We talk with a veteran Chuck Searcy, who is carrying on a very important mission of recovery. Words and photo by Vinh Dao.
Chuck Searcy is a man on a mission. The former veteran of the American War turned peace activist spends his time working with a trio of organisations with one sole purpose: to help the country recover from a war that ended over forty years ago.
Your connection to Vietnam began during the American War. What was your perspective of the country when you first arrived and what is your perspective of the country now?
I had little knowledge or understanding of Viet Nam when I arrived here in June, 1967 as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst. I immediately liked the Vietnamese who worked with me at the Combined Intelligence Center, Vietnam (CICV, near Tan Son Nhat airbase and MACV headquarters), though not all my fellow soldiers shared that view. But most of the GIs I knew shared a growing skepticism about the war. That turned into outright opposition to U.S. policy after the Tet Mau Than Offensive in 1968, which caused significant casualties – especially for the Vietnamese – and terrible destruction in Saigon. When I left Vietnam in June, 1968 I was convinced that the war was wrong, the policy was grievously flawed and the results were tragic – not only for the Vietnamese, but for the American people as well.
Since I returned to Viet Nam in 1995 to live and work I have seen that the Vietnamese still have the same amazing resilience and determination which allowed them to survive those terrible years of war four decades ago. They are resourceful, hard-working, independent, and good-humored, generous with a smile and always willing to help a stranger. They struggled mightily to reunite and rebuild their country after the war, cut off from outside help by the U.S. embargo and isolated politically, but they succeeded nonetheless. Today Viet Nam has proven itself as an economic phoenix against all expectations. The country is building a better future for upcoming generations.
You worked with military intelligence during the war. Can you tell us a bit about your experience in the country?
I was trained as a military intelligence analyst. In 1967 in Saigon I was assigned to the Combined Intelligence Center, Vietnam (CICV) as a member of a team responsible for final preparation of classified reports and studies compiled from field reports and captured documents about what the enemy – the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese – might do next. We tried to understand what strengths and advantages they might use against U.S. forces, and to identify vulnerabilities that we might use against them. Many of the officers and enlisted men with whom I worked gradually realised that we were part of an institutional process that was not always reporting accurate information and assessments, but in some cases we were “interpreting” the information to conform to the policy that Washington insisted upon. We tried to find the “light at the end of the tunnel” and show that the U.S. effort would be successful. That was simply wrong. Many of my fellow GIs worried that we were part of a big lie – and we didn’t know what to do about it. The Tet Mau Than Offensive in 1968 solved that problem for us, because the surprise attack overnight by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units all over southern Viet Nam, including the capitol of Saigon, proved that U.S. government and military officials were not telling the truth about the war to the American people.
You are also involved with Veterans for Peace (VFP) which brings American War veterans to Vietnam to highlight the damage of Agent Orange. What has been the response from the veterans when they experience first-hand the effects of the dioxin?
Some of the veterans who have joined the tours of Viet Nam hosted by Veterans For Peace are themselves suffering effects of Agent Orange, so they are especially sensitive to the medical and health implications of dioxin poisoning – the toxic chemical which causes genetic breakdowns and birth defects, deformities, illnesses. A generation of American veterans are facing the consequences of Agent Orange, and a much larger population of Vietnamese – an estimated three million Vietnamese children and adults – are suffering severe problems believed to be related to Agent Orange. The response of veterans on our VFP tours is to direct some of the donations that we collect toward helping families improve their living conditions, get medical and rehabilitation assistance they need, repair and renovate their houses so their living conditions are a little better. U.S. veterans also go back to the U.S. with a renewed commitment to be “ambassadors” and tell other Americans about the terrible problems that still exist in Viet Nam because of Agent Orange, to encourage greater support and assistance to the very large Vietnamese population that is still suffering.
Can you tell us about Project RENEW?* How did you come about the decision to launch it?
Project RENEW is a joint effort of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) and the provincial government of Quang Tri Province. It’s comprehensive and integrated strategy deals with the deadly threat of thousands of bombs and mines (unexploded ordnance or UXO) that still litter the province, the former DMZ (“demilitarised” zone) at the 17th Parallel. Project RENEW deals with that threat using a two-track approach: (1) children and adults at the village level are taught how to be safe, how to identify the cluster bombs, grenades, and other ordnance that they find every day, the urgent need to stay away from these deadly munitions and to call in the exact location and report the finding, immediately; which (2) triggers a response from trained, equipped, experienced Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams, who come to the site and assess the problem, evacuate the area, and remove or destroy the ordnance quickly and safely. That happens two, or five, up to 10 times a day, every day. Last year, more than 700 reports of UXO were called in by local people. More than 7,000 items of ordnance were destroyed by our teams.
Project RENEW and NPA have also expanded cleanup efforts into all of Quang Tri Province using a comprehensive survey methodology.
It makes the work faster by identifying more accurately and quickly the size of impacted areas, the nature of the contamination, and the type of response needed. The Vietnamese staff at Project RENEW have sharpened their focus over the years. We used to say there was no choice but to “clean up every bomb and mine” in Viet Nam. Now we realise that is unrealistic – and not necessary. Viet Nam will have to deal with unexploded munitions for many years into the future. Our goal now is to make Quang Tri Province safe while that public safety need is being addressed. The goal is zero accidents, zero deaths and injuries. When Project RENEW was launched in 2001, an average of 80 or 90 accidents a year had occurred since the war ended in 1975.
Last year, 2016, there was one accident in the entire province, resulting in one fatality and one injury. We now believe that is a realistic goal, it is achievable.