A Union of Like Hearts ~A Unique Collaboration
Mike Boehm, A Vietnam veteran
I served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, one year in Cu Chi with the 25th Infantry Division, G-3 Plans, and six months in Vung Tau. I didn’t go to Vietnam for patriotic reasons. I didn’t know anything about communism (or democracy for that matter) or where Vietnam was located on a map. Like many boys throughout history, I went to war to please my father.
I drifted through my year and a half in Vietnam during the war and returned home seemingly unaffected by the war. It wasn’t until a few years after I returned from the war that I began coming across information that countered the reasons given by our government for why we went to war with Vietnam. I attended the Madison Area Technical College from 1976 to 1978 with my schooling paid for by the government because I was a veteran. The summer between those two years, 1977, was when all the information I had come across concerning the Vietnam War jelled and I went to my mother’s house, went to the attic, and then took my uniform and medals and threw them in the trash. At the beginning of the second year at MATC I went to the Veteran’s representative and told him I wasn’t going to accept the GI Bill money for schooling anymore because it was ‘blood money’. He was furious because that wasn’t playing the game. But that gesture was too little, too late, the war was over and I couldn’t undo my part in it.
Retreat from society
Over the succeeding years I began to look into our other wars, military and economic, and I realized that the Vietnam War was not an aberration. I began a steady retreat from society until, finally, I ended up living in a shack with no plumbing or electricity in the country outside of Madison. I couldn’t participate in a society with a history such as ours and whose only reason for existing seemed to be consumption.
In retrospect, life in the shack turned out to be a necessary transition period for me. It gave me time to heal and think. It was during that period that at age 40 I learned to play the fiddle. I also took in orphaned young wild animals to nurture them until they could fend for themselves and then I released them. I kept my circle of friends with whom I played music, went bird watching, and canoed. It was toward the end of my stay in that shack that I took the step that would lead me back to Vietnam.
In 1991, I went with a group of carpenters to Vieques, Puerto Rico, to help rebuild houses destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. I had never heard of Vieques before and was to learn that our navy had, for nearly 50 years by that time, been shelling that small island for practice. Aside from the complete disruption of life on that tiny island cancers rates had soared from the chemicals released from the shelling. Learning this ramped up the hatred I already felt toward my government but for the first time in my life I discovered that by building, creating, in that context, I was able to transfer anger and hatred into peace. Flying home afterward I immediately began thinking about using my carpentry skills in Vietnam.
Return to Vietnam
The following year, 1992, I traveled with eleven other Vietnam veterans to Vietnam for the first time since the war under the auspices of the Veteran’s Vietnam Restoration Project (VVRP). VVRP, for years, has been raising funds to build clinics in Vietnam and then gathering Vietnam veterans to go to Vietnam and work alongside the Vietnamese to build these clinics. I will always be grateful to VVRP for that opportunity to return to Vietnam because it was a profound life-changing experience for me.
As we worked on the clinic I realized I was having serious emotional problems being back in Vietnam. I was lashing out at the others and in the privacy of my room breaking down in tears. This was completely unexpected because I felt I had no trauma from the war. I worked in an office during the war. I never fired a gun and I never saw a body during the war. When I could finally sort out my feelings I realized the problems I was having came down to one question, ‘why?’. As I got to know the other American veterans I was working with I began to hear their horror stories of the war and then I learned of the horror of their lives after the war; drug abuse, alcohol abuse, suicide attempts. Then I would hear the Vietnamese stories. The Vietnamese man who was in charge of building the clinic was extremely tense around us. We finally learned that his whole family, his wife and all his children, were killed in an American bombing raid. The intensity of the bombing was such that their bodies were essentially vaporized and all he could do to bury them was to gather up the soil with the bits of their bodies mixed in and bury that. That question ‘why?’, why all that death and destruction, was making me crazy.
What finally arose from this stew of emotions was to go to My Lai. I had long ago come to think of My Lai as representative of the Vietnam War, that the war itself was an atrocity. After the clinic was finished five of us veterans traveled to Hanoi by van and on the way north I insisted we stop at My Lai. When we got there I took my violin which I had brought with me to Vietnam and in front of the statues depicting the angry and defiant Vietnamese I played ‘Taps’. Although ‘Taps’ is a military tune, for me it has always meant farewell and rest in peace. I played for everyone, Vietnamese, Americans, Koreans, everyone who had suffered and died in that war. It was tough to play. We were all crying and my hands were shaking badly. But I finished, bowed, and then we left.
After I returned from Vietnam to my shack, and the emotional dust had settled, I realized I wanted more of whatever it was I had just experienced. And only a few months later I got my wish. In late 1992 I received a phone call from Carol Wagner who had heard of my interest in Vietnam. Carol had led a study tour of women to Vietnam on behalf of Global Exchange in the fall of 1992. A number of us met at the Friends Meeting House in Madison to watch her slides. Afterward, Carol told us that while their group was in Vietnam they had received a proposal by the Quang Ngai Women’s Union to fund a micro-credit project for the poor women of My Lai. She said that while Global Exchange applauds this concept, loan funds are not the kind of programs Global Exchange funds, so, would we be interested in taking over this proposal? We eagerly agreed, and for me, there was no looking back.
Phan Van Do was born in a small farming village and grew up in a small local landlord family in a coastal fishing village in the middle part of Vietnam. Do’s grandfather used to be the chief of the village under the French colonialism but then was captured, jailed and tortured to death in the prison by the same government because of their suspect of his involvement with the revolution early in the 1940’s
Do’s childhood was mainly shaped by the conflict during peace time and war time especially when Do’s family was suddenly shattered when the war broke out in the village with the death of his father who was executed by the revolutionary forces in the village and the death of his brother who was gunned down by the tank in a joint operation of ARVN and American troops in September 1965. His mother died young and he became an orphan in the age of 12.
He grew up roaming about the villages with his sisters in the dangers of the free firing area after his house was burnt down by the shelling. He had no idea of war or peace then. What he did everyday was to try to look for something to eat to survive. He did not even have enough clothes to put on. All the heritage of a local landlord for ages turned into nothing when the war happened.
After two years in war areas, Do luckily passed an entrance examination for 6th grade in a public school in Quang Ngai city and finished high school after 7 years. He was exempted from being drafted into the ARVN thanks to being the one son left in the family. Then in 1973, with good luck, he passed another entrance examination into a university of pedagogy in Saigon where he began to join in demonstrations against the war.
After graduation in 1977, almost all the graduates were given jobs except Do because of his extremely dark family background with his father being executed by the revolution, the bottom type of family profile classification by the government. And the following year again with luck he was sent to a school in the mountains north west of Binh Dinh province in central Vietnam as a teacher of English where each teacher was equipped with a gun, a carbine B1 to protect themselves because the school is located in the mountains and near a large prison. He missed the death at this school one day when a colleague pointed the gun straight into his chest and triggered. Both teachers and students had to labor hard in the rice fields and bare hills everyday.
Do was moved to teach English for beginners in different schools in Quang Ngai and finally in a college in Quang Ngai city. One time in 1994 he was invited by the province government to translate for an Australian millionaire who intended to donate pine trees to cover all barren hills in Quang Ngai province. This millionaire asked the government to appoint him to go to Australia with another official. An anonymous letter was sent to all the concerned authorities in Quang Ngai and to the Ministry of Security informing that Phan Van Do is the son of a martyr of the Saigon regime and demanded that he should not be allowed to go abroad on a mission. He was not permitted to go abroad due to that letter. Then another time this year 1994, he was called to translate for the Women Union of Quang Ngai province where he met an American veteran, Mike Boehm. Phan Van Do started working with Mike from Madison Quakers since then on humanity to help the poor and victims of the war.
- as told by Phan Van Do