Calif. veterans on healing, humanitarian mission to Vietnam
Contra Costa Times
CONTRA COSTA, Calif. — The Vietnamese villager, dressed in the best clothes he owned, came pedaling through the rain on a mission of considerable personal importance.
"I like to say he was dressed in his Sunday go-to-church clothes," said Danville's Jerry Yahiro, a veteran of the Vietnam War who was back in the country also on a mission of considerable personal importance. "He had traveled about 20 miles to receive a wheelchair for his daughter. We broke it apart and mounted it on his bicycle. As he was leaving, I took a picture of him in the rain, beginning the walk 20 miles back to his village."
That was in 2006, when members of the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley visited the country in which they had fought for their lives on a journey of catharsis and charity. They not only returned to the site of the most turbulent, resonant months of their youth, they came bearing humanitarian aid in the form of free wheelchairs.
On Nov. 4, they'll fly off to do it again, as before joining with the Danville-based Wheelchair Foundation. A traveling party of 19, including six spouses, will distribute 320 wheelchairs to needy families at eight prescreened locations over two weeks.
"I think it is some kind of therapy" for the veterans, said Wheelchair Foundation President David Behring, who also will make the trip. "You have bad memories and experiences from when you were there. Now time has passed and you do something good for that country, where all you saw was bad and negativity. I think it does something for the soul."
Yahiro, who is helping coordinate the second trip, had to be convinced to make the first.
"I helped fundraise for the first trip," the former mortar platoon leader said. "One day my wife asked me, 'Why aren't you going?' Like most Vietnam veterans, my intention was to completely forget the war, put that aside and go on with my life."
His wife's question inspired Yahiro, 69, to weigh the pros and cons of a return to Vietnam. He made two lists and found he had more reasons to go back than to stay home.
"I was up in the Central Highlands, and that's all I saw," he said of his time in combat. "I never met the people. I never saw the country. We were detached. You never learn anything about Vietnam except for trying to protect yourself and your men."
His only regret in 2006 was that a visit to the Central Highlands was canceled at the last minute. This time he plans to break away from the group to return to the region "and put at ease some of the demons I may have suppressed. It will close the loop."
Ronald Lowe will be making his first trip back to the country where he served as an infantry captain for 11 months in 1968-69. He already has checked Google Earth in an attempt to find the village where he lived with approximately 150 South Vietnamese soldiers and their families. So far, no success.
"I can't find any evidence of the compound," he said. "The area where I served, the Vietnam government has built lots of war monuments and they may very well have built a war monument right over the top (of it)."
Lowe, 68, a retired major general now living in Danville, said his combat experience was atypical in that he spent most of his time in a small village as opposed to a military installation. Unlike many soldiers, he got to know and like the Vietnamese people.
"I'll be taking some pictures back with me and I'll show pictures of some of the young children who were in the compound to others," Lowe said. "It would be fun to meet some of them."
The trip, however, is much more than a quest for closure.
"The benefit that we see from the recipients of the wheelchairs, what they get out of it, is enough to make a grown man cry," Yahiro said. "One thing we learned in 2006 is yes, the individual receiving the chair is getting a direct benefit. However, each person who is incapacitated has a caretaker. By giving mobility to an individual who is handicapped, it frees the caretaker. It benefits not just one, but the whole family."
Behring, whose father, Ken, established the Wheelchair Foundation in 2000, said the need for wheelchairs is great in Vietnam, which despite its breakneck development still has a high incidence of poverty, especially in rural areas.
"Poverty, poor maternal health, terrible water conditions," he said. "You have a lot of birth defects. I'm sure there are toxins in the ground from Agent Orange and other (war-related contaminants). You have land mines still planted in the Quang Tri area. Kids today are still getting maimed and killed by stepping on land mines. Polio has been (virtually) eliminated, but you have a lot of polio survivors in Vietnam."
Because so many of the needy are in rural areas, the wheelchairs to be distributed on this trip will have mountain bike tires. Sixty will be sports chairs.
Behring traveled with veterans to Vietnam in 2003 and '04 to distribute wheelchairs. He said the veterans' apprehension about returning to the country was quickly alleviated.
"They were afraid," Behring said. "Is it going to be hostile? Are the people not going to like me because I'm an American? Everywhere they went they were greeted with friendship, warm hospitality. They said it was a healing process."
Those kinds of stories inspired Lowe to sign up for the upcoming trip.
"They really valued what they did and the difference they made," he said. "It was no big leap to sign up and go this time."