News24

Vietnam: 30 years later

2005-04-29 12:35

Hai Que - The returning Americans had fought and killed in the children's country, their forces sowing the land with explosives that still take lives, but now a thousand young Vietnamese faced the group of United States veterans, smiled and chorused, "Thank you."

With little drums beating, flags waving and posters held aloft, the children marched out of a school yard and through the rice fields, the Americans walking with them, to spread awareness about a deadly legacy of the Vietnam War - unexploded weaponry.

The "thank yous" were for the help given by some of the 10 US veterans who had come back three decades after the conflict to end the killing and crippling, and find their own personal peace with a receding but still vivid past.

"I carry the war with me every day," said Christos Cotsakos, wounded while fighting not far from this central Vietnam village in some of the war's bloodiest battles. For the past 37 years, he's had a now yellowing newspaper story tucked in his wallet which reports the deaths of three close buddies in his squad.

Helping

It was Cotsakos, a multimillionaire pioneer of online financial services, who donated funds to start the effort to rid Quang Tri province, the most heavily bombed and shelled area of Vietnam, of what he calls "a heinous, barbarous assault on innocent kids."

Nearly 7 000 people, a third of them children, have died or been injured in the province by unexploded ordnance since the war ended on April 30, 1975. But in the four years of Project Renew's existence, the number of victims has fallen dramatically, to just 57 last year.

The project by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which focuses on both mine awareness and clearance of explosives, is hardly the only one by former warriors to aid their one-time enemies.

Taking an exceptional step in the aftermath of war, a number of the 2.7 million who served in the conflict have built schools, hospitals, libraries and computer centres in the still impoverished country. They're caring for orphans and helping in the search for Vietnam's own missing in action.

"I tell vets, `We didn't come here to kill Vietnamese people. We believed our government. That was our only sin. We came here to help the Vietnamese people, so let's come back and finish what we started,"' says Suel Jones, a twice wounded Marine veteran from Houston, Texas, who runs the Vietnam Friendship Village Project.

The village near Hanoi cares for 120 children believed deformed by the defoliant Agent Orange which the United States sprayed to deny cover to communist forces. In partnership with the Hanoi government's Veterans Association of Vietnam, the project also helps old and destitute Vietnamese war veterans.

The eight-day visit by his group coincides with the 30th anniversary of the communist victory.