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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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A new generation heads to Southeast Asia
Mending fences, making friends
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Credit:Nathaniel Liedl

A generation ago, Madison was the epicenter of the war at home. Thousands of students, including the city's current mayor, Paul Soglin, infamously clashed with police at the 1967 protest against Dow Chemical's on-campus recruitment. Young men burned their draft cards, and students protested against the U.S. government's involvement in Vietnam. But the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall marked the end of Madison's radical antiwar movement.

Even so, Madison's antiwar history will forever tie the city to Vietnam. Today, a younger generation strives to give back and understand a country once torn apart by the "American War."

I wasn't born until 10 years after American involvement in the war ended. It's hard to say I feel guilty about the war. My feelings toward Vietnam are a mix of remorse, confusion and intrigue. That's what inspired my move to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in 2009.

I felt drawn to the country on the other side of the world that had sucked America into war - and ultimately defeated us. Subconsciously (or maybe not) I felt some disgrace for the atrocities committed four decades ago. I wanted to give back. But did the Vietnamese even want foreigners, specifically Americans, to give back? What did the Vietnamese think about Americans? Were they still bitter? Was there still evidence of the war?

"I went there sort of afraid that Vietnamese would hate Americans," says Madison's Carly Hood, who lived in Ho Chi Minh City from 2008 to 2010. "I didn't know what the people would think of me."

Somewhere between "Are you married?" and "How much money do you make?" foreigners are likely to be asked: "Where are you from?" A surprisingly common Vietnamese response to an American is, "America, number one!" or "I have family in the U.S." To the Vietnamese, the Americans were just the latest foreign invader. Before the U.S. arrived, France ruled Vietnam. China dominated the country for a whole millennium from 111 B.C.

That's not to say bitter feelings don't exist. In the north, foreigners may receive a frostier reception. But smiles, waves and friendly exchanges dominate from the cities to the countryside.

Justene Wilke, a UW-Madison Southeast Asian Studies graduate, moved to Vietnam in 2008. Wilke says she "was never treated differently by Vietnamese people for being American."

"In fact, people went out of their way to be friendly, especially my neighbors," says Wilke. "One time, the giant sliding glass of our house shattered, and within minutes all our neighbors knew something big had happened. We barely had our gate open to start the cleaning process and suddenly a couple of my neighbors were in our house, helping clean the glass up. For the most part, I usually felt like the locals were more than willing to help out the lost and confused foreigners."

I can attest to that as well. Once, within moments of sustaining a flat tire on my bicycle, I attracted the aid of two men near the roadside. Two more curious fellows stopped their motorbike and gave their two cents about how best to repair the flat. Within five minutes, my misfortune had attracted almost two dozen willing helpers and curious onlookers. No doubt, plenty were there merely to gawk at the big, goofy-looking white guy in spandex shorts. But several wanted to help, too. I'd made some new friends and gained a memorable experience.

Wilke, Hood and I all taught English as a second language, a booming industry in Vietnam. As well-off expatriates in a foreign country, we all wanted to do something for our new home, a country we each grew to love.

At a cursory glance, there are few reminders of the "American War" in Vietnam today. The economic growth of the last two decades has the Vietnamese looking ahead. Furthermore, much of the country is too young to harbor any ill will. Today 60% of the population is under 30 years old; 85% are younger than 40.

But in some areas, bitterness lingers. Agent Orange destroyed 5.5 million acres of land, and its effects were until recently largely ignored by both the Vietnamese and American governments. It wasn't until August 2012 that the U.S. agreed to assist in cleanup efforts. To fill the void, organizations like the Disabled and Disadvantaged Children's Charity of Ho Chi Minh City stepped in.

Carly Hood served as the charity's event and fundraising coordinator during her time in Vietnam.

"Dioxin stays in the soil for a long time, and attaches to fatty tissues found in animals we eat," says Hood, now a population health service fellow at the UW Population Health Institute. "In humans it's linked to multiple cancers and causes many physical and mental disabilities. In addition, dioxin poisoning is passed from generation to generation."

Hood organized fundraising events for the charity, which enabled the purchase of six computers for Ung Buou Cancer Hospital, just one of two hospitals in Vietnam that treats cancer. "The computers were the first the hospital ever had, and our hope is they increase the time doctors can spend on patients," Hood says.

I had the opportunity to volunteer at the cancer hospital, which housed 130 children in seven rooms. There were four beds to a room and just six doctors and 16 nurses to care for all the kids. Since Ung Buou was the only hospital of its kind in southern Vietnam, families typically came from far away and stayed there as well. A mass of people filled every inch of the hospital's rooms and hallways. Of the children at Ung Buou, 75% do not live beyond five years, according to the hospital. During monthly play dates featuring arts, crafts, movies and snacks, we did our best to bring a little cheer to a place with little hope.

Wilke and I also both volunteered with H2H - Ride for Vietnamese Children, which raises money for Orange Helpers, a group that supports victims of Agent Orange, as well as Ung Buou. It also collaborates with other charities to spotlight child poverty in Vietnam. To raise awareness and money, we bicycled from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City - 1,200 miles.

The allure of adventure and seeing the country while doing some charitable good was irresistible to me as well as to Wilke.

"If I had just wanted an adventure I could have biked for fun or rented a motorbike and done that instead," says Wilke, now a student at UW-Madison's School of Nursing. "I had already been volunteering at different organizations through the ESL school I was employed at, and I wanted to do more."

Despite Vietnam's growing economy, there's still a lot of poverty and at-risk youth, Wilke notes. "There just isn't enough money to do everything that needs to be done. I hesitate to say I felt an 'obligation' to give back, but once I heard about the bike ride and the goal of raising money for the organizations our school worked with, I knew there was no other option."

Our month-long ride led us through fields of rice paddies, mountains and areas heavily shelled during the war, especially along the Cambodian and Laotian borders. We shared the road with trucks, motorbikes, water buffalo and chickens. We encountered mudslides, unknown meats and many Uncle Ho statues. We accumulated thousands of hellos and waves along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, once used as a trail to transport goods during the war and now a major north-south artery.

Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Gil Halsted was one of those students who tore up his draft card in the 1960s. In 1973, he was arrested during a sit-in on the White House steps. His emotions about the war left him feeling obligated to give back to Vietnam. He sought peace by working with Vietnamese refugees in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. He's also visited the country three times, most recently in 2008, when he attended a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre. The U.S. government has never officially apologized for that atrocity, in which 350 to 500 unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, were killed.

Halsted and Madison Quakers Inc. (MQI) have had a presence in Quang Ngai, just south of Da Nang, for decades. During the war, Madison Quakers built prosthetics for civilian and soldier amputees. Today, reconciliation efforts are still under way.

MQI's work focuses almost entirely on women, says Halsted. "We supply micro-loans, which women use to start different kinds of businesses. They buy livestock. They buy cows and pigs and use the loans to plant vegetables, too."

Because of Quang Ngai's location in the middle of Vietnam, its residents were "victimized by all three of the parties involved in the war - the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese and the Americans," Halsted notes. "The people had to play all three of those sides off each other just to survive."

MQI has also helped construct three elementary schools in the village where My Lai once stood and built "compassion houses" for people affected by Agent Orange. Through his trips to Vietnam, Halsted says he has fostered a "human connection" with locals that has aided his quest for peace with Vietnam after years of anger and guilt.

Though some scars may never fully heal, time, cooperation and human connection have helped. Halsted sums it up nicely. "Finding peace really had to do with having direct contact with people, who have become friends."

If you want to help

Madison Quakers Inc.
Mike Boehm, 608-244-9505
This Madison group's projects include schools, compassion houses and wells.

This charity bike ride raises money for victims of Agent Orange and Vietnamese children.

Orange Helpers
A nonprofit helping victims of Agent Orange.

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