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The Honolulu Advertiser

Associated Press

Posted on: Sunday, January 17, 2010

Vietnam veterans help heal wounds of war

 • Base services facing cuts
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Pupils of Trieu An school in Vietnam's Quang Tri province organize chairs after a ceremony for their new school, which was built with help from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

LE QUANG NHAT | Associated Press

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DONG HA, Vietnam A piece of shrapnel sliced Jerry Maroney's right leg. A bullet pierced Peter Holt's neck. Les Newell took a shot in the rump.

These old American soldiers recovered from the physical scars of combat long ago. But last week, they visited a place where people still have fresh wounds from the Vietnam War, which ended nearly 35 years ago.

They came to Quang Tri Province, which is still littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance that routinely kill and maim people trying to scratch out a living in the rice fields. Their visit was organized by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the Washington, D.C., monument that commemorates the lives of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam.

VVMF sponsors Project RENEW, a nonprofit organization that helps Quang Tri residents like Pham Quy Tuan, 41, whose left hand and right arm were blown off by a leftover American projectile he found in a rice paddy four months ago.

"When I realized I'd lost my hands, all I could think about was how much I love my wife and kids, and how I would become a big burden to them," said Tuan, who also suffered severe burns and remains in chronic pain.

The VVMF delegation was led by Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired four-star general who served as President Clinton's drug czar and now appears as a military analyst on NBC news. Also participating were family members of fallen soldiers and Vietnam veterans making their first trip back to Vietnam, several of whom had personal missions.

Sam Metters, who has three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, hoped to find a school that he and several Army comrades designed for Vietnamese orphans while they were stationed near Saigon.

Judy Campbell of Wilmington, Del., planned to visit the spot in Bien Hoa where her brother, Keith Campbell, was killed during a pitched battle on Feb. 8, 1967, three weeks before his 21st birthday. Keith Campbell, a medic, was killed by a sniper just 19 days after he arrived in Vietnam, while saving two injured soldiers during a fierce firefight.

The delegation was impressed by the economic boom unleashed by the market reforms the communist country has implemented over the past two decades.

And they were heartened by the warm welcome they received from the people, including those in a Quang Tri district where they dedicated a new elementary school funded by VVMF.

"I feel like a rock star," said Maroney, 62, a former Marine who recently retired from his job as a detective in Long Island, N.Y.

Maroney was apprehensive. "I hated these guys. They killed my friends. We killed them. It was war."

For the Vietnamese in Quang Tri, the war hasn't completely ended.

"It's still a daily part of their lives," said Scruggs, who decided to start Project RENEW during a visit to Vietnam in 2000. "Some of them are missing limbs, some have been blinded. It tears your heart out."

According to VVMF, more than 350,000 tons of landmines and explosives remain scattered across the country, much of them in Quang Tri, near the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which once divided North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

Since 1975, when troops from the communist north triumphed, more than 100,000 Vietnamese people have been killed or injured by landmines or unexploded ordnance, more than 7,000 of them in Quang Tri, according to the government.

Project RENEW focuses on three districts in the province, where it educates people about the dangers of landmines and clears the land of explosives. It also assists the injured, providing them with artificial limbs, small loans and job training.

On Thursday, the delegation watched a team detonate explosives that had been found near two homes in the Cam Lo district, including a cluster bomb and a grenade launcher in the yard of 75-year-old Nguyen Thi Yen Thi. Thi was relieved to see them go.

"You never know when those things might explode," said Thi, who has found a half dozen explosives in her yard over the years.