What each of us can and should do

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15-year-old Duong Thi Thao, who suffered from an abnormally large tongue since she was one, received treatment thanks to "Sam-Ottawa's" outreach efforts. Many needy people in Vietnam including children are receiving valuable assistance from a loosely affiliated network of caring individuals and organizations. PHOTOS: VIRTUAL MEDICAL MIRACLE NETWORK  

A few weeks ago I received an email from a friend, a Vietnam War veteran, seeking ways to help a 14-year-old girl with a horribly enlarged tongue that she'd suffered since she turned one.

I sent his request to two people I have known for some time who have been involved in aiding people suffering from direct or suspected results of the war. They in turn sent my friend's letter to some people in their network.

Much to our pleasant surprise we got a letter with some new photos telling us that her problem had already been successfully treated and the pictures showed her new face.

Unfortunately, the long term effects of her problem had destroyed her teeth but efforts are underway to get the funds to fix that. Furthermore, she is due for a follow-up surgery to remove a lump in her throat sometimes after Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. She was helped by Hanoi National Hospital of Pediatrics, on a request by Sam-Ottawa of Canada-based Virtual Medical Miracle Network (VM2N).

In the process of collecting this information, I began to get more letters from various groups and individuals that were following up on the inquiry my friend's letter had prompted and it occurred to me that there is a huge and very loosely affiliated network in Vietnam that has workers and supporters here and in several countries that have been working to try to bring some help to these victims whose suffering has been caused by the presence of Western (mostly American) forces in Vietnam.

I thought it might be useful to organize as much information as I could collect to tell their story along with their mission and how to contact them to contribute money or time to assist them and then to publicize them.

However, as I began to gather details it was evident that expat groups could not be separated from similar efforts by many others who were neither veterans nor expats. It also became evident that the range and scope of this activity - to compile and collate information on all the individuals and organizations engaged in providing succor for people in need, including victims of the horrors visited on the people and the land of Vietnam by the United States and its allies - was very large.

It can only be an ongoing process, but I am presenting a sampling of the information I have been able to collect so far.

When I moved to Nha Trang in 2004, I met a middle-aged Australian woman who now spends most of her life here. She has been raising money by herself, in Australia, and buying the manually powered tricycles that one sees many handicapped people riding on the city streets. She provided these vehicles to disabled people who have been recommended to her by those who know about her work.

Then there is the American veteran who set up a one man NGO to aid Agent Orange victims and began by using only his own money. He has subsequently been able to raise some outside funds but he still personally supplements projects and has others helping and the efforts now include building very modest houses for the families of Agent Orange victims who have no real shelter.

Then we have much larger efforts, some in Vietnam and some working in several countries including Laos and Cambodia, with fairly large staff and offices in the US or the UK to focus their fund raising and awareness-raising work where the money is.

One of the most frequently mentioned people in this line of work is a Canadian citizen of Vietnamese and East Indian heritage named Sam Seyadoussane. Born in Cambodia and holding dual French and Canadian citizenship, he is simply known to his vast network as Sam-Ottawa. Sam has been involved in connecting Dr. McKay McKinnon to Vietnam to perform a 3-day marathon surgery in January 2012 on Nguyen Duy Hai's 200-lb tumor and two other massive tumor cases of Thach Thi Saly and Kieu Thi My Dung.  He did this from his home in Ottawa, Canada, with help from dedicated and capable associates and volunteers from Vietnam, the US, Europe, Australia and other countries.

According to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, "He (Sam) exchanged more than 1,500 emails, and made over 200 telephone calls to build a bridge" to arrange for the tumor surgeries. His Virtual Medical Miracle Network, with focus on rare and difficult to treat diseases among children, apparently includes many legitimate medical and children's charities, major medical hospitals and institutions in Vietnam and overseas. He has a website for use only by his network members as it contains confidential and personal patients data. Some associates of his are working on putting up a website that can be viewed by the public.

Through Sam I learned of Bob Schuessler (orangehelpers.org/ngo). Bob is now operating an NGO from his home in Nha Trang and his website will give you information on their mission and how to contribute. Bob is married to a Vietnamese woman. Some information shows their location as Chicago but that's for organizational reasons. They help Agent Orange victims and their families.

Ben Wilson of Children of Vietnam (childrenofvietnam.org) has a very strong Agent Orange related component in his programs with an office in Da Nang.

Ben wrote to me: "I lived in Da Nang 199597 when building a factory for my company and witnessed the sad conditions of children's lives in orphanages, street children's homes and hospitals. We serve needs of these children in healthcare, nutrition, education and housing including two special initiatives Hope System of Care for Children with Disabilities (http://www.childrenofvietnam.org/en/special-initiatives/hope-system-of-care.html) and Empowering Foundations for Women (http://www.womensempowermentfoundation.com) to assist single mothers with children in need. We normally serve children, from birth to age 18. We have completed 565 houses which were given to poor families and 26 kindergartens. We have an excellent and dedicated paid staff of 11 Vietnamese in our Da Nang Office."

The VinaCapital Foundation, (vinacapitalfoundation.org), under CEO Robin King Austin, has one of the more extensive websites with an interactive map of Vietnam to show what activities they are sponsoring in the highlighted provinces where they are represented. Their mission is "to empower the children and youth of Vietnam by providing opportunities for growth through health and education projects."

According to the map they are doing everything from helping with schools and hospitals to supporting cardiac surgeries.

Son Michael Pham, who left Vietnam on the very last day of the war in April of 1975, is the founder of Kids Without Borders, (http://www.kidswithnoborders.org/) an international nongovernmental organization working with disabled children in Vietnam. Even in those early, challenging days on the boat to the US, at the refugee camp in the Philippines and as a new resident of Chicago, Son Michael volunteered to help his fellow refugees.

38 years later, he is a successful Seattle businessman who leads two companies while apparently working nonstop helping disabled children affected by Agent Orange. Their project is called Make Agent Orange History (http://www.makeagentorangehistory.org/).

Every year since 2001, he has lead special "HumaniTours" to Vietnam that Michael describes as "Travel with a purpose" project.

Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam (hscv.org) is another group that was mentioned frequently. Chuck DeVet is the president. He is located in the US now but spent time here in the beginning and his daughter, Annetta, was here organizing and operating the program from 2004 to 2009. Chuck says she returned for more education but is returning to Hanoi soon.

Chuck wrote: "We are not affiliated with any other organization and rely 100 percent on donations to support our activities.

As our name implies we are here to basically help children in need. Information on our website describes the programs in which we are involved.

We opened a home for girls in 2011. These girls were all living in impoverished and dangerous situations. We have both a monthly rice donation and provide scholarships for poor children. If possible we try to keep families together. But the situations some girls are in [do] not make that possible. There are now 12 girls living at the home."

One of the most prominent names among regional initiatives is the East Meets West (eastmeetswest.org) foundation, who are involved in a wide range of activities. Founded by Le Ly Hayslip (author of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace [Doubleday, 1989] and Child of War, Woman of Peace [Doubleday, 1993]) in 1988 with its head office in Oakland, California. Their activities are too numerous to mention here but please visit their website if you have a chance.

I met Chuck Searcy by chance at the Cyclo Restaurant in Nha Trang the first year I was here. Since then we haven't seen each another because he is based in Hanoi and much of his current work is with the landmine removal project in Quang Tri Province, but on the few occasions I have needed some information to help a veteran's widow or find out about a project here, Chuck has always come through for me.

Chuck's activities are currently focused on Project Renew (landmines.org.vn) which is trying to eradicate as much of the dangerous munitions that were left behind as they can and restore the land to usefulness again. In addition to removal they try to help the people whose lives and livelihood were affected.

Their website says: "Although the Vietnamese people have been living in peace for more than 30 years, the legacy of past wars, especially the Vietnam-US war, continues to kill and maim innocent people today, in the deadly guise of landmines and unexploded ordnance. Millions of cluster munitions, mines, grenades, bombs, and other ordnance left by the war, many of them still deadly, are now scattered around people's houses and gardens, along roadways, or buried just under the surface or deep into the earth. Many of the victims are children, born long after the war ended."

A Project RENEW partner that Chuck represents is The Humpty-Dumpty Institute (thehdi.org) whose motto is "putting the pieces back together," a pretty apt description of what all these efforts have been targeted toward.

"Since 2007, the Humpty Dumpty Institute has implemented about $20 million worth of development projects in Angola, Mozambique, Eritrea, Lebanon, Armenia, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan. These projects are sponsored by individuals, foundations and governments."

In Vietnam they are working with Project Renew and also with a mushroom farming project Mushrooms with a Mission, (MwM) to provide means of income to poor households.

And finally we have Veteran's for Peace (veteransforpeace.org). The extensive, worldwide activities of this very large and respected organization warrant an article of its own.

One of their activities is organizing visits to Vietnam of veterans who served here. They are encouraged to help with the work they will see while they are here. The next trip listed in their website is scheduled from April 18 to May 2.

From their website: "In support of justice for Vietnamese Agent Orange victims, a national coalition of veterans, Vietnamese-Americans and other community leaders announces the formation of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign on February 28, 2005.

1.         We support the Vietnamese Agent Orange survivors and their representative, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin in their lawsuit against the US chemical companies. Their lawsuit is a historic first effort by Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange to achieve compensation from the manufacturers who profited from this chemical warfare.

2.         We call upon our government to meet its responsibility to compensate the more than three million Vietnamese people suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. The US government has a moral and legal obligation to heal the wounds of war.

Our Campaign will continue until justice for Vietnamese Agent Orange victims is achieved by winning significant US government compensation."

In response to a draft of this article Chuck Searcy wrote me: "Obviously there are now too many Chucks in Vietnam! Chuck Palazzo in Da Nang is Treasurer of Chapter 160 of Veterans For Peace, and as noted Agent Orange is one of our top priorities. Chuck DeVet you mentioned, of course, and there's another, Chuck Ward, who works with Vets with a Mission (vetswithamission@backroads.net). In addition, there is probably some confusion because Project RENEW, where I am "International Advisor," operates in partnership with several other organizations including the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI) which I also represent. There's some overlap, but the mission of Project and our project partners remains unchanged: to make Quang Tri Province safe from bombs and mines.

Also you may not know about Manus Campbell, for several years based in Hue but he has recently moved to Hoi An to get out of the Hue weather. Manus has been very instrumental in supporting a Buddhist orphanage and children's disability program in Hue, with funding and regular volunteer activities. Same with Don Blackburn, who is now in Nha Trang. Don and Mike Cull, also in Nha Trang, have been on the board of directors of the Agent Orange Friendship Village outside of Hanoi for several years. Also in Da Nang about half the year is Ken Herrmann, professor from SUNY Brockport in New York who runs a student exchange program and has also taken it upon himself to raise money and provide goods and materials to support a leper colony on the edge of Da Nang."

When I decided it was time to put this article to bed, I was still receiving more information about additional groups but I had to stop somewhere. I had hoped to be able to give some much deserved credit to all of the organizations involved in this vital work and perhaps begin to generate an organized directory but I realized that would not be feasible here. There are just too many.

I have not included the email addresses for these people but if you want to learn more or feel you can help, check the websites for contact information. The organizations I've mentioned are all highly reputed among their peers and contributors. They are all doing great work and they all need help.

In the final analysis there are three important messages to convey here:

First, Vietnam would not be facing any of these problems if it were not for decisions taken by a succession of US Presidents to involve the country in the internal affairs of another country, something that they have continued to do with similar disastrous results.

After Second World War (WWII) the US spent billions on its Marshal Plan, providing aid to Europe, including former enemies, Germany and Italy and a separate similar program for Japan. In Vietnam, where more ordinance was expended on one tiny country than was used in the entire WWII, little has been done by the US and denial of responsibility for Agent Orange's effects continues.

Although some acknowledgement of the problem has been made by contributing $5 million for Agent Orange cleanup in Da Nang, they still continue to deny that Agent Orange is responsible for the myriad abnormalities including cancers. They also continue to support Monsanto and Dow Chemicals in fighting lawsuits brought against the companies that made the deadly herbicide.

The hypocrisy in this is magnified by the fact that any veteran who served in the areas where Agent Orange was stored is automatically eligible for medical disability benefits.

If you are American and want to help, write your congressional representative and ask them to stop the denial, accept responsibility for Agent Orange victims and approve additional funding.

If you are from another country, you can still express your outrage at this continuing injustice via letters to newspapers and the US President.

Second, there are hundreds and possibly even thousands who have recognized the enormous burden that war placed on this small country, especially its children, and are giving selflessly of their time, skills and resources. They will welcome your support and encouragement.

Third, we can all join in their work whether expat, veteran, Viet Kieu or tourist from a richer world by contributing money and time to the wonderful work that is still ongoing and will go on for many years to come.

May God bless all who do this job.

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