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Good works help heal Vietnam veterans' inner wounds

By HOLLY ZACHARIAH | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: September 24, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio  (Tribune News Service) — From the couch in the living room of his Gahanna apartment — cozy but cramped because it is as much a personal war museum and military shrine as it is a home — Charlie "PJ" Coulter leans over and pulls a small, black photo album onto his lap.

He flips through the pages and points to the faces of the young and the old. He tells a story about each one.

These are the people who helped him make it through three deployments in Vietnam during the war. These are the people to whom he owes more than he figures he can ever repay.

"I still get teary-eyed ... just because I worked with them," said the 73-year-old Coulter, who served 16 years in the U.S. Army as a Special Forces weapons, intelligence and security specialist. "These people, they'd lay down their life for you. They'd take a bullet for you. We trusted them with our lives."

But the men and women whose pictures fill those pages aren't his fellow American soldiers. They are the Montagnards (meaning "Mountain People") of Vietnam's rugged Central Highlands. Not Vietnamese, they had their own tribal languages, religion and primitive customs and lifestyle, and, by the time of the Vietnam War, they had suffered discrimination and isolation in their own land.

As the war raged on, U.S. defense strategists determined that whoever controlled the Central Highlands would win, so the Special Forces recruited the Montagnards as part of the war effort. The tribe gathered intelligence for the Army and took up arms, fighting in the mountains and jungles alongside American Green Berets.

After the war ended, the Montagnards were left behind in their almost-Stone Age tribal existence, with little hope or help for those who sought a better life.

The men who fought with them never forgot them, Coulter said. In the mid-1980s, Special Forces veterans groups started a national volunteer organization called the General Coactive Montagnard Association (since renamed Save the Montagnard People Inc.) to both bring the mountain people to the United States and help them preserve their dying culture.

About 8,000 Montagnard refugees are in the United States, according to the Asheboro, North Carolina-based organization, and traditional Montagnard villages no longer exist abroad.

Coulter is a former longtime president of the organization, which has spent decades helping them.

"All they did to help us, side by side with us ..." Coulter said, his voice trailing off. "I couldn't forget them."

His work to help the Montagnards is only one example in a lifetime of good works Coulter has carried out to honor fellow veterans and improve the lives of others touched by war and service.

"It does your heart good to give back," he said.

Healing through service

Before he felt the call to ministry, John Schluep went through Ohio State University's Army ROTC program. In the mid-1970s, Schleup served four years as an infantry officer and paratrooper.

As a platoon leader, he commanded many combat veterans of the Vietnam War. He quickly saw that their needs were different, and he began studying warrior culture and trauma. Years later, in the church, trauma recovery became his passion and focus.

Schluep, who recently retired as senior pastor of the First Congregational Church in the Akron suburb of Tallmadge, also founded a nonprofit veterans-healing organization called Warriors Journey Home. He said that the essence of reconciliation is restitution, and that making amends for the atrocities of war fosters healing.

"I came to the conclusion there is some kind of soul wound that you can't reach with medicine and talk therapy," Schluep said. "It is important for people suffering from a moral injury to deal with giving back."

Schluep and his organization host a number of "healing circles" in northeastern Ohio, and he has led veterans on two return trips to Vietnam. He plans another next year.

He said veterans — or civilians or a nation, for that matter — who carry trauma must find a way to address it.

"Until you deal with it, it's going to deal with you," he said.

Schluep said that doesn't have to mean returning to a former war zone. Veterans adopt Vietnamese children, and communities here support orphanages there. Service projects have filled Vietnamese libraries, funded schools and raised money to treat the sick or dying. Just as there are thousands of ways to hurt, there are thousands of way to help.

Michael Shuman knows that. As a gunner's mate in the Navy from 1967 to 1971, he mostly shelled Viet Cong guerrillas along the shore. He entered the Navy at 18.

Shuman returned home but never could erase the bad memories. He could not escape what he had seen, what he had done. For decades, he tried to drink the ghosts away. Once he got sober, reality intruded. The nightmares and flashbacks washed over his now-aware mind.

Still trying to come to terms with what hurt him, and seeking a way to shed it all, he returned to Vietnam in 2014 with Warriors Journey Home. He did so reluctantly.

"I felt so guilty," he said. "I thought the people there would despise me."

They did not. The locals welcomed him with open arms, and he made many new friends. Among them was Mark O'Connor, a veteran from South Dakota who had been raising money to provide bicycles for the children of Vietnam.

It was a project that Shuman saw as yet another lifeline.

Shuman, 68 and also from Tallmadge, has returned twice more to Vietnam with his Bikes for Vietnam project. On those two trips, he and O'Connor delivered 220 bikes to the children in the mountain ranges who live the farthest from their schools.

The work helped to further heal his wounded soul.

"We blew the place to hell and back, and then walked away," Shuman said. "I thought I could buy myself a little forgiveness for the destruction I caused."

Making peace

John Wesley Fisher doesn't apologize for his tears. War, he says, will do that to you.

Drafted at the age of 20 in November 1967, he found himself on the front lines in Vietnam six months later. After returning, he, too, struggled mightily with it all.

He took his own healing journey to Vietnam in 2003. He has returned 12 times since. He runs an organization he founded: CORE Viet Nam (CORE is short for "community reconciliation.")

Fisher and his volunteers have built rehabilitation centers for Vietnamese children born with defects from the effects of Agent Orange. The volunteers have helped to set up medical clinics and arranged and paid for local children to have needed surgeries. They buy water buffalo or cows for villages, help orphanages with computers and beds, and give vocational schools the necessary tools of trades.

"What an experience for a veteran, somebody who feels like they left so much behind and that they caused so much damage, to be on the other end, to help," said Fisher, a chiropractor from Colorado. "It will help them end their own suffering."

It has done so for him.

"It is so important for veterans to make peace with their service," he said. "If you have anger about it, you can't come out OK on the other end."

hzachariah@dispatch.com

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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In a 1964 photo, Staff Sgt. Howard Stevens, left, Special Forces adviser, gives a last minute briefing to Montagnard strike force leaders, reminding them of lessons learned on previous patrols and that a 100-man Viet Cong guerrilla force, armed with mortar and machine guns, is nearby.
STEVE STIBBENS/STARS AND STRIPES

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