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January / February 2009

red star bulletThe Veteran Departments : Angola Prison | Stayin' Alive | Vietnam Veterans Restoration Project | VVA Chapter 333 | Cold Case | Letters | President's Message | Government Affairs | TAPS | Region 3 Report | Constitution Committee Report | Membership Affairs Report | Region 9 Report | Convention Resolutions Committee Report | AVVA Report | VA Voluntary Services Report | Veterans Incarcerated Committee Report | Elections Comittee Report | Veterans Benefits Committee Report | Arts Of War | Calendar | Books In Review | Membership Notes | Locator | Reunions

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Angola is situated on an antebellum plantation named after the African country whose inhabitants had been captured as slaves and transported to the New World. It is Louisiana’s oldest prison and the nation’s largest prison.

The post-Civil War Reconstruction era brought widespread unemployment, poverty, and despair for the newly freed slaves, as well for the former Confederate soldiers and their families. This period was marked by social disorder and the need for cheap labor to reconstruct Louisiana’s infrastructure. Work was sorely needed on the levees along Mississippi River and on the devastated railways and roads.

One way to address these labor-intensive public work projects was by “leasing convicts.” In 1880, former Confederate Maj. Samuel James purchased Angola, an 8,000-acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish, and offered to confine Louisiana prisoners in the former slave quarters close to the Mississippi’s levees at no cost to the state. In exchange, Maj. James kept the profits from their enforced labor. This arrangement was passed on to his son upon James’s death in 1894.  

Thus began a long period of penal servitude coupled with sheer brutality. The life expectancy of a prisoner was about five years, even after the state acquired the prison plantation in 1901. Living conditions were extremely unsanitary, and diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria were rampant. Prisoners were guarded by mounted and armed “convict bosses.” Prisoners were often desperate to escape the harsh conditions.

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“The experience of the brotherhood and healing provided by being a member of a VVRP team was something that the VA can never provide for a veteran. If one of us had a rough time with something, there were ten brothers to pick us back up.

I watched one of our brothers totally get off his PTSD meds. I believe I slew a lot of dragons over there. My friends keep telling me I came home different.”

—Wolf Seuling, VVRP team member

Having lived and worked in Vietnam for eight years, John Ward’s return to the A Shau Valley held a particularly special meaning. When he made it back to the area in which he served during the Vietnam War, it was in the company of other Vietnam veterans from the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project (VVRP), a California-based group with a long record of returning to Vietnam to heal spiritual wounds and undertake humanitarian projects.

The VVRP has sent teams of Vietnam veterans (frequently accompanied by non-veterans) to Vietnam twenty-one times prior to the 2007 mission. In 2008, Ward coordinated another project in the same A Luoi district at A Dot. Another team went in April 2008 and built another school building, as the team had done at A Luoi. VVRP spokesman Ed Daniels said, “Both projects were successful not only from our perspective but from the Vietnamese perspective as well. The Vietnamese were very happy with the work that was done.

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Stayin’ Alive: How To Start And Run A Charity In Vietnam

A series of articles focusing on VVA chapters and the fundraising strategies they have developed


In 1999, Francis (Chuck) Theusch bought an around-the-world airplane ticket. He wanted to go to Vietnam to see the country where he had fought 30 years earlier. Theusch was a mortar-man with the Americal Division. His AO was near Duc Pho, close to the My Lai massacre.

Theusch went to the My Lai Massacre Memorial where he met a tourist guide. She was reserved, and her demeanor showed some hostility. Some of her relatives had died in the massacre, and she did not like Americans. But she was polite, and Theusch spoke with her about other things. He found out her father was a school administrator near the memorial, and they went to find him and talk about the war. The man was a former VC. They talked about the war, and the conversation turned to what the future held for the Vietnamese people.

Theusch already had decided that he wanted to help this country and its people. There had been flooding in the area, and Theusch thought he could rebuild a bridge that had flooded out. His interpreter shrugged and said it flooded every year. What this country needed was libraries, the interpreter said.

Theusch abruptly ended his world tour, cashed in his ticket, and used the cash to start a library.

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The members of Rockland County, New York, Chapter 333, in the Hudson River Valley north of New York City, are justifiably proud of the wide array of community projects they are involved in. Among other endeavors, the chapter has provided crucial support for the local County Veterans Clinic; was the driving force behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Orangeburg, New York; and created the Memorial Day Watchfire program to honor POW/MIAs, versions of which are now held throughout the nation.

Since 2005, the chapter also has been involved in an extensive humanitarian mission far from the shores of the Hudson River. That year, eight chapter members, including President Ed Frank and Board member Howard Goldin, joined a group of other veterans and members of the local Rotary club on a trip to Vietnam. The group designed the trip to stop at each place where each veteran had served, and also included a stop in the Vietnamese capital where the group visited the Hanoi Hilton. The group also met with U.S. Ambassador Mike Marine, who gave them a briefing on POW/MIA recovery efforts.

“We toured the country,” Goldin said in a recent interview. “Our guide was the son of an ARVN. We just happened to connect with him and there was closure—not for everybody, but there was closure. It was an amazing journey.” The journey also led to a Chapter 333 commitment to help the people of Vietnam, a commitment that was born after the veterans met and interacted with many Vietnamese civilians, including children.

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For nearly twenty years, two-term North Carolina Congressman Billy Hendon has focused his energies on the story and the fate of the American POWs left in Vietnam. Last year, St. Martin’s Press published An Enormous Crime, the culmination of his investigations.

The book, written with Elizabeth Stewart, is a compelling read. Hendon posits that the fate of American POWs was sealed at the Bay of Pigs in April of 1961, before the first serviceman was seized in Vietnam. When Kennedy took the political expedient of paying ransom for those held in the aftermath of the aborted invasion of Cuba, the Vietnamese paid close attention.

As hostilities escalated in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong issued strict orders on the capturing of Americans: Take them alive; they will be valuable assets later.

When the Watergate investigations gathered like thunderheads over Washington in 1972, Kissinger and Nixon became desperate to end the war. The Vietnamese proved to be much harder negotiators than Kissinger anticipated. And they insisted upon reparations. Their bargaining chips were American POWs.

Ultimately, Kissinger signed an agreement that guaranteed the return of the POWs, but he never asked how many there were. Nixon, for his part, signed a secret letter promising vast sums of money to help Vietnam overcome the ravages of war.

When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the negotiators of the Paris Accords, Le Duc Tho, unlike Kissinger, refused the prize because the Accords had not been fully implemented: The Americans, he said, hadn’t provided the assistance that Nixon had promised.

Hendon claims that when pushed by congressional investigators, Kissinger denied both a quid pro quo and the existence of a secret Nixon letter. Persistent reports of live American prisoners underscored the fact that the Vietnamese still believed the POWs were their most effective bargaining chip, even though Congress moved to end speculation by declaring them dead

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