In Return to Vietnam, Vets Tackle Mess They Left Behind

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A handful of former U.S. servicemen have moved to Vietnam permanently to clean up devastation left by American bombs and Agent Orange. AP Photo

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

One of them was Chuck Searcy, who was a U.S. 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 now.

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 U.S. 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,” Searcy said by telephone on Thanksgiving night from the Hanoi Press Club, which sits atop an elegant French-colonial style building that opened in the ancient quarter of the city in 1997. “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 U.S.-backed Saigon government, which peaked in 1968 with over a half-million U.S. troops in South Vietnam, caused upwards of 1.5 million Vietnamese casualties, an untold number wrought by U.S. air strikes, including those on targets near the street where they dined last week.

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

In September Searcy, Campbell, and other veterans visited Washington, D.C., to lobby for increased humanitarian aid to Vietnam. But they 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,” said Searcy, decrying the trickle of money Congress has appropriated for cleaning up the lethal mess left from the decade of direct U.S. combat operations in the country.

Searcy’s patrician good looks might get him mistaken for a Coca-Cola executive looking for business in Vietnam. Instead, as a Hanoi-based representative of two humanitarian foundations – Project RENEW and the New York–based Humpty Dumpty Institute – he 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 returning to New Jersey after his 1967–1968 combat tour, freely admits that 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 he decided to stay, “to help families who were victims of recent explosions from [unexploded ordnance].” 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 local Vietnamese woman keeps things tidy and shops for him in the market. A typical day begins with a bowl of pho, Vietnam’s legendary spicy beef broth, followed by “reading and study,” and then 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. Some nights he has friends over to watch a DVD. And he makes the rounds of Hoi An’s numerous coffeehouses. But tragedy is never far away.

“Living here, I hear about these accidents, and it still causes me pain,” Campbell says. “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 Small Business Administration under President Jimmy Carter and once served as executive director of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, moved to Vietnam in 1994.

On what was Thanksgiving morning back in the States, about 800 representatives of international humanitarian organizations 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 11 million 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 U.S. 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,” Searcy says.

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, U.S. government aid, “dominated by health-related assistance,” crested at $100 million, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Defense Department, pleased by its former enemy’s continued assistance on recovering MIA remains, has fostered military cooperation with Vietnam and built health clinics and dispatched medical instructors to the country.

In 2012, the U.S. kicked off a four-year, $43 million program 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 and the remote paths 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.”

In an email exchange this week, Palazzo begged off talking more about his life in Vietnam because he’d been laid low by dengue fever, a common but debilitating malady spread by mosquitos.

But on a website for a fund-raising event last summer, Palazzo raged that “the Agent Orange victims throughout Vietnam received nothing from the manufacturers of this poison, and the U.S. 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, 3 million people were affected in some way by Agent Orange, including at least 150,000 children born with birth defects.

In 2011 the elite, New York–based Aspen Institute, a think tank 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 that we can also enroll the remaining 97 youth with disabilities.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development is not involved. Some $9 million appropriated by 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 back 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 after decades of experience, is dropping all the consultants and contractors USAID traditionally hires and putting money directly into the hands of small nongovernmental groups 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 nongovernmental groups in Vietnam, and come away frustrated. “Agent Orange victim relief is now in free fall,” says Hughes, who has acted extensively in film and television, including 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 has to be cautious, given Vietnam’s record of corruption and its distrust of foreigners, 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.

“The police will keep an eye on you when you first arrive,” Campbell says, and question local groups “about what you are doing.” But “I never had a problem in doing my work here.”

Searcy, who once launched a newspaper in Athens, Ga., thinks he might return to the state someday, but not just yet. “I'm sure I’ll go back, I just don’t have a timetable,” he said in an interview last year. “I might not have a choice, though. I don't have any retirement provisions, so Vietnam might be the only place I can survive as an aging veteran with no means.”

Myra Macpherson, a former Washington Post reporter and author of the 1984 book, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, threw a party at her Washington apartment in September for Searcy and Campbell and some of their Vietnamese coworkers, whom she met on a trip to Hanoi last April.

She 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, D.C., is in recovery from cancer contracted from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam during 1968-1969.

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