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January / February 2009

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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.”

Ward’s first-hand experience and many relationships with Vietnamese served him well as the group’s in-country contact with local authorities. The place where they wanted to build a three-room schoolhouse—A Luoi—had never before been visited by Americans, except for MIA search teams. Americans had never been allowed to stay over night in A Luoi before. This was the first group of Americans permitted to live and work in A Luoi Township.

The A Luoi area held special meaning for Ward, who served with the 101st Airborne as an infantry squad leader in the A Shau Valley in 1969-71.

“I was able to get a project there because a retired, formerly prominent and influential man is now working for the Hue Union of Friendship Organizations,” Ward said in an email from Vietnam. “Every province has such a branch. We met early last year and I presented my request. A few weeks later, he had all the initial permissions to get started. The project is a three-room kindergarten with bathrooms and a kitchen.”

The VVRP’s project team went to A Luoi in April, the twenty-second project since the VVRP’s founding in 1988 by Vietnam veteran Fredy Champagne and other veterans in Garberville, Calif. The first VVRP team went to Vietnam in 1989, spending two months to build a health clinic in Vung Tau. In the ensuing years, more than 120 VVRP veterans have taken part in projects in-country.

A 501(c)(3) non-governmental organization, the VVRP has built clinics, houses for disabled veterans, vocational training centers, and kindergarten classrooms. Team members work with Vietnamese counterparts on all of the projects and undergo a formal, mandatory three-day orientation and team-building workshop in California before leaving for Vietnam.

“John [Ward] had been wanting to get a project in the A Shau Valley for years because of his background with the 101st,” former VVRP board member Bob Quimby said. “It’s a very restricted area. The Vietnamese government wouldn’t allow any foreigners there. We are the first Americans [to work on the ground since the war], other than the MIA search teams. For that reason alone, it’s a thing of note. The way I see it is Americans going back to the A Shau carrying schoolbooks instead of guns.“

Relying on donors to cover its expenses, VVRP sends one or two teams to Vietnam each year. The teams are made up of four to twelve members who spend about a month in-country, usually two weeks working at a project site and two weeks in which the veterans often travel to areas where they once served. All team members pay their own way.

John Ward, living in Dong Ha, worked for the EAST Meets WEST foundation until the end of 1999, when it closed his office. Three months later, he said, Kids First Viet Nam asked him to run its developing Rehabilitation and Career Counseling Center in Dong Ha.

With his years of living in Vietnam, Ward has watched it change gradually—a decidedly different view than veterans returning for the first time.

“Returning veterans bring with them a formidable memory of Vietnam as a war experience,” Ward said. “Those who return are amazed at the differences. Many fall in love with the place and the women. However, there are many veterans who don’t want to reconcile the present with the past. It’s truly a shame that they cling to their anger and blame the Vietnamese.”

He said that A Luoi has only begun receiving funds to develop the area in the last two years, and that even the infamous Hamburger Hill will be billed as a tourist destination. Ward pointed out that the area was heavily bombed during the war. Unexploded ordnance and the lingering effects of Agent Orange remain serious problems.

Ward finds a historical pattern in Vietnam that might surprise some veterans.

“Vietnam is a lot like post-World War II America,” he said. “Everywhere there’s construction—roads, government buildings, dams, and homes. The pace of change is truly amazing, and the government is forced to deal with all the problems and challenges that such change presents.”

In April 2008, the Lotus Humanitarian Aid Foundation, Veterans for America, and VVRP teamed up to build a second kindergarten in A Dot Commune of A Luoi District. A Dot borders Laos and required special permission from provincial-level police and military to realize the project. The VVRP sent its 23rd team to work on this project for two weeks.

VVRP President Charlie Wishart and John Ward are in the process of making a proposal for a third kindergarten to be built in 2009 in the A Ngo Commune of A Luoi District.

Additional information on VVRP is available at the group’s web page, www.vvrp.org 

 

 

 

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