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Page 22
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Hope Rises from the Ashes of My Lai

By Mike Boehm

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My tour in Vietnam during the war was not traumatic for me, or so I thought at the time; I never saw a body or fired a gun. I was stationed first in Dau Tieng and then in Cu Chi, where I worked in an office in the 25th Division headquarters. My weapon was a telephone. I drifted through my eighteen months in Vietnam. Still clueless when I came home, I applied for a job with the Badger Ammunition Plant outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin.

It didn't take many more years, however, to catch on to what I had been party to in Vietnam. The rage that arose from that knowledge—that I had been duped to participate in evil—is something I struggle with to this day. From 1976 to 1978 I attended the Madison Area Technical College (MATC) on the GI Bill. The summer between those two years was when everything fell into place for me; I went to my mother's house, went up to the attic, and took my uniform, medals, and everything from my time in the military and tossed it. When in the fall of 1977 I returned to MATC, I went to the veterans' rep and told him I wouldn't accept the GI Bill money anymore, because it was blood money. But other than that small gesture, I felt there was nothing I could do or undo about my part in the Vietnam war. That all changed in 1992 when I returned to Vietnam with eleven other veterans to build a small primary school in the south.

Going back to Vietnam showed me that despite my lack of combat during the war, I still had unresolved issues with the war. By the end of my two months there in 1992, I had undergone a life-changing experience which led to a lifelong commitment to doing humanitarian work in Vietnam.

The first project I became involved in was raising money for a loan fund in My Lai. These funds are based on the Grameen Bank concept, where small amounts of money are loaned to poor women. They establish businesses for themselves and pay back the loans, which are then given to another set of poor women. Since the establishment of that first loan fund in My Lai in January 1994, we have funded loan programs in sixteen villages and have provided almost three thousand loans for poor women. All but one village are in Quang Ngai province.

The story of Mrs. Pham Thi Huong illustrates the impact of these funds. Mrs. Huong lives in Truong Khanh. Her village suffered a massacre by a unit of the Americal Division in April 1969. Shortly after we funded the loan program in Truong Khanh, we visited a number of women who had received loans. One of the these women was Mrs. Huong, and as we talked with her in her cow pen, our project coordinator, Mr. Phan Van Do, asked her if she had been in the village during the massacre. I watched as she replied in Vietnamese and then burst into tears. She said yes, she had been there during the massacre, and her aunt and two of her children had been killed. The massacre in My Lai started and finished in four hours. The massacre at Truong Khanh took place over a period of two days, with the GIs returning again and again to hide the evidence. It took days before the villagers felt safe enough to come out of hiding and unearth the bodies to inter them properly. Bodies rot quickly in tropical heat, and the last thing Mrs. Huong said before she burst into tears was, "I cannot forget the smell of the decomposing bodies of my children." We spent more time with Mrs. Huong, and from what I could see, she had died that day. She was walking and talking, but dead inside.

I was wrong, though, because two years later, Do and I returned to Truong Khanh to check on the progress of the loan fund, and we met with Mrs. Huong again. She and Mrs. Du were on a motorcycle a mile outside the village, eagerly awaiting our arrival so they could take us around the village and show us the improvements that had taken place over the previous two years. The change in Mrs. Huong was amazing—almost unbelievable. She was smiling, laughing, and talking, just vibrant with new life. Do asked her neighbors what had happened to transform her, and they said that once she had started raising calves and selling them, the crushing burden of poverty she had been living under finally lifted enough for her to begin to heal.

Our other projects include building a series of primary schools for My Lai (three so far); building two peace parks, one north of Hanoi and one in My Lai; facilitating projects for ethnic minorities; the Art Penpals project (an exchange of artwork between the children of My Lai and Madison); and the Sisters Meeting Sisters project, which will bring together the women of Vietnam and El Salvador to discuss the ways they have rebuilt their families, communities, and countries after war.

Think about how often My Lai has been evoked over the years—but what has been done to help the people there? The closed loop of recrimination in which most Americans have been caught over the years has left the people of My Lai out in the cold. I certainly carry my share of grief, and hatred for my government over what happened to the people in My Lai and elsewhere in Vietnam. But I also feel strongly that we cannot walk away from the people there, that our obligations to the people do not end with the ending of the war. So does VVAW. For years now, John Zutz, through the Blessing of the Bock fundraising event, has been a major contributor to our projects in My Lai.

For more information about these projects, visit www.mylaipeacepark.org.

Vietnam veteran Mike Boehm has been working on behalf of the Madison Quakers
to establish humanitarian projects in My Lai and elsewhere in Vietnam since 1992.
Boehm has traveled to Vietnam fourteen times since then to facilitate these projects.
He is a member of VVAW.

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