to provide practical assistance to families that may have as many as five disabled children. We saw some in the streets, especially in Quang Tri Province. Those we saw are among those who can walk. As Chuck Searcy points out, many cannot. Pictures of their deformities are horrifying. Their bones are misshapen. They are blind. They can’t speak. Many, he says, can only writhe and moan or scream. They’re cared for by aging parents. What will happen to them when their parents are gone?
It took the United States a long time to recognize the impacts of Agent Orange on its own GI’s who served there, including those involved with C-123 aircraft used to spray the poisons. Many developed cancer and other problems; their children were born with birth defects. U.S. veterans benefits are now available. Finally, there’s a growing acknowledgement of the need for the United States to help the Vietnamese victims. Project Renew and other advocates continue to push for more help from USAID. It’s a minuscule rounding-off figure in the State Department, but I wonder what its fate will be in the current political environment.