Veteran finds healing in helping Vietnam to rebuild

November 18, 1990|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Sun Staff Correspondent

CLEAR SPRING -- A familiar fear came over Arthur James and his fellow veterans after they got off the plane in Bangkok in September and saw a Thai soldier holding an M-16 rifle.

The tension heightened for the seven Americans when they boarded another plane for a 90-minute trip to their final destination -- Hanoi. The blur of war from 20 years before grew more vivid for Mr. James during the flight. The last time he'd been in Vietnam, his legs were almost blown off.

But instead of the enemy waiting at the end of their journey, Mr. James and the others met victims of the U.S. attacks during the 12-day Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972. Among the structures destroyed then was a health clinic in the village of Yen Vien, about 12 miles from Hanoi.

Almost 20 years later, Mr. James, 42, a resident of Clear Spring in Washington County, and six other veterans went back to rebuild a small part of what was destroyed. He spent September and October rebuilding the health clinic as part of the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project, a non-profit veterans organization dedicated to providing reparations to the Vietnamese people. Mr. James' group was the third team of Americans to return under the auspices of the project, headquartered in Garberville, Calif.

The restoration project raised $35,000 for the construction of a 2,000-square-foot health clinic and for supplies. Seven veterans volunteered to oversee and help with construction, spending their own money for the trip.

Another goal of the project is to help U.S. veterans deal with the psychological scars of the war, said Scott Rutherford, development coordinator for the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project. "There's a dimension to this project that is almost mythic," he said. "The veterans who bore the brunt of the war are going back and healing for all of us. The project has an important symbolic message for the country."

Helping to create, rather than destroy, is its own kind of healing, said Mr. James, an Ellicott City native who served as an infantryman in Vietnam for seven months until he was wounded in battle on Feb. 10, 1970, in Phuoc Long Province.

"To be able to go back is listening to a deep place in your own heart," he said. "It was a small gesture to demonstrate good will, to replace hatreds and distrust with love and kindness."

The gesture accomplished that task, Mr. James said. "The people were very warm, and our fear evaporated right away," he said. "They were very appreciative of us bringing a gift to an area that can't provide for its immense health needs. There is such a desperate need for everything in Vietnam that it overwhelms you. You find yourself giving away everything you had and wish you had more to give."

Mr. James, a counselor for the Veterans Administration at its Martinsburg, W.Va., center, worked side by side with the villagers as a construction laborer. He grew to become friends with many of his co-workers, he said, and spent what free time he had with their families.

"They invited us into their homes and gave us wonderful meals," he said. "The children would escort us from home to home to have us in for tea or rice wine, or give us some kind of herbal concoctions to make us stronger. They tried to take care of us."

The conversations -- either through an interpreter or makeshift sign language -- were often friendly, but sometimes suspicious and disturbing. "Many of the people who invited us into their homes had lost loved ones in the war," he said. "And everywhere you went, people would show you their scars and tell you about Christmas in 1972 and how horrible it was during the bombing."

Despite the heat, work went smoothly; there was only one unfortunate incident -- one veteran could not deal with going back and had to leave. "He had done three tours in Vietnam and really shouldn't have embarked on such a journey," Mr. James said. "He took a lot of old war baggage he'd been carrying around for 20 years right back with him."

The Vietnamese government, while cooperative, tried to keep the Americans under constant watch, Mr. James said. "The government always wanted somebody around us," he said. "They are very suspicious of foreigners, bordering on paranoia. But you've got to remember that this is a country that has been constantly invaded by foreigners."

One Vietnamese veteran simply asked Mr. James why it all had happened.

"He asked me, 'Why did your leaders send your mothers' sons 10,000 miles to die in our land? Why now do you come here to build a health clinic?' "Mr James said ." They looked deeply into our hearts and nature,and wanted to probe our motives."

What has disturbed Mr. James more than going back to Vietnam was returning recently to find the United States again on the brink of war

"At this time, Vietnam veterans have a special capacity to say something," he said. "We have a large moral responsibility to tell people about our war experiences. We need to have some contributing insights into this potential devastation."

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