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Road to Reconcile
By Nadya Williams (reviewer)
Road to Reconcile
by Joel Woodman
(TBGM Media, 2018)
If ever there was an antidote to the Ken Burns PBS series on the Vietnam War, it's the gentle, but truthful, new documentary Road to Reconcile. Shot in Vietnam over a three year period, it zeros in on four members of a 2017 annual tour to Vietnam, organized by Veterans For Peace (VFP).
The film features three American Vietnam War veterans:
David Clark—former Marine 1966-'70, who now lives full-time in Da Nang and co-led the tour group.
Chuck Searcy—former Army intelligence 1966-'69, the main VFP tour leader, who has lived full time in Hanoi since 1995, and co-founded Project RENEW, to clear left-over explosives.
Sharon Kufeldt—former Air Force 1969-'71, who lives in Southern California, and joined the tour with a special mission.
And one Vietnamese man:
Mr. Hien Xuan Ngo—principal staff member of Project RENEW's Mine Action Center in Quang Tri Province.
The group of Vietnam War-era Americans also included: two more veterans, four long-time peace activists — two of whom served time in prison for their anti-war actions — and one draft resister who defected to Canada. The in-depth tours are organized by the Hoa Binh (Peace) Chapter 160 of VFP in Vietnam, and each participant is required to bring a minimum of $1,000 as a donation to Vietnamese victims of our war. Every tour participant, since the 2012 start of the delegations, must bring the donation—with approximately $250,000 given so far. The 17-day tour starts in the north in the country's capital Ha Noi, but focuses on the middle, Quang Tri Province, the most heavily bombed, sprayed and fought over of the war, and finishes in Ho Chi Minh City, in the south. The itinerary emphasizes the worst legacies of the war: toxic defoliants, mainly Agent Orange, UXOs (unexploded ordnance), and poverty.
Ex-Marine David Edward Clark opens the film in a night market in a small town in Quang Tri Province, his wife "Ushi" Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong, by his side.
"A lot of my friends back in the US don't like this place," says David, who returned to live in Da Nang in 2007. "I don't call it the 'Vietnam War,' I call it the American war in Vietnam. When I'm in the United States, when I lived in the United States, the Vietnam war does haunt me every day. Whenever I'm in Vietnam, you know, the Vietnam war was over 40 years ago."
"I came here as a young man to die for my country. Thank God I didn't die. I made it, physically I made it. But, I may get to die here by my own choice." David is the secretary-treasurer of the Hoa Binh VFP chapter.
Tour leader Charles (Chuck) Mathes Searcy, who is the president of chapter 160, is shown in his Ha Noi home of nearly 25 years, with numerous awards and certificates lining the walls and shelves. He is most proud of his Friendship Medal, the highest award given by Vietnam to foreigners.
"From the time I left Vietnam during the war in 1968 until I came back in 1992, I probably thought about Vietnam every day. Vietnam was ever present. For those of us who have chosen to come back and work here and try to make a contribution, the most tangible outcome that we can see is dealing with the principle war legacies the we left behind, which are unexploded ordnance (bombs and mines) and Agent Orange, which is more difficult and challenging, more controversial. Both of those are clearly American responsibilities. The tours are an introduction to Vietnam, both to the natural beauty and to the dynamics of Vietnam today, as well as the historical links that are most important to Americans."
We meet Sharon Lee Kufeldt as she prepares for a five-month trip to Asia, in the aftermath of the nearly five years that she cared for her father, a Korean War Marine veteran. Deeply attached to her Dad, she shows us a teddy bear made from the fabric of his favorite shirt.
"I served in the Pacific Headquarters of the Air force during the Vietnam War," she explains," doing top-secret work. My generation was so impacted by this war, and we're still feeling the impact today, as far as I'm concerned." Sharon, who is a former vice president of National Veterans For Peace, has a special mission on the trip, to scatter some of the ashes of a Vietnam War veteran friend, at the request of his wife. "John was a wonderful man," she says. "He had really bad PTSD. I'm going to do something special with his ashes."
Hien Xuan Ngo, of Project RENEW, is a handsome 40-ish man with an intense demeanor. He speaks excellent English. "Personally, my mother fought during wartime," he tells us. "She was Viet Cong, fighting [the Americans] from 1964 until '69. Three times wounded. And now I'm working with American veterans who came back. The first time I met a US veteran, it was Chuck Searcy."
"My mom was a normal woman, an ordinary person. She was born in Quang Tri in '47. But when she was 3-years-old her father was killed by the French, during combat. You know, my grandfather was killed in 1950 when he was commanding a guerrilla platoon. My mom had a very hard childhood. Because of her participation in an anti-war demonstration led by Buddhists in the early '60s, she was arrested by the [US-backed] southern government. They put her into prison for three years—at the age of 16. So when she was released from prison she went and joined the National Liberation Front [Viet Cong] and became a fighter."
Hien Ngo shows the group around the impressive Mine Action Center but delivers the sobering statistic of at least 40,000 killed since the war by UXOs, and another 60,000 seriously injured. The president of the Republic of Ireland was a recent visitor, initiating his government's joining many other countries in the funding of Project RENEW's vital work; however, it is Norwegian People's Aid which provides the lion's share of aid.
But the most heartbreaking of the many legacies of the American war are the young Agent Orange victims. Dioxin, the most toxic substance known to science, was an (unnecessary) contaminant in Agent Orange. Its gene-warping destruction is passed through human and animal DNA; so the cancers, illnesses, and severe birth defects are now being spread to the Fourth Generation of Vietnamese, with an estimated four million affected today, including newborn babies.
We see tour member George Mische, a father of five, holding the hand of a deformed, bedridden child in the special ward of To Do Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. His non-violent Christian peace action in the late 1960s earned him two years in prison. His wife Helene, a retired special-needs children's nurse, was on the tour with him.
"The US actually has still never directly agreed to support the victims of Agent Orange," Chuck Searcy says. "Airport clean up [at Da Nang], yes; technical clean up, yes, but not helping the families who have suffered so much. Because we have a new government in the US with President Trump, the situation is even more uncertain. We really have no idea what he may do in the future." Additional clean-ups of former US bases were promised during the Bush and Obama administrations.
"My mother died because of a heart stroke seven years ago [aged 53]," Hien adds, "but I do believe that she is with me. She supports me in my decision to join working with Project RENEW and working with American veterans like Chuck Searcy and many others who are now coming back to give a hand to help. It took us two nations, two countries, two peoples, four decades to finally become friends. We have been through a very long and hard way, but finally, it happened."
"I feel so privileged and humble," says David Clark, "that I'm able to come here and make personal amends to these people — for me, yes, for me. It was 49 years ago I was here, and I do find peace here."
We meet Ushi, David's wife, a dynamic business woman whose first marriage to a Vietnamese man left her widowed with four adult children. She and David met in Da Nang, fell in love, and married in Vietnam and in the US. Her mother too was Viet Cong but welcomed David with open arms. David and Ushi raise funds for DVAVA (Da Nang Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange) and are also very active with Bicycles for Children of Vietnam, that provides bicycles to minority children in frontier areas that live over 10 km (6 miles) from school and do not have a bicycle. This program has donated over 600 bicycles in the last five years to minority children.
"You know, today I can just walk around and smile," David adds. "Going up and saying a few words in Vietnamese, and they just smile. And that is one of my greatest pleasures today—I put a smile on their faces. And that's my way," he says tearfully, "of making amends for what I did to these people."
The film ends with Sharon Kufeldt completing her friend's request to scatter the ashes. Sharon explains how she accompanied her father upon his return to Korea, and how much healing he got out of that — and she too gained "so much more insight into him, his journey, his life and what happened to us as a family during that wartime and after."
Sharon was asked to scatter the veteran's ashes anywhere in Vietnam but was told that he really liked the Mekong Delta. We see her sitting on a traditional wooden boat floating on a quiet tributary of the river delta, by a little table with flowers, fruit, incense, the envelope of ashes, and the vet's memorial program on it. "He especially loved the children of Vietnam," she reads, "and he spent many hours playing with them when he could. He also told stories of putting hand grenades in the Mekong River, so that the fish would float up to the surface so the people could gather them—an easy way to fish!" She empties the ashes and wishes him Peace.
One scene that is the heart of the film shows David talking to a pipe-smoking Vietnamese man on the street in a small rural city. They discover that they are the same age, 69, so David knows that this man was also in the war. When David tries to depart, the Viet veteran takes his hand to lead him down the street to show him something—Introduce him to the family? Share a meal? We do not know—but a bond of trust and brotherhood is clear.
As an epilogue, this statistic appears on the screen ahead of the credits: "According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a US military veteran takes their own life every 65 minutes."
Clearly, the three veterans of the American War in Vietnam who are walking on the road to reconciliation have chosen life.
For information on the September 2019 VFP tour please see: www.vfp160.org
To view the trailer of "Road to Reconcile," go to https://vimeo.com/250363844. To purchase the film: www.roadtoreconcile.com
Nadya Williams has been an active Associate member of San Francisco VFP Chapter 69 since the U.S. attack on Iraq, March 2003. She coordinated the VFP tours to Viet Nam from 2012 to 2017.