Sunday, October 26, 2008

To End the Vietnam War

The three women walked up to sit in front of the audience. Ms. Dang, regal in stature and demeanor, her translator Ms. Huyen and young Ms. Tran whose age is indiscernible. She was without legs, and her rounded face and rose-like complexion made her look much younger than her 22 years. The three women spoke softly without microphones. They traveled far from Vietnam to speak to the American people on the fourth Vietnam Agent Orange Justice Tour on behalf of victims of the Dow and Monsanto chemical companies’ Agent Orange used during the war in Vietnam by American forces. The victims represent the three million affected in Vietnam, tens of thousands of American veterans and Canadians also exposed to the chemicals, and many Vietnamese Americans as well as the second and third generations who continue to be victimized by Agent Orange. As Ms. Dang says, although her health has been greatly weakened, she feels a great commitment to travel and speak on behalf of the many victims who cannot even move or speak.

Accompanying them was a US organizer for the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign who pointed out that the chemical companies used Agent Orange as a defoliant even though they knew that its toxicity would kill humans, that it would get into the chromosomes. They knew that the dioxin was not necessary but, as she said, it was greed and racism that allowed them to create a quick and dirty agent. “They didn’t care about the time and temperature of the materials. They didn’t care about the US
and Canadian soldiers using the agent. They didn’t care about the Vietnamese.”

Amy Pincus, local activist who was videoing the evening gave the audience some chilling news. She spoke up and informed the audience she also was a victim of Agent Orange. OSU professor Mark Newton was given Agent Orange as late as 1975 and it was sprayed as a defoliant over clear-cut areas all over the Northwest. She explained that the toxin bonds to the sediment, that it is carried through the water systems.

The speakers informed those assembled that although there have been some movement, justice is at a stalemate. Dow has only cleaned one hotspot. Although the Vietnamese government and the people do whatever they can to support the millions with their plight -- health care, day care (because of the severe birth deformities of the second generation where most are trapped in their bodies and beds and must be cared for in every way), it is far from enough. On the US front, veterans affected by Agent Orange and their families are stuck in bureaucracy having to prove their eligibility for help. Their children and grandchildren affected by Agent Orange are not covered.

I am posting this because it is something I felt would help the US, all of us, begin to leave the war behind. The speakers ask for very little although the need is great. They ask that Americans bring this issue to the forefront of our legislature and President to push for what would be like a Marshall Plan and which covers the American veterans and the Vietnamese Americans and the victims in Vietnam and the land which has been affected. Once again, it is the former enemies who carry the banner for the American veterans who have until very recently been shoved into a closet by their own country, veterans who have become the scapegoats of the shame caused by the disasterous policies of the Vietnam Conflict. Find out more at

I have learned that there is only one way to leave the war behind and that is to deal with the unfinished business rather than burying the past. An aging generation of Vietnam veterans has spent a lifetime of isolation and non-support. It is a sad statement that for many veterans of the Vietnam war, the first people who acknowledged their suffering and loss, and who welcomed them back into the human family were their former enemies. That is where my own first steps to leave the war began about fourteen years ago -- led by a team of veterans who returned to Vietnam with World Team Sports.

Asia Society put the World Team Sports venture called the Vietnam Challenge on the Internet for school children all over America to access January, 1998. I decided to get my students online for the Vietnam Challenge which brought together veterans from both sides of the Vietnam war to bicycle the length of Vietnam. For many US vets, this was their first time back and some went with anxiety and fear in their heart returning to a land where they had lost their youth and belief in humanity. The team was comprised by men and women, able bodied and disabled. Some were blind and rode in bicycle carts. Some were blind and rode tandem. Some had no legs and rode hand-cycles. Before the winter break, Jefferson students emailed questions to the Vietnam Challenge vets to answer at their various stops along the way. Mildly curious, sixth and eighth grade students logged on after their winter break to read the first words written by the World Team Sports veterans.

I learned the hard way, breaking down in front of my class when I read the emailed journalizing from the American vets, to read by myself after school hours. Their raw honesty broke through feelings which had been buried deep inside me and I couldn’t hold back the tears. For the duration of the Challenge, that’s what I did each evening, sit in front of my computer, sobbing out loud. I wasn’t the only one. Many of us teaching at Jefferson were youth during this era, and most of us were part of the Peace Movement. The Vietnam Challenge cyclists took us all back to our youth. For me, the deaths of Sammy, Chuck, Jim, high school and college classmates who died in ’68, ’69 spurred me to join the peace movement. I remember walking alone downtown at night after a phone call about Sammy Rodriguez dying the first month of combat in Vietnam and turning to the refuge of the First Methodist Church. The church door was locked. I don’t know why that became the focal point of my anger. It somehow represented the nation’s leaders and the policies which had kept us in that war for the duration of my college years, and now Sammy, the first of his family to go to college, drafted out of his senior year when his grades suffered from one bad term, and dead that summer. It was wrong and no one was there to listen. I felt betrayed -- by church, by country -- and fell into a dark hopelessness. The only light, which I grasped onto eventually, was activism in the anti-war movement and the Asian American movement. The Peace Movement in Eugene was city-wide, based both on campus and in community. Returning Vietnam Vets and university students as well as the community formed the leadership. The funny thing is I don’t know how it ended. It just kind of petered out one day with news reports of baby airlifts as hundreds of children were taken out of Vietnam and away from their families. It’s a fog to me still. We just returned to business as usual, cramming everything down inside. And the veterans were swept into a corner with yesterday’s news.

Twenty years later, in my classroom after hours through the Vietnam Challenge, I came face to face with Vietnam again. The students were surprised by the flood of emotion coming through the Internet as US veterans shared generously and honestly their deepest emotions with the young people. Each question was answered with such care and thoroughness. The Challenge veterans were not just the young people’s eyes on a beautiful peaceful country, which had come far from war. The Challenge veterans became their time machine transporting them to a harsh time, which divided their nation, parent against children, brother against brother.

The email conversation between the veterans and American students evolved into a friendship. The veterans were very open and honest with their feelings and all of it poured out. Students had favorites: Jose Ramos who called them “little brothers and little sisters” and cared about their future; Wayne Smith who answered each question with such respect for the youth; Artie Guerrero who promised Jefferson students that he would visit them on his hand cycle. There was “Elvis” a Vietnamese man whose goal was to make 1000 American friends. We told him he had made 530 at Jefferson.

My students learned from the cyclists that this was the first time they felt embraced, welcomed and forgiven, and that feeling of Grace came from their former enemies, not their fellow citizens. They had not been welcomed home, yet, to America.

A student in my class demanded, “Why did the veterans feel that they weren’t welcomed home?” Teachers had to grapple with some tough questions.

The students were also struck with what Jose Ramos wrote, that he learned that Vietnam was a country, not a war. That phrase began the conversation, “what can we do to end the war in our own hearts?”

Twelve students decided they would study Vietnam further. I asked them students to ask 100 or more students in the lunchroom “what do you think of when I say Vietnam?” They came back with the answers -- war, hate, and killing. Only a couple said family or friend because they themselves had family members or friends who were Vietnamese.

Clearly, there was a need if we were to finally leave the war behind.

I recruited a graduate student from Vietnam to meet with the twelve. Their mentor was an international student from Hue named Khoi Truang, gentle, kind, articulate. They learned that almost half of the country was born after the war. The majority of the population was young adults and children. For these people, born after the war, the war that is known as the American War has been over for decades. My students learned that many Americans visited Vietnam. Many of those who visited were Vietnam veterans who were welcomed, much as the cyclists, and who received some kind of closure by doing so. Vietnam was a country of trade and tourism.

Eventually, these twelve students wrote papers about what they learned and studied and decided to organize a Peace Symposium: Vietnam is a Country not a War, inviting speakers from many perspectives: Vietnam veterans, international students from Vietnam, Vietnamese Americans and to present their own findings by reading their papers to those who attended. They decided the symposium should be open to the public.

To their amazement, Asia Society based in New York City wanted to support them by flying in two very special speakers -- Artie Guererro and their favorite bicyclist, Jose Ramos. Artie would be able to keep his promise to show them his hand-cycle.

The afternoon before the conference several eighth graders with hand painted signs went to the airport to greet the veterans. Guerrero and Ramos were met with banners, bouquets and excited students. Ramos said to the TV cameras that if this had happened thirty years ago, his life would have been different.

The students had arranged for the Vietnam veterans and local vets to sit on the small stage to tell their stories. Before they began some students had written some thoughts they wanted to share and one by one stood to say a few words to honor the vets. “Mr. Schwartz, I’m glad you came home safe and taught me math.” “Mr. Dawes, I think you’re a hero for returning to Vietnam to plant an orchard of peach trees where bombs had destroyed everything and for starting an irrigation project,” “Mr. Sixkiller, thanks for coming home and teaching me more about my Native American culture.” “This is for Jose and Artie, I really admire you for all you did. I’m glad you went on the Challenge and came to our Peace Symposium.” Some more students were moved by the moment to stand and give their own impromptu thanks. “Mr. Jorgenson, you’re the best vice principal and I’m glad you came home safe.”

From that moment all carefully laid plans for the symposium went out the window. There would be no staying by the schedule. The veterans were very touched and each responded, some telling their stories, stories they said they had not even been able to tell their family yet. One told about what he had perceived as his act of cowardice for thirty years, but now sees it was an act of survival. Another told about the survivor guilt deadened by alcohol and the loss of everything he held dear from that. Mr. Jorgensen told them that even today, he is unable to sleep without a light on at night. Jose Ramos read his poems emboldened by middle schoolers who visited the night before and demanded “You’ve got to read these tomorrow to all the kids. These poems are really good!” Artie Guerrero told of that horrible night when so many died, about the person he killed because he had to to live only to find she was a woman. He continued that there was one young American kid he still had not been able to put to rest in his tormented mind, but he believed he could do it now with their patience. While he wheeled back and forth on his wheelchair, looking at a distant spot no one could go, the hundred middle schoolers crowded into the small theatre sat hushed giving him his space. After several minutes, he said firmly, “There, I’ve put him down.” As one student said as he left the room, “Wow. This has been really intense!”

There were several forums where the topic was present-day Vietnam. The international speakers were gracious and shared stories of a peaceful, growing and proud country, the country of their friend Khoi. Jefferson students who had researched Vietnam read their papers in the symposium, papers covering various topics of interest -- Cities of Vietnam; Ritual; Foods and Festivals; Ongoing Scars of War; Vietnam Challenge.

Students and staff learned that day after all the other perspectives that even though we successfully presented Vietnam as a Country not a War, the war still continued. A generation of Vietnamese bore heavy casualties. A lot of the land was still affected. As for American veterans, according to Guerrero, 58,000 veterans died in Vietnam and another 60,000 have died since by 1998 through war related causes. More importantly, everyone learned that in giving the Vietnam veteran a forum with a young audience to carry the stories on and in giving the veteran some respect, something important happened. Jose Ramos cautions us from using the word “healing.” He would prefer to say the talking and respectful listening allowed people to “move on.”

The Vietnam Peace Symposium went on each year for the next several years until one teacher and school secretery argued about the word “peace” complaining to the organizing teacher who carried it on. It was 2002, the dawn before the war in Iraq, and suddenly the word peace had become politicized once again. The two disgruntled staff demanded that there be a voice that wanted war. The secretary sent her husband to the panel that included local Arab community speakers to confront them using stereotypes about their country as they tried to share their own real experiences. The symposium persevered one more year but eventually stopped with the weirdness war brings. Over the five or six year that it continued, Jefferson’s friend Jose Ramos returned each year for three years on his own dime. His story is Jefferson’s story also.

He will write a book someday. So out of respect for that I’ll wait until Jose and I talk before I write about his friendship with Jefferson, about the play he inspired, about the "milagro" which happened here, about how he left this town a better town and more prepared. The war in Iraq goes almost as long as the Vietnam War. With this preparedness, the anti war movement and community has not forgotten the soldier and have welcomed home soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. The movement has also stood side by side with families of soldiers, some badly injured, who made the difficult lonely choice to resist. Small groups have stood vigil even through the rain on the corner or marched en masse, filling the streets to end the war and bring our young people home, and lobbied our congressional delegation to vote for funding for veterans benefits and support.

Also we have sent 500 yellow postcards to Washington DC to commemorate a day to finally Welcome Home the Vietnam Veteran, a campaign which Jose Ramos bicycled across the country to spread having caught that vision at Jefferson Middle School. George Bush did not sign the bill introduced by the Congressional delegation of CA and passed by House and Senate.
But the movement Jose Ramos began, the March 30 Welcome Home, Vietnam Veteran Day did not die on George Bush's desk. Check out the website and see how you can organize one at your own home. Welcoming home the soldier of the Vietnam War is not a yes or no to the long and destructive war which split our generation in half. It is to take our share of the burden and responsibility and bring "the family together" by showing the love, respect and acknowledgement of sacrifice the veterans have always deserved.

A middle school and a veteran from Whittier, CA led our community’s journey out of the Vietnam War, but with the 4th Vietnam Agent Orange Justice Tour I am reminded how long the road out of war, how long the road that victims of the war have had to travel alone unless we keep learning. Please educate your friends and neighbors about the unimaginable scope of suffering caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam, the people and the land. Millions. At home, the Vietnam veterans’ families and the veteran have had to fight for every bit of benefit they had earned. The panel educated us how important it is for the veteran's descendents to also receive benefits. Every victim of Agent Orange is not recognized by the government and suffer without benefits. I ask everyone to become educated and write your senators and congressional delegation to hold the US chemical manufacturers responsible and to hold the US government responsible to provide significant and meaningful compensation to the Vietnamese and significant medical and coverage for the Vietnam veterans AND their descendents.Please support the work of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange.

As part of an peace movement, I believe our work does not end with the last helicopter out of Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan. All of our work begins after the soldiers come home, between nations, to fix what has been devastated and support those who have suffered in all countries involved. The burden should not be shouldered only by the grassroots people and service organizations, by the medical community, the veteran and families. It must also be shouldered by the governments who waged the war and corporations who profit from them.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you....
    As a viet-nam, I did not even know about a lot of this stuff. Your writing was great, and made me cry. I have been hiding in the woods of southern oregon for the last 28 years, maybe it's time to poke my head out and look around.


"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

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from Outside the Monster's Belly
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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.