The humanitourists

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Retired police chief Howard Goldin, 63, walked into the red dining room of the Hotel Majestic in Ho Chi Minh City, exhausted.

A trio of Vietnamese women clad in bright green ao dai danced to languorous music as Goldin's entourage sat down at a long white table. Most of the thirteen heads settling down to dinner are grey or graying. They are school teachers, grandmothers and retired police detectives.

Six are veterans of the American war. One man sports a tattoo (a lightening bolt crashing through palm trees) of his former military unit. All are members of the Spring Valley Rotary Club - a chapter of an international community-based charity organization in a bedroom community of New York City.

They are almost indistinguishable from the busloads of American tourists shuffling through the restaurants and hotels of Vietnam wondering at the food and the kindness of the people.

But they bring more than just tourist dollars.

For the past five years, Goldin and his groups have arrived with two suitcases. One contains their clothes and toiletries; the other is packed with crayons, candy, Frisbees, pencils, pens, and assorted medical supplies.

During their week or two week trips in the country, they stay in nice hotels and eat well. But the bulk of their days here are spent visiting orphanages, meeting with local officials about financing schools and hand-delivering their donations.

"One hundred percent of donations reach [the Vietnamese people]," Goldin said. "We all pay our own way here."

The group had spent a whirlwind morning touring Tay Ninh Province and HCMC's Cu Chi District, where Goldin took four AK-47 rounds to the right leg in 1967.

Two of the men in his group were returning to their former battlegrounds for the first time.

Nguyen Van Manh, secretary of the HCMC-based Vietnam-US Friendship Association said he hopes veterans like Goldin and crew continue their good work in Vietnam and raise awareness at home about some of the hardships Vietnam continues to face as a result of the war.

Manh said he's met with some American veterans who said they couldn't sleep at night until they began visiting Vietnam on good will missions. "I believe they have a good conscience," he said. "They have returned to atone for their mistakes."

Manh added that the work of building up the country has been largely left to non-governmental organizations, veterans and ordinary Americans.

Goldin believes that his work in Vietnam is merely an extension of his lifetime of "service." He has made trips to Honduras and hopes to travel to Laos and Cambodia on similar missions.

Goldin speaks with a disarming diplomacy a quality, honed as the Chief of the Spring Valley Police Department. But he does not deign to discuss the war, saying he's moved on.

But not everyone had.

Bernie Duff, a former army medic and painter, was so moved by his 2005 visit he decided to live out the rest of his life in Vietnam.

Duff suffered from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, according to the men. "Before he left, all of his paintings were about combat and sorrow," said William Frank, 58, also a retired police chief from Rockland County. "Now, you can see, there's life in his work again."

Today, Duff lives in Quang Binh Province with his Vietnamese wife. He and Kathleen Finnel, a former nurse from the 25th Infantry Division, have walked, twice, from one end of the country to the other to raise awareness for Agent Orange victims.

During their 2005 visit, Goldin and the group of 17 veterans had set aside time to visit the site of a medical clinic built by Finnel. The clinic, located in Chu Lai in Quang Nam Province, needed an ambulance. Following their return to the States, the group purchased an ambulance, loaded it with medical supplies and shipped it to Vietnam.

Next, Goldin and his people created a foundation called Schools to End Poverty (STEP) a non-profit organization specifically geared toward helping impoverished children get to school.

Goldin also began soliciting donations - hitting up local doctors for promotional pharmaceutical items (everything from diabetes testing kits to cerebral shunts and feeding pumps), organizing school fund-raisers and talking to local businesspeople. A single 8th grade class raised US$1,600 for Vietnamese orphans by selling candy, he says.

In recent years, Goldin has joined groups that purchased life-saving cerebral shunts for orphans in HCMC's Go Vap District. They've funded a kindergarten for kids in Lam Dong Province and the An Trach Elementary School in Bac Lieu Province. They've also donated scientific microscopes, computers and bicycles to these schools.

Goldin estimates that the total value of all donations raised by the New York State Rotarians is around $230,000.

On October 30, the group rose bright and early to attend a wheelchair giveaway at the Chinese Cultural Center in HCMC's District 5.

Goldin and his crew busily lined up for local television stations and photos of the wheelchair recipients being rolled along by the donors.

"One man showed up with a pair of wooden blocks on the stumps of his legs," Frank said as he wheeled the final recipient toward his caregiver. "It's just so good to know that these people will enjoy some mobility in their lives."

The event had been organized by the Vietnamese Red Cross and a group called Kids Without Borders. Son Michael Pham, a Seattle-based entrepreneur who founded the organization said he's been collaborating with the police chief for the past five years.

Pham has become Goldin's go-between, linking him with projects and local administrations in need of help for social welfare projects.

The wheelchair giveaway was the penultimate day of a two-week "humanitour" that had taken 18 Seattle-based Rotarians from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

"Together, we managed to bring 3,000 pounds of donated goods in our luggage," Pham said.

Pham estimates that 95 percent of his "humanitourists" are veterans or Rotarians. Asked why so many old soldiers are drawn to the trips, Pham answered quickly.

"There's no better closure than that," he said. "It's a lot of healing for a lot of people."

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