War's loss healed in mothers' embrace

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Dan Cheney headed off to war with freshly-earned pilot's wings and the lieutenant's insignia his mother had pinned on his shoulders.

He had grown into a young man, she thought then.

In fact he was "just a little boy, really"¦ But they all were," his mother Rae Cheney says now, 41 years after Dan died during combat in Vietnam.

His death in 1969 at the age of 21 began a four-decade journey of pain, resentment and healing that culminated this month when Rae Cheney embraced a Vietnamese mother whose son also died during the Vietnam War.

US and Vietnamese officials say that encounter symbolizes the reconciliation which their two nations have undergone 15 years after restoring diplomatic relations following the end of the war in 1975.

At the age of 90, Cheney travelled to Vietnam for the first time to attend the opening ceremony of a kindergarten named for her son. Beside it, a new library has been built honoring her, and dedicated to all mothers who lost children during the war.

"I want to know and be able to reach out to the mothers on this land because that's where Dan lost his life and they're in the same pain I am," she told AFP in Hanoi before the ceremony.

Both buildings were funded by American veterans and other donors who support Peace Trees Vietnam, founded in 1995 by Dan Cheney's sister Jerilyn Brusseau and her late husband Danaan Parry.

The group, which aims to "turn sorrow into service", was the first foreign non-governmental organization allowed to help clear unexploded ordnance (UXOs) in post-war Vietnam.

It works in Quang Tri, the province most contaminated by leftover bombs and other munitions. Along the former Demilitarized Zone that divided then North Vietnam from the US-backed South, the area was heavily bombed and fought over.

Peace Trees removes the ordnance, educates people about the danger, assists victims, plants trees on the cleared land, and builds kindergartens and schools.

The youngsters seem to be everywhere -- including on the new football field, swings and other playground equipment

Over the past 15 years Brusseau estimates she has made about 30 trips to Quang Tri and it has become "like my home."

Soon after her younger brother's death, she had vowed to someday go to Vietnam and make a difference, her mother recalls.

"Sure enough, that's what she did," says Rae Cheney who, like her daughter, projects a warmth and intensity of spirit. "Her relationship with the Vietnamese people is beyond words."

For Rae, though, the thought of walking on the land where her son died was unbearable.

Dan had shown early on that he had a personality of leadership, and after a year in college he decided to join the military, she recalls.

"I pinned his lieutenant bars on his shoulder, and his flight wings, and put flowers on his grave in one year."

Assigned to a Cobra helicopter gunship exactly what he had wanted Cheney died in January 1969 when his aircraft was shot down near Saigon.

Engaged to be married, Cheney had been in the country for just 16 days.

Dan Cheney was one of 58,000 American troops and at least three million Vietnamese who died.

The pain of his loss only began to ease years later, Rae Cheney says, when she started to write thank you notes to Peace Trees donors.

"Slowly as I began to write those messages of gratitude I began to feel a calm feeling of my own desire to heal others," and her thoughts turned to the Vietnamese mothers experiencing the same sorrow.

The white-haired Cheney said she has written about 8,000 thank-yous.

Her eyes reddened and her voice choked as she prepared to fly from Hanoi to Quang Tri for the first time, to see the land where Peace Trees has flourished.

"Its growth has developed a growth in me that's difficult to put into words."

A busload of American veterans, relatives of other US servicemen who died, and Peace Trees donors, joined Cheney and her daughter on their journey along Highway 9 in Quang Tri, past Lang Vay, Khe Sanh, The Rockpile and other wartime landmarks.

"For some of us it's a long journey," Brusseau said over a loudspeaker on the bus. "For my mother it's been a journey of many, many years."

They headed west almost to Laos, to Lao Bao district's Khe Da village where Peace Trees built the Dan Cheney memorial kindergarten and the Mothers' Peace Library.

Children's laughter greeted the group. The youngsters, barefoot and in dirty clothes, seemed to be everywhere including on the new football field, swings and other playground equipment which Peace Trees donors also funded.

Beside the playground stands the new library, a single room with wooden tables, chairs, and a grey cabinet already filled with books.

Next door, slightly larger, is the kindergarten complete with a small kitchen and bathroom, as well as plastic chairs and tables ready to welcome about 30 youngsters.

"This school is dedicated to the children of Khe Da village," in memory of Daniel Bernard Cheney, says a plaque on the turquoise wall outside.

Except for two older public buildings, there seemed to be little else in this Van Kieu tribal village embraced by low green hills.

Peace Trees projects "are really meaningful for the people here," the head of the provincial Women's Union told about 60 guests at a ceremony under an awning on the football field.

An even larger group lined up and watched from outside the tent children, and women in traditional woven skirts with infants strapped to their sides.

"I am overcome at this moment," Rae Cheney said to the crowd.

Then came the moment she had hoped for.

A Vietnamese mother, Ho Thi Moan, whose son also died in the war, was escorted to the stage. The two old women stretched out their arms, and hugged each other.

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