Americans Help Rebuild Vietnam
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ Chuck Searcy, a lanky ex-soldier from Georgia, makes leg braces for children stricken with cerebral palsy. Lady Borton, a Quaker from Ohio, delivers medicine and hope with a smile, as she has since the height of the Vietnam War.
And almost 40 years after he first waded into the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, veteran aid worker Curtiss Swezy is back.
The Vietnam War ended 25 years ago on April 30, unleashing a torrent of refugees, most to the United States. Today, a trickle flows in the opposite direction _ Americans who were here during the turbulent conflict and have returned as aid workers because they believe the United States has an obligation to help its former foe.
``It’s very important to my wife and I to be back in the forefront of the reconstruction effort,″ said Swezy, 62, who built village schools and dredged irrigation canals in neighboring Laos in 1963-67. He fell in love with the lush, exotic landscape and married a Laotian, but left in frustration as the war encroached. ``For us, Vietnam is not just another economically challenged country. It’s a very important place.″
The official U.S.-Vietnam relationship remains awkward, plagued by the fate of missing American soldiers, hidden mines that still kill and maim, and fallout from the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
Washington now provides several million dollars of assistance to Vietnam annually. It is channeled through private aid groups so it doesn’t go directly to the communist government.
But at a more personal level, both countries are reaching out. Vietnamese often greet Americans like long-lost friends. More than 70 U.S.-based aid groups are active here, almost all arriving since the U.S. embargo was lifted in 1994.
Unlike many developing countries, where American aid workers tend to be fresh out of college, it’s not unusual to find people in their 50s or 60s here. The war shaped their lives and left a yearning to return.
With the South Vietnamese army in a panicked retreat and the last Americans fleeing in the war’s final days, Borton and three colleagues from her pacifist Quaker group were among the few _ possibly only _ U.S. citizens in communist North Vietnam.
``I wasn’t trying to take a political stand. We always work with all sides if we can,″ said Borton, 57, who was delivering medical supplies as part of the group’s commitment to help anyone in need.
Borton, whose many years of devotion to Vietnam have made her a one-woman institution here, provided medicine to civilians in U.S-backed South Vietnam in 1969-71.
But her two-week trip to the North at such an emotionally charged time angered critics at home who tried without success to get her fired from her teaching job in a poor Appalachian region of Ohio.
Shortly after the war, reunified Vietnam tossed out virtually all foreigners, including the Quakers, and isolated itself from all but its communist allies.
Yet Borton’s passion for the country still burned. She worked with Vietnamese boat people who fled to Malaysia. She wrote two books, told through the eyes of ordinary Vietnamese whose voices were drowned out by war’s thunder.
And in 1990, she was welcomed back to reopen Quaker Service Vietnam, delicately skirting the embargo, which wasn’t lifted until four years later. An earlier attempt to import rice for victims of a typhoon took nine months _ a delay she blamed on U.S. bureaucracy.
``When it finally got here, it was just in time for the next year’s typhoon season,″ Borton said.
But her fluent Vietnamese and wealth of connections in Hanoi’s leadership allowed her to help thaw the icy relationship by serving as a ``cultural interpreter″ when the United States opened an embassy in 1995.
Even with the embargo gone, most funding for her rural development projects come from Europe.
``I don’t think the people in the United States know the incredible warmth that the Vietnamese people have for Americans,″ she said. ``The Vietnamese have a much healthier approach about what happened.″
A military intelligence specialist during the war, Searcy came back as a tourist in 1982, heading straight to the site of his old unit outside Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
``I recognized the road and the bridge _ but I didn’t recognize the village because it had been destroyed and rebuilt,″ said Searcy, 55.
He asked a group of elderly men where the American base had been.
``They pointed one way _ and then the other. They had just a vague recollection that an American base had been there and they didn’t really care,″ he said.
The experience led Searcy to a larger truth about America’s slow, painful process of coming to grips with post-war Vietnam.
``This disappointment of going back to a war site and discovering it’s not there reflects America’s vision of Vietnam _ it’s stuck 25 years in the past,″ he said.
Searcy, from Thomson, Ga., moved to Hanoi in 1995 and runs the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation office, with a mission to support aid projects.
Five thousand children, most suffering from cerebral palsy, have been treated with the group’s help via the National Institute of Pediatrics, one of Vietnam’s leading hospitals.
The kids had been wearing clunky metal and wooden leg braces. But in a room at the end of a hospital hallway filled with noisy children, technicians hammer, saw, sand and bake much lighter thermal plastic braces, which helps many of the children walk more easily.
``It has made a big difference,″ said Dr. Tran Thi Thu Ha, deputy head of pediatrics. ``Disabled children come to us from all over Vietnam.″
When Swezy first toured remote villages in Laos in 1963 for the U.S. Agency for International Development, it would have been difficult to find a more isolated or tranquil place.
By the time he married his Laotian wife, Gin, in 1965, the first U.S. combat troops were arriving in Vietnam.
When the young couple left in 1967, war was raging and spilling into Laos. Swezy knew it was time to go.
After leaving, war erupted in Laos, endangering his wife’s family. Seven of Swezy’s in-laws fled Laos, paying a fisherman for a risky nighttime trip across the Mekong River into Thailand, and eventually making their way to the United States.
Swezy, who maintains a home in suburban Washington, worked in other troubled countries, then he and his wife jumped at the chance to come to Vietnam in 1998 to open the office of Counterpart International, a Washington, D.C.,-based development group.
``We’ve come full circle, back to the region where we started,″ he said.