US vets want to make amends in Vietnam

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Forty-five years after the My Lai Massacre, the Americans who rained terror here return in an attempt to heal the wounds

Mike Boehm visits a farm in Quang Ngai Province's Son Tinh District where his charity work helps local farmers raise pigs. Many US veterans have returned to the area, known for the My Lai Massacre, to remember the people killed and to help the local poor. 

Son My villagers call Mike Boehm "older brother Mike," a term of respect Boehm has earned over 15 years of visiting the area's poor doing anti-poverty charity work.

Son My Village is the location of the infamous My Lai Massacre, and though Boehm did not take part in that atrocity, he was part of the larger crime and is doing his best to repent. My Lai was the name of a smaller hamlet targeted in the village.

This March 16, the 45th anniversary of the massacre, Boehm is going to play violin at the My Lai Massacre Monument in Quang Ngai Province's Son Tinh District.

He has played the same somber melodies there on the anniversary every year since 1998.

"All of Son My's villagers are my brothers," he said.

Since 1998, Boehm has been raising money to help the needy in Quang Ngai and he comes every March to remember the My Lai Massacre.

The killings occurred on March 16, 1968 in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai when men of Charlie Company opened fire on civilians during a "search and destroy" mission in My Lai and neighboring hamlets. American policy had turned large swaths of Vietnam into "free fire zones" in which American soldiers were ordered to shoot at anything that moved.

The targets of the killings were mainly old men, women and children - all unarmed - as other members of the community were working in the fields. The massacre included rapes, torture, mutilations and the murders of several babies.

 

A photo of the My Lai Massacre taken by Ronald Haeberle on March 16, 1968

The exact toll of the massacre still remains in dispute, but US estimates suggest that between 347 and 504 unarmed citizens were massacred that day.

But what happened at My Lai was hardly an aberration. An American military official quoted by journalist Nick Turse once said there was evidence of at least "a My Lai every month for a year."

Boehm was not in Quang Ngai during the war. He was with an artillery division of the US Army based in the former Saigon's Cu Chi District.

However, he and many other Americans have returned to Vietnam in an attempt to heal the wounds of aggression that saw the world's richest country all but destroy one of the world's poorest.

Boehm has become an honorary member of the Quang Ngai Women's Association for his contributions to help poor women in Son My and other villages in the province.

Over the years, he has raised more than VND1 billion (US$48,000) in total to help poor farmers and traders in the area.

A thousand words

Another American veteran who is expected to visit this year's anniversary of the massacre is Ronald Haeberle, a former US Army photographer well-known for the tragic photographs he took of the My Lai Massacre shortly after the crime.

Haeberle cycled from HCMC to Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Vientiane before arriving in Son My to attend the ceremony.

On the day of the My Lai Massacre, he took 40 black and white photos with an Army camera and 19 color photos with his own camera.

Haeberle said when he handed the 40 black and white photos to the US Army, his superiors thought they could keep the massacre a secret.

But after journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story and Haeberle's color photos were published by Life Magazine in 1969, the images became iconic.

They were often used by the American anti-war movement to illustrate the seriousness of the Crimes Against Humanity being committed in their name in Vietnam.

Haeberle says he is still haunted by the massacre, even after becoming friends will Son My villagers during visits to the massacre site.

Company commander

Lieutenant William Calley commanded the Charlie Company during the massacre.

In 2009, more than 40 years after the massacre, the former US army officer made a public apology.

"There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai," former lieutenant William Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Georgia.

"I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry."

The only person convicted in connection with the killings, although other soldiers were charged, Calley was initially sentenced to life in prison but he ended up serving three years under house arrest after President Nixon reduced his sentence.

Calley has said he would visit Son My to apologize to the villagers and ask for their forgiveness. 

American teacher

Among the Americans returning to My Lai is Marjorie Nelson, a former member of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) team in Quang Ngai. She had served as a doctor at the Quaker Rehabilitation Center in Quang Ngai during the war. 

During the Tet Offensive in 1968, Nelson and her friend Sandra Johnson, who was serving in Vietnam as an International Voluntary Service worker, were taken captive by the National Front for the Liberation of Southern Vietnam, known pejoratively by the Americans as "Viet Cong."

Marjorie was grateful for the care she received from her captors until her release on April 1, 1968, soon after the My Lai Massacre.

She came back to the US in 1969 and pledged that she would one day return to Son My.

Over the past several years, Nelson has come to Son My every March to teach English to local children and support a Madison Quakers' project to help the local poor.

Nelson said she looks forward to the peace she finds spending time with local children who always tell her: "come see us again next March!"

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