Our Origin Story

The War Has Not Ended

for the Vietnamese

By Chuck Searcy | June 23, 2021

I am Chuck Searcy, writing to you from Hanoi, Vietnam, where I have lived and worked since 1995, dealing with legacies of the U.S. war with Vietnam: explosive ordnance (EO) and the chemical weapon Agent Orange.

For many of us, the ones who are old enough, our lives have been significantly shaped by Vietnam. When I dropped out of the University of Georgia in 1966 to join the U.S. Army, I was sent to Vietnam, a decision that changed my life. I came to hate the war and my role in it. After three years in the Army, I joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War when I returned to the university. My parents saw me on television protesting the war, and they were upset and angry. My father was a POW in World War II, captured by the Germans. He survived that experience, but I could see why he did not understand my anti-war activities. Eventually, my parents came to oppose the war also, and we reconciled.

The war ended in 1975, and I went on about my life – with a few decent jobs, a couple of marriages, a couple of divorces. However, not a day passed that I didn’t think about Vietnam, sometimes with painful memories, sometimes with pleasant reflections.

In 1992 an old Army buddy and I
came back to Vietnam as tourists.

We traveled the whole country for 30 days, welcomed by warm smiles from the Vietnamese people. No anger, no bitterness. I was astonished. I began to think about coming back and helping somehow with the country’s difficult post-war recovery.

The opportunity came in 1995 when the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) asked me to come to Vietnam to manage an upgrade and install new equipment in an orthopedic-braces clinic at the National Children’s Hospital in Hanoi.

I began to notice newspaper and television reports of children, farmers, villagers being blown up by bombs and mines. How could this be, two decades after the war had ended? I dug deeper, and I learned that roughly 100,000 Vietnamese had been killed or injured by bombs and mines since the war ended in 1975. I found that central Vietnam, especially Quang Tri Province and the former DMZ, was most severely affected.

Quang Tri Province is the most
bombed place on earth.

There is little competition for the designation of “The Most Bombed Place on Earth.” Any research will quickly narrow the candidates from around the world and throughout history to a very few, and certainly the data supports a claim as such for Quang Tri. Over our 20 years, RENEW has acquired a great deal of expertise in the removal of unexploded ordnance from Quang Tri. From this experience and research dealing with every manner of bombs from aerial-dropped bombs, cluster bombs, artillery shells, booby traps, grenades, mortar rounds, and the list goes on, we have concluded that Quang Tri is the most bombed place on earth.

Estimates vary, but it is accepted that more than 5 million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam during the war, of which a substantial percentage landed in Quang Tri. It was the most heavily bombed province in the country. Yet, the province is only slightly larger than Rhode Island, by far the smallest state in the U.S.

Many more tons of artillery shells, cluster bombs, rockets, grenades, and other weapons were scattered over Quang Tri’s landscape in the vast infantry battles fought there in the years before 1975. Something like 10 to 20% of all these deadly weapons failed to explode.

And those bombs have continued
to explode ever since.

When the fighting stopped, and the U.S. presence in Vietnam ended on April 30, 1975, it didn’t end for the Vietnamese. The physical devastation was almost beyond comprehension. Industry was nonexistent. The country’s infrastructure and agricultural production had been decimated.

In 1996 the founders of a project called ‘Peace Trees,’ based in Seattle, came to Vietnam. I went with Jerilyn Brusseau and her late husband Danaan Parry to Quang Tri Province to propose to officials there a project to plant trees in an area that could be cleared of explosive ordnance. The Vietnamese agreed.

In the small town of Dong Ha, on a 17-acre (7-hectare) site, a team removed 300 bombs and mines. Later that year, I was in a group of 40 Americans and 40 local Vietnamese who planted 1,000 trees on newly safe ground. Now it is a public park where campouts and other youth activities are held.

That was the start. Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam steadily improved. Members of Congress and administration officials started, tentatively at first, to visit Vietnam, along with veterans, business delegations, students, and the media. U.S. government funding came to Peace Trees, then to Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

By the end of the 1990s decade, several NGOs were engaged in mine action mitigation, mainly clearing surface or shallow explosive ordnance and assisting bomb accident victims permanently disabled from EO accidents.

However, the provincial government in Quang Tri was not satisfied with the progress that was being made. They were frustrated by the lack of planning and coordination among the international organizations. There was no clear record-keeping process to track progress. So, in the year 2000, provincial authorities assembled all international organizations engaged in mine action work. They asked the international representatives to develop a comprehensive and integrated plan to ensure that all activities were coordinated under one umbrella so that everybody would be working seamlessly. The result was disappointing. Most NGOs already at work in Quang Tri were competing for limited funding from the same donors, so the NGOs had little interest in cooperating or sharing information.

Out of this frustration came the
creation of Project RENEW.

The concept emerged after a visit in 2000 by a delegation from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF). That organization had inspired veterans and other American donors to fund “The Wall” – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC engraved in gleaming black granite with the names of every American who had died in the war in Vietnam. The VVMF delegation accepted the Quang Tri government’s challenge to create an “integrated and comprehensive” approach to the problem of explosive ordnance. VVMF procured funding from the U.S.-based Freeman Foundation and an American veteran, Christos Cotsakos, who had been wounded in Quang Tri Province. With half a million dollars in seed funding, Project RENEW was launched in Dong Ha, Quang Tri, in August of 2001.

Project RENEW was launched in Dong Ha,
Quang Tri, in August of 2001.

RENEW founders Hoang Nam and Chuck Searcy in Dong Ha circa 2001. Photo from the Project RENEW archives.

The provincial government assigned a young staff member from the Department of Foreign Relations, Mr. Hoang Nam, the key responsibility as the liaison between provincial authorities and VVMF, and other agencies and institutions. I was asked to represent VVMF and work with the Vietnamese government and the U.S. government, international organizations, prospective donors, and other agencies and bilateral partners.

Together, Nam and I began a joint effort to create the legal and institutional basis for a successful project, reaching out to identify resources, funding opportunities, and partnerships that would help achieve our goal of making Quang Tri safe from the threat of bombs and mines.

Hoang Nam was ideal for that position. First, he knew the risks, personally. He is a native of Quang Tri. He grew up along the DMZ and witnessed many EO accidents. He remembers walking to elementary school with a classmate when his friend was seriously injured by an EO explosion.

Second, he had the interpersonal skills to work closely with me to guide the project through doubts and bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles from both sides, always building trust to move this very “sensitive” mission forward to success.

It was sensitive because Americans were involved – and many older Vietnamese people still remembered the horror of the American war, the relentless bombing campaigns along the DMZ, the ground fighting around their villages, farms, and fields. It was also sensitive because, until recently, any dangerous work involving explosives was the exclusive domain of the Vietnamese military. Now we were proposing to deploy civilian staff, eventually to include teams of deminers, to augment the work that the military had begun.

From the beginning, RENEW was to be ultimately a Vietnamese initiative.

The process in the best of circumstances is complicated enough, so early on, we learned that finding and promoting team players was essential to our success. One of the unique qualities of Project RENEW is that it belongs to the Vietnamese.

We foreigners have always been welcomed, much needed, and appreciated by the Vietnamese. In the case of RENEW, from the beginning, we were truly a team.

It was also critical for Nam to be in his leadership position because we did not have adequate funding to hire a large staff. Nam’s solution? Use local people and resources, existing institutions, trained volunteers. Immediately Nam proposed the Youth Union, one of Viet Nam’s most effective “mass organizations” – which I describe as an approximate mix of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and YMCA – to help us launch Risk Education. (Later, we also worked with the Women’s Union, the Ministry of Health, organizations of people with disabilities, and the military.)

With the aim of “making Quang Tri safe” from bombs and mines, Nam and I agreed that a necessary foundation was to inform and educate children, farmers, villagers about the danger of unexploded ordnance and how to avoid accidents and injuries.

The Youth Union (YU) was an excellent partner to launch this new Risk Education initiative. The YU leadership persuaded nearly 100 volunteers to undergo training and learn to teach children and adults how to keep themselves safe, how to protect their families and their neighbors, and how to report dangerous ordnance when they found it along roadways or in ditches or woods and fields. The Youth Union spread into villages and communities, schools. They joined parades and other public events to teach safety and how to report bombs and mines when they were found.

But this created another problem: reports were coming in of potentially lethal ordnance in places where people could be killed or injured, yet no one was coming to clean it up! That became the next urgent challenge for RENEW – to launch trained, equipped, and professional teams to respond to these calls and neutralize the danger when sufficient funding was not yet available.

Reports were coming in of potentially lethal ordnance in places where people could be killed or injured, yet no one was coming to clean it up!

Fortunately, in 2008, a delegation from Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) traveled to Viet Nam to investigate whether NPA’s years of global experience might be of value. The group quickly recognized that the need in Viet Nam was great. However, NPA did not want to set up an independent operation, starting from zero. NPA preferred a working partnership with an established Vietnamese organization. After visiting projects in numerous provinces, they identified Project RENEW as an ideal partner, and Project RENEW staff welcomed the arrangement. From that initial agreement, we recruited technicians, equipped, trained, and soon deployed them to clean up and safely destroy the hundreds of items of explosive ordnance that were being identified and reported every week by local people.

That critically important partnership between RENEW and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) was launched in 2008. Norwegian People’s Aid is a politically independent membership-based organization working in Norway and more than 30 countries worldwide. Founded in 1939 as the labor movement’s humanitarian solidarity organization, NPA aims to improve people’s living conditions and create a democratic, just, and safe society. NPA’s international work covers three core areas: Mine Action and disarmament, Development and Humanitarian relief aid.

This relationship is based on a rare, maybe unique collaboration in the NGO world. NPA is proud of the humanitarian work they do in more than 20 countries around the world. NPA goes about its tasks in a professional way that emphasizes positive results and tangible benefits to the people who are served, on the ground, and which builds capacity among the host nation’s institutions and personnel to learn from the partnership and continue the work independently, on their own, with the highest standards of excellence. That’s why the RENEW-NPA partnership is widely admired in Viet Nam and other places where EO contamination needs to be addressed.

The work is hard and dangerous,
but we see positive results every day.

In Quang Tri Province, our mission is to make Quang Tri safe from explosive ordnance such as mines, cluster bombs, grenades, artillery shells. Our demining teams match bombing maps from the U.S. Department of Defense with survey data gathered from villagers at the neighborhood level. With the help of NPA and other partners, ordnance is identified and safely detonated or removed to a demolition site. Teams move on to their next tasks.

That information goes into a centralized database that is real-time accessible to our entire team. It is built on the world-standard platform for such reporting, it is on the web, and it’s accessible by anyone at any time.

One goal achieved: ZERO accidents

Casualties have decreased to ZERO over the past decade

Deaths and injuries related to explosive ordnance have been drastically reduced during recent years. From 72 casualties in 2008, ten years later, in 2018 there were zero accidents in Quang Tri – the first time since the war ended in 1975. That record has been maintained during the past three years.

Project RENEW Annual Reports, 2008 to Present.

RENEW is now an integral part of a team
approach to making Quang Tri safe.

Accidents have been reduced from 70 or 80 casualties annually a decade ago to zero accidents, deaths, or injuries in 2018, 2019, 2020, and thus far this year.

As noted above, an important component of that success is risk education – teaching school children, farmers, local villagers how to identify ordnance and report it immediately. Last year, even during the COVID-19 global pandemic, calls for bomb removal continued, and thousands of bombs and other explosive devices were removed and safely destroyed. Significant flooding in Quang Tri in 2020 added to the risks, as floodwaters exposed unearthed and shifting explosive devices.

RENEW also provides prosthetic limbs and other devices to children and adults who have lost limbs or their sight from explosive ordnance. We support six workshops for people who are blind where these war victims are trained and employed to make brooms, incense, and toothpicks to earn a living wage.

The point is, in Quang Tri Province, my Vietnamese colleagues are now working with provincial authorities and other organizations to “manage” the unexploded ordnance problem to truly make Vietnam safe – demonstrating to the rest of the world how this can be done.

We must face the troublesome and
unavoidable issue of Agent Orange.

The present-day Agent Orange problem is multi-generational, a challenge where millions of families face severe disabilities, who must cope with few resources and inadequate assistance. With strong support from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and targeted congressional funding, we are finally directing help to Vietnamese family members suffering from congenital defects, illnesses, or severe disabilities thought to be related to Agent Orange.

The present-day Agent Orange problem is multi-generational, a challenge where many thousands of families face severe disabilities, who must cope with few resources and inadequate assistance.

Veterans and other Americans have worked intensely on this issue with our Vietnamese friends and colleagues since the mid-90s. Around that time, we began to raise questions about Agent Orange – and demanded to know why the U.S. government was doing nothing to help the Vietnamese deal with its lingering consequences. The U.S. provides billions of dollars a year in benefits to U.S. veterans for Agent Orange-related health issues. With the persistent efforts of U.S. and Vietnamese veterans, American citizens, and others visiting Vietnam or living here, the attitude of the U.S. government gradually changed. Significant cooperation began in 2015 with the cleanup of toxic “hotspots” where dioxin (the highly toxic chemical by-product of Agent Orange) was still present in soil and sediment at the Da Nang airport. That project was completed, and now the last big project at the former U.S. airbase at Bien Hoa, near Ho Chi Minh City, is underway.

In Quang Tri, RENEW plans to employ our experience and network to help bring relief to these suffering families, build capacity within the public health system, and teach neighbors and extended family how to help these victims with the burdens of daily life.

This work cannot be done overnight,
alone, or without help.

Our success in making Quang Tri safe from bombs and mines opens a path to delivering practical help to families dealing with Agent Orange, again relying on local resources as part of the solution. To launch and expand this initiative, we need the financial and political support of our donors, corporations, foundations, and the U.S. government to make real progress.

Our success in making Quang Tri safe from bombs and mines opens a path to delivering practical help to families dealing with Agent Orange.

Vietnam can be and should be a worldwide leader in dealing with the consequences of wars that affect many generations. The country and its people are widely respected and admired because Vietnam treasures peace – something precious for a country that has been attacked, invaded, occupied, and colonized over many centuries. With continued U.S. friendship, support, and cooperation, Vietnam is now in a position to take a leadership role in making the world a safer, more peaceful place.

With that we could truly bring “closure” to the painful legacies of the war in Vietnam.

Chuck Searcy is a co-founder of Project RENEW,

and a Director of Friends of Project RENEW, Inc., an independent U.S. 501(c)(3) charitable organization that works closely with Project RENEW to advance its mission.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, Chuck served in the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion in Saigon from June 1967 to June 1968. Chuck has represented three American veteran organizations in Viet Nam since 1995, including the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), and Veterans for Peace (VFP). Chuck has lived in Hanoi, Vietnam since 1994 and was awarded the National Friendship Medal of the State of Vietnam, the highest honor for foreigners who have served the country.