PeaceTrees in Vietnam
She stood on the quiet hillside outside Dong Ha, Vietnam, with the sun just starting to rise, and it all came rushing back, those frightening television images of the war from when she was a teenager--the death, the destruction, the whup-whup-whup of helicopters, the anguished cries of women and children. And what also came rushing back to Lani Maren, a 45-year-old clerk from a health foods store in Corvallis, Oregon was the utter helplessness she felt and how she had vowed that someday, in some way, she would do something positive for that ravaged country and its people.
So on a chill morning decades later, there were tears streaming down Maren's face as she stood in that once-distant land and said to herself, "I really did it! I really did it!" Maren was hardly alone in such feelings. There were 41 other people on this three-week mission of peace and reconciliation in Vietnam, most from the United States, but also from Canada, Croatia, Germany and Great Britain. This unlikely international group ranged in age from 8 to 76, with many like Maren who were deeply affected by the Vietnam War.
There were combat soldiers and sailors. Conscientious objectors. Army medics and an Army nurse. War protestors. A woman whose brother was killed in the war. A woman who was born in Vietnam and fled to the States as a child, her family still split between the two countries. A woman who, while working on a pacifist project in Vietnam during the war, spent twelve days as a captive of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong).
But these were not people still stuck in the Age of Aquarius who were traipsing off to Vietnam from some long-forgotten communes and co-ops. They had gone on to a wide assortment of careers and pursuits. Their number included teachers, students, a contractor, a lawyer, a carpenter, a dental hygienist, social workers, a software developer, a judge, a historian, a professional pilot, a mortgage broker, government managers, consultants of various kinds, a photographer, an auto executive and a massage therapist.
The group was so varied that it seemed as if it had been formed by plucking names from random pages in the telephone book. What they did share was an unquenched urge to do good in the world, even after the close of the Cold War and the demise of the old, obvious threats. They were, in their quiet manner, post-modern peace campaigners, setting forth amid great global change and constantly shifting assumptions yet still hopeful that taking personal action, however small, could matter in some way.
They were strangers to one another, for the most part, lugging heavy duffel bags and many uncertainties, even fears. They had already endured the disbelief of many loved ones and acquaintances, as they tried to raise the $3,000 needed to participate in this late 1996 mission to plant trees in Vietnam, much of the money coming from community outreach work, fundraisers, benefits, letters and phone calls and doorbell ringing seeking donations. "You have to pay? You have to work? Are you stupid?" friends asked Philipp Scheib, a 23-year-old college student in Germany. And there were those reacted to Lisa Hupp, a 15-year-old high school student in Oregon, "You're doing what? Are you nuts?"
The first mention of the word "landmines" usually prompted the startled looks, the shocked words. This tree planting was not just some garden-variety do-gooding in a foreign land; there was danger too. Participants in PeaceTrees Vietnam were to create a friendship park on an 18-acre site that was part of an air base and battleground in Quang Tri Province, near the former demilitarized zone. Just two months before, Vietnamese military teams with mine detectors had fanned out across the planting site and unearthed 360 landmines, mortars, bombs and grenades. These were a tiny fraction of the 58,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance that still threaten residents in one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, deadly remnants of war that had killed 15 people in the province during the last four years and maimed more than 200 people, including many children.
As the days before departure dwindled, participants in the PeaceTrees project found themselves confronting inevitable questions: Had the planting site been cleared of all landmines? Was it truly safe? Little solace came from the final release form they all had to sign. The site clearance had been double-checked and found to be "of high quality," the form declared, but it still could not be certified as absolutely safe.
Nor was much comfort provided by the nineteen past PeaceTrees projects mounted by the Earthstewards Network, a non-profit citizens action group based on Bainbridge Island, Washington near Seattle. PeaceTrees projects have indeed taken place in many world trouble spots: South Africa, Palestine, Nicaragua and American inner cities. Never before, however, had a PeaceTrees project involved the removal of deadly landmines, which is the subject of a growing international campaign for an outright prohibition of their use.
But private doubts among PeaceTrees Vietnam participants suddenly were supplanted by public grief when the Earthstewards founder and director died only days before the scheduled departure. Danaan Parry -- a 57-year-old bear of man, a former nuclear scientist turned tireless peace activist -- had succumbed to a heart attack while rushing to catch a ferry to Seattle. The packing of bags for Vietnam was set aside for the singing of songs and the shedding of tears at Parry's crowded memorial service. His loss staggered the group, raised doubts about proceeding at all, especially since Parry had participated in the landmine clearing operations. But a makeshift leadership team was hurriedly assembled of four people who would divide duties and attempt to fill Parry's well worn boots.
Still, there was a shell-shocked quality to the PeaceTrees group as they gathered for departure at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. People exchanged hellos and handshakes and embraces, but raw emotions often boiled to the surface, especially as team members held hands in a circle formed inside a crowded airport meeting room. Many eyes focused on a 53-year-old woman who stood in the circle supported by friends and family. Jerilyn Brusseau, Parry's peace partner and wife of four years, had decided that she must still participate in this long-envisioned mission to the country where her brother, an Army helicopter pilot, had been shot down and killed in 1969.
Brusseau's willingness to press on with the Vietnam trip was an act of courage that both inspired and worried others in the group. How she would manage amid her grief was one concern, but her very presence on the team also seemed likely to be a constant reminder of death and loss and perhaps even serve as an eerie premonition that the PeaceTrees Vietnam project was ill-fated in some way, much like the war. So many in the group were wiping away tears in the airport meeting room as they sang:
"Let us plant peace in every season.
"It's time to heal the wounds of war,
"Time for people to restore
"Life, sweet life to the land."
Nothing was probably more unsettling during the long flight across the Pacific Ocean than worries about the reception ahead in Vietnam. Many of the PeaceTrees volunteers were intent on making amends, however minuscule, however belated, for the war. But what the Vietnamese people would make of such efforts was a matter of hearsay or speculation. How could there not be lingering wounds from the war and some antipathy toward Americans considering what had happened back then -- the small country turned into a free-fire zone, subjected to several times the tonnage of bombs dropped during all of World War II; vast stretches of the forested landscape devastated by the defoliant Agent Orange (especially in Quang Tri Province); plus 1.2 million Vietnamese soldiers on both sides killed, 4 million civilians killed or injured, 300,000 people still listed as missing. The United States had not gotten over the war, even decades later, so how could Vietnam?
Such thoughts were most acute among the returning American veterans. They wanted desperately to replace bad memories of a country and a people frozen in another time. Planting trees seemed such an appropriate act of peace to veterans like Sarah Lee Blum of Seattle, a 55-year-old former Army nurse who, as she put it, ""was so much involved with the war and its death and destruction." Jack Meagher, a former Army infantry officer who is now a 54-year-old judge in Dayton, Ohio, hoped that the tree planting would help salve what he described as "a sadness, a touch of anger that I was in the position of having to go to Vietnam in the first place, and that I went."
Team members without such direct connection to the war signed on with PeaceTrees Vietnam for a variety of reasons. Lisa Hupp, the 15-year-old from Oregon, came as a direct result of what she had learned doing a ninth-grade term paper on landmines, an Internet research journey that took her from knowing "a landmine is something that blew up -- that's it" to being aghast at the vast threat posed by landmines in many countries. Ivan Drabek, a 22-year-old college student in Croatia, came because of the fond memories and friendships he had forged on past PeaceTrees projects in San Francisco and India. Cathy Gentino, a 43-year-old youth counselor in Seattle, came because "it felt right to give back something to that part of the world." Jennifer Appel, a 26-year-old physical therapy aide in Seattle, came with the hope that going to Vietnam, "although it made absolutely no logical sense," might somehow provide answers in her quest to discover "what could become my passion."
Landing after dark in Hanoi only added to feelings of apprehension. The airport was a grim and forbidding entrance to Vietnam, staffed by stone-faced government functionaries in some kind of uniform (customs? army? police?). There were no other passengers to be seen anywhere. Passing through immigration and the terminal felt like being deposited in a black-and-white movie on totalitarianism of the sort usually shown on television at 3 a.m. When the PeaceTrees group boarded buses, the terminal's lights were switched off, the doors locked.
There was time to snatch just a few hours' sleep in a government guesthouse, amidst sparse furnishings that would soon become familiar--mosquito netting above the bed, a giant Chinese thermos filled with hot water, a pair of small plastic slippers for bedroom and bathroom use, a comforter that seemed to have suffered through a thousand sleepless nights, a mattress hard as slate, often a lizard, sometimes a mouse or rat.
Bleary-eyed PeaceTrees team members soon gathered for a communal breakfast, with their first traditional noodle soup (pho), and the chance to hear from Chuck Searcy, one of the key American players in the capital. The Army veteran from Georgia had come back to Vietnam two years before to head the office of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Hanoi; he had quickly established himself as a quiet-spoken force for healing and a skilled navigator through red tape. Searcy had assisted Parry and Brusseau after they accepted the invitation of Quang Tri Province to do a PeaceTrees project there and his great enthusiasm for the effort was apparent from the moment he dismounted his motor scooter.
As Searcy soon told one team member, "This is the first group of its kind in Vietnam, the first group based on the problems with unexploded ordnance. . . . The Vietnamese welcome this -- they really do. Vietnam's image is frozen in the past in America. It's difficult for Americans to imagine that Vietnam can be such a bustling country, as it is now, and that Americans will be welcomed here. But it's true."
The first evidence of that came not long afterward once the PeaceTrees group boarded four buses and began the two-day journey south to Dong Ha. At every stop along the way, they were the subject of stares and waves and outpourings of good-natured curiosity. Children always crowded around, often far less reticent than their elders, and all intent on trying out the English that they are now studying in school. These initial encounters with Vietnamese introduced what soon became a familiar mantra throughout the country: "Hello! Hello! What's your name? Where are you from?" That the answer was "the United States" prompted surprise, followed by even more interest, especially in these areas of the northern countryside.
National Highway 1 and its neighboring railroad line are what knit together the north and south of Vietnam, but this 1,200-mile road was often the slenderest of threads. Using the term "highway" at all with "1" seemed a gross exaggeration, or perhaps just wishful thinking. Rutted, riddled with potholes, dug-up, washed-out, frequently detoured, Highway 1 was an American county road turned national thoroughfare.
Toddlers played on the roadbed of Highway 1. Rice was dried there, straw stacked, sand dumped, rocks piled. Water buffalo ridden by kids lumbered across the road, ducks and geese waddled, and dogs darted in and out. Horns were honked continually, especially when attempting to pass at speeds that sometimes approached a gut-check 35 miles per hour. There were bicycles on Highway 1, pony carts, ox carts, mopeds, motorcycles with sidecars, trucks and buses of ancient French vintage, semi trailers, four-wheel drives, tanker trucks, road graders, military jeeps and one dazzling BMW 528e.
By the time the PeaceTrees group arrived in Dong Ha, during a driving rainstorm after dark, many were suffering from singed brain circuits after a sensory overload of foreignness. But the welcome was warm, dinner was waiting and the two state guesthouses where they would be staying were sizable modern complexes, and certainly not the shacks they had once been warned to expect. Exhaustion was soon tempered by relief.
Genuine excitement reigned the next morning, as the PeaceTrees group received an official welcome at the People's Committee of Quang Tri Province, an event recorded by two Vietnamese television crews and one newspaper photographer, a measure of the prominence of the project in Vietnam. The brief ceremony was heart-felt. Van Viet Hoa, vice chairman, extended sympathies over the death of Danaan Parry, told the PeaceTrees volunteers how recent flooding underscored the urgent need for more trees in the province and concluded, through an interpreter, "We are moved to see many people of different ages and from many countries coming here for the same purpose -- this program to renew the green color of Quang Tri Province, and also for the world."
Each member of the PeaceTrees team soon stood up, stated their name and their hometown or their country, this simple act packing surprising power, the cumulative effect of so many people traveling such distances for a humanitarian purpose. There seemed to be electricity in the air when some of the American veterans spoke. Tom Dunne, a 57-year-old former Navy Seal from Washington, D.C., had stepped in as the main replacement for Parry and he told the gathering, "As a former soldier here during the war, it is a great privilege to extend my hand in friendship and peace." Jack Meagher, still looking every inch the soldier even in civilian khaki, stated, "I am returning to Vietnam after 28 years. I served in the Army in 1967-68. It is an honor to come here this time to plant seeds of peace." Nurse Sarah Lee Blum mentioned her name and when she had served in Vietnam, then abruptly stopped speaking, overcome by the moment.
Posing for group pictures on the steps of the committee headquarters returned smiles to the visitors' faces, as did their subsequent tour of Dong Ha, a vibrant town of 60,000 that had been rebuilt in utilitarian fashion after widespread devastation during the war. But the PeaceTrees team seemed wired to some strange pendulum of emotions, swinging from highs to lows, especially that afternoon when the euphoria of arrival suddenly crashed into the recognition of where they were and what they were trying to accomplish.
Carol Ways, a 40-year-old physician from Michigan, was one of three volunteer doctors on the team (including her father) and she rose to deliver a graphic briefing on health and safety dangers in Vietnam, right down to the color that urine should be when checking for dehydration. Ways' strongest words of caution came in describing the lack of emergency medical care. "This is nothing like where you've been," she emphasized.
John Boyden rose to speak next, and the quiet room turned even quieter. Safety, particularly at the planting site, was Boyden's responsibility and he brought strong credentials to the task. He had served four tours in Vietnam as a Navy demolitions expert, later helped found and direct a company that consulted around the world on problems with landmines and other unexploded ordnance. Boyden, who still showed flashes of his hard-ass military past, had participated in the mine clearing of the planting site with Danaan Parry and had graciously volunteered to take over Parry's role as the group's safety officer.
"The concern I have is digging," Boyden stressed. "If you find a chunk of metal, leave it alone. Mark it with your hat and walk out of the area the way you walked in. Don't pick up any piece of rusty metal. Most of the time when people get hurt it's from moving this stuff around -- they could be triggered, ready to go with a brief touch. . . . If there is a detonation -- God forbid! -- be calm. Don't run. Don't all converge on someone who's injured. What's more likely is that someone is going to turn an ankle or poke an eye, something that will need a Band-Aid or Mercurochrome. But we found 300 items at the planting site -- quite a lot of items -- so be careful. As far as I'm concerned, you can feel safe in that area. Don't be paranoid."
The next morning -- after months of planning, countless letters, phone calls, faxes, e-mail, and thousands of miles of travel across oceans and continents -- it was time at last to plant trees in the dark red soil of Vietnam.
There was a 6:50 a.m. circle outside the guesthouse where all the team members publicly affirmed their decision to participate in the planting. Then they met their Vietnamese partners for the first time, almost all in their 20s to everyone's surprise, and walked together over the one-mile route to the site where they heard more welcomes, more pledges of friendship and peace. Six shiny new shovels were brought forth and dignitaries from Vietnam and America, including Jerilyn Brusseau, turned the earth and planted the first PeaceTrees tree in memory of Danaan Parry.
"This was Danaan's dream," his widow remarked, tears welling up in her eyes, "and this is Danaan's tree."
People soon fanned out across the site, breaking into groups of twos and threes to plant their own trees, as the hillside echoed with the incongruous sounds of "Love Potion No. 9" blasting from loudspeakers. Large holes had already been dug for the mature young trees -- representing all the indigenous varieties in the province --but plenty of shovel work still remained. English was supposed to be the used during the project, but it became readily apparent that the English of many of the Vietnamese was no better than the Vietnamese of many of the visitors. So hand motions and shrugs and smiles became the favored means of communication across the language divide, although a few Vietnamese phrase books were soon pressed into use.
To finally get hands dirty while working in Vietnam produced feelings of considerable relief, and sometimes awe, especially after all the previous worries and warnings. Gary Harper dedicated the first tree he planted to his daughter, at the suggestion of one of the Vietnamese partners, which left him visibly moved. "This is how it happens between people," he said afterward. "It feels wonderful to be in action, even in a small way."
The trees were not just deposited in the ground on the barren hillside. They needed to be shielded from swirling winds and grazing cattle, so a protective cage was constructed around each tree after planting. Eight bamboo stakes were plunged into the ground around the tree, then three separate bands of bamboo had to be woven between the stakes and finally secured with plastic ties. The planters struggled with this process at first -- there was much fumbling and laughter -- but they soon developed a talent for this intricate and surprisingly intimate act of teamwork. "Creating those structures with the Vietnamese to protect new life was such a magnificent little process," Sarah Lee Blum observed. "It was like doing a dance."
There was inevitable dissension as is typical partway through such overseas projects stemming from strangeness, stress, emotions and age difference. The weather was not a help at this point, either. The sun disappeared, replaced by a persistent gloom. A chill drizzle that settled in over Dong Ha drowned pre-trip warnings about the urgent need for sunscreen. Clothes stayed soggy and damp and so did the spirits of the visitors, especially as various illnesses raged through the group, causing some people to seek refuge in their rooms for days on end.
Grousing and grievances were immediately discarded, though, during the terribly anxious hours when one member of the group -- 64-year-old Dwight Davis of Bainbridge Island, Washington -- fell desperately ill, suddenly turned delirious with high fever, nausea and coughing. Davis' illness was initially diagnosed as pneumonia and hurried attempts were made to establish contact for an emergency medical evacuation; this turned out to be far more difficult and less immediate than the group's insurance brochures had promised. But massive doses of antibiotics and intravenous feeding finally did their work. Davis slowly, very slowly, regained his health, although he was a changed man, chastened, even scarred by his illness. Davis had served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1964 with the United States Agency for International Development and had come back "to pick up the pieces and do some reconciliation." But instead he came face-to-face with his own mortality and later reflected, "It's one thing to do this kind of thing when you're 30, it's quite another when you're 64."
Amidst the Davis crisis and all the uncertainty, one of the group leaders walked up to the guesthouse reception desk, which did evening duty as a makeshift bar where a few people usually huddled over beers. "Question of the night," Gay-wynn Cooper said to her companions. "Yes or no -- knowing what you know now -- would you still come?" Although each of the four people finally said "yes," it was the time they took to respond that probably said more about their mental state, and the group's.
Doing good works in Vietnam was turning out to be very hard work indeed amid much adversity. But just when things seemed to teeter on the verge of unraveling, moments spent with the local people would restore spirits and remind everyone why they had come. Simple gestures seemed to possess stunning power, a shared song, a fumbling attempt at conversation, a soccer ball kicked back and forth.
The youthful Vietnamese planting partners possessed an infectious exuberance that saved their visitors, time and again. Quite a few were professional entertainers who dazzled with their abilities as singers, dancers and actors. This was very much in evidence during the festivities of the talent show night and during frequent evening forays to Dong Ha's karaoke clubs with some of the younger visitors. But the spirited ways of the Vietnamese also had an impact during the daily planting, which was always conducted with great good humor.
The Vietnamese particularly focused on Ivan Drabek, a charismatic student from Croatia. Drabek towered almost everyone and drew even more attention because of his nearly shaved head. Many of the Vietnamese women were smitten with him, offering professions of love -- perhaps in jest, perhaps not -- and the unmarried Drabek could sometimes be heard bellowing across the hillside in mock-protest: "You can't be my best friend! I've only known you for a few days!"
Members of the two teams often walked to and from the planting site holding hands or trading animated looks. Seldom was there much depth to these gestures because of the language barrier. That hampered even the hanging out together and karaoke club expeditions of some of the younger members of both teams. "The language barrier was always there," admitted Lauren Ciminera, 14. "I wanted to get beyond that, with our shared activities, but there wasn't a lot you could learn from the Vietnamese, especially about their personal lives. You could learn what kind of people they were, and what they liked when you spent a couple hours together sitting around a table and singing. But we never went to their homes." Still, genuine friendship did seem to blossom as time passed, especially once people had been together long enough that their foreign partners could be seen as individuals, not just part of a mass of strangers from someplace else.
Encounters with Vietnamese beyond the planting team also heightened the spirits of the PeaceTrees group, whether on evening outings to teach English in language schools or chance meetings on the streets of Dong Ha. The embrace of the foreigners by the Vietnamese was affecting, even stunning at times.
A 31-year-old member of the foreign relations department from Quang Tri province confided over dinner one evening with several Americans that his father had fought for the Viet Cong, and that his brother and sister were both killed by the South Vietnamese Army as suspected Viet Cong. And he went on to say that he had long despised Americans after that, although in recent years he had come to know some Americans and discovered another villain in their place. "Now," he said, "I hate war."
Perhaps no member of the PeaceTrees group had more prolonged encounters with the Vietnamese than Jack Meagher, the Ohio judge. Soon after arrival in Dong Ha, Meagher was latched onto by a group of high school boys who eagerly awaited "Mr. Jack's" return from planting and then accompanied him to coffeehouses in town where they sat and talked for hours. Other PeaceTrees members were soon kidding Meagher about his "fan club," but the generous combat vet found the encounters with the students to be both serious and gratifying. "Those kids were certainly very important to me," Meagher emphasized. "They were exactly the same age as the soldiers I faced in battle 30 years ago and that was something that didn't happen by accident -- although I definitely did not return to Vietnam thinking I would look up some high school kids. I found myself reflecting often that these kids could be the sons of the soldiers I fought against."
Early concerns about the reception for foreigners in Vietnam quickly evaporated, replaced by wonder at first and later questions about how the Vietnamese seemed to have managed to put aside past animosities, despite many lingering effects from the war, the decimated families, the devastated landscape. As Vietnam vet Jerry Plante of Atlanta observed, "The war's over here; the Vietnamese have moved on."
PeaceTrees team members heard a variety of rationales for this behavior -- that half of the Vietnamese population is less than 20 years old, too young to have known the war, let alone forgotten it; that the American war is only part, and not the most recent part, of a continuum of conflicts that the Vietnamese have waged during this bloody century; that the Vietnamese have somehow come to blame the war on the American government and not the American people; and that the Vietnamese are, by nature, practical and forgiving.
No PeaceTrees member may have been better positioned to reach that conclusion than Diane Jones, a 51-year-old historian from Boise, Idaho. She spoke fluent Vietnamese, the result of her spending more than two years in the country during the war, time spent working in a rehab center operated by the American Friends Service Committee. Although few PeaceTrees members were aware of it, Jones had also spent 12 days as a captive of the Viet Cong, usually moving from place to place in the countryside under the cover of darkness, a frightening experience but one that never quite undermined her faith that she would eventually be released unharmed, as indeed happened.
"When I was here during the war," Jones related, "part of me fell deeply in love with the Vietnamese spirit. I've seen that on this visit too -- it's like falling in love all over again. Which makes it hard to explain."
The Vietnamese themselves, on occasion, tried to explain to their surprised visitors just why they were so welcoming to Americans. A truck driver, stopped at a small refreshment stand near the PeaceTrees guesthouses, said that the Vietnamese look at Americans and see nothing so much as "power in the world," not just in politics, but also in the pervasiveness of American business and culture, the brand names, the pop music, the shows now seen regularly on Vietnamese TV ("Little House on the Prairie," "Baywatch"). A 21-year-old female student at the national university in Hanoi, who was conducting a class survey of American attitudes at a downtown park, stressed to one American visitor: "Young people in Vietnam don't care about the past, just the future. The war was very bad. Americans and Vietnamese should be friendly in the future."
So many acts of kindness and graciousness enveloped the PeaceTrees members wherever they went in Vietnam that their own efforts often seemed woefully inadequate, at least in their own minds. Many felt they should have done more planting, learned more Vietnamese, visited more schools, met more people. It was probably inevitable that one last opportunity to honor that impulse would become the most memorable day of their visit.
They boarded their buses one Sunday morning for the short trip to neighboring Quang Tri City, where they went to an orphanage and were immediately greeted by 53 children lining the sidewalk and applauding their arrival. This touching act immediately started the tug at the visitors' hearts and tear ducts and it would not let up over the next five hours.
The PeaceTrees team was not taking part in the usual inspection march through an orphanage that groups of visiting foreigners often find a mandatory part of their itinerary in another country. This was instead an orphanage immersion. The visitors planted trees on the orphanage grounds with the children, played silly kid games in the schoolyard, shared a lengthy outdoor banquet where the guests tried to slyly ensure that the children ate most of the food.
The children, mostly of elementary school age, were lively, inquisitive and utterly beguiling, with few showing any reticence whatsoever around their visitors. Members of the PeaceTrees group responded with an unbridled, child-like enthusiasm seldom exhibited before. It seemed as though being with children gave them an instant reprieve from all their adult grumbles and worries. Held hands, lingering embraces and visible emotions abounded throughout the visit to the orphanage.
Cathy Gentino, the youth counselor, sat with an orphan girl on her lap and thought to herself, "THIS is why I came to Vietnam." Jennifer Appel, another single woman with no children, quickly removed her headband and placed it in an orphan's hair because, as she recalled later, "I never felt so strongly connected to a child in my life. She saturated me with unconditional love and she was so natural about it, so giving. I'd never experienced anything like that -- I wanted to give her everything I had." The children at the orphanage had just as powerful an impact on many of the males in the group, especially the fathers who had left children at home. Those included Chris Gardner, an often-dour carpenter from Britain who spent much of the day sporting a flower in the buttonhole of his blue jean jacket, much to the delight of the toddler cradled in his arms.
The visit so touched the PeaceTrees visitors that they participated in an impromptu fundraiser for the orphanage, secretly digging into their pockets on the spot to produce a donation of $420, enough money to care for all of the children for a month. Other long-arranged gifts were also presented at a ceremony--sports equipment, school supplies, toothbrushes, toys, crayons and tracings of hands done by schoolchildren in America.
Then the entire group--both the children and the visitors--boarded the buses for the short ride to what had once been Quang Tri citadel. Remnants of walls were all that remained after carpet-bombing by American B-52's with a tonnage of explosives that was, the visitors were told, four times greater than the atomic bomb first dropped on Japan. In the midst of this vast, eerie open space sat a giant earthen mound topped by a memorial to the thousands who had perished. Now, American adults were standing at the memorial with young Vietnamese, some of whom might well have lost relatives in the bombing, and the wind blowing across the site soon carried the sound of voices singing or humming "Amazing Grace."
The hour at the citadel passed too quickly, giving way to goodbyes as the children boarded the buses, alone this time, for the ride back to the orphanage. It was the adults who found themselves unable to resist last desperate clutches, then waved at the departing buses as tears streamed down their faces.
Three days later, it was time to board the buses again, with more goodbyes and more tears. The PeaceTrees team was on its way to Hanoi and then home, but first there were the last difficult minutes of parting with their planting partners outside the guesthouse on another damp and chill morning. A farewell ceremony with many exchanged gifts had already been held. The last morning was instead a time to confront a hard truth -- that most of these people, who had worked hard together in hopes of healing old scars in a war-torn land, would probably never see each other again.
The buses lumbered north on Highway 1 for two days. But many PeaceTrees team members found themselves looking less at the countryside, which now seemed familiar, and more at their memories of what they had seen and done during the last 20 days in Vietnam.
Jessica Nguyen, a 29-year-old social worker from Seattle, had a sense of great personal fulfillment, perhaps more than anyone else did on the trip. She had left Vietnam as an 8-year-old, with half her family remaining behind, half living new lives in the States. The time with PeaceTrees had afforded her the chance to get closer to her natural mother and her extended family in nearby Hue. Not all past distance and reticence had been erased, but a promising start had been made. Which is why Nguyen was moved to remark, "I rediscovered my roots, my culture, after many years of denying my Vietnamese."
There was much less certainty among many of the other PeaceTrees members on the buses heading north. Few harbored any illusions about their small project and its effect. "Of course, I don't think I changed the world," Philipp Scheib of Germany said. "I did plant some trees, I did learn some things, I did find some friends. It was a worthwhile experience." Ivan Drabek, veteran of past PeaceTrees projects, summarized, "The trees were largely symbolic. The most important thing is what happened in our hearts during the time we spent together."
Attorney Fred Noland of Seattle had probably participated in more global projects than anyone in the PeaceTrees group, including his youthful stint in the Peace Corps and many subsequent citizen efforts for peace, especially in the Soviet Union. Now, at 57, the soft-spoken Noland was well versed in both the benefits and difficulties of such work. "I don't think this PeaceTrees Vietnam project will really change the world," Noland summarized. "But it is one of those times when people pull on a rope together and it just helps to remind people that there's good will, as well as evil, in the world."
Those on the buses also reflected on the people they had been with on their peace mission, especially Jerilyn Brusseau, who inspired others amid her grief, always managing somehow to summon eloquence when speaking in public gatherings. She had become the group's anchor, one of the precious few people on the trip who enjoyed respect from all sides. Much speculation was expended on what difference Danaan Parry would have made in the group's chemistry, whether the sheer force of his personality might have smoothed the turbulence and discord that often beset the group. But there was no dispute about the fact that Brusseau's calming presence, under the most difficult of circumstances, had often kept things from getting worse, especially with her touching words at crucial moments.
"I thought it would be a stretch coming here," Brusseau told the last morning circle in Dong Ha. "But to have my dearly beloved pass away four days before we were to leave was a stretch I could not have imagined. And I could not have done it without you. You held me when I cried, you touched me when I was cranky -- and I'm sorry that was happening. I know Danaan is here with us, too. My life with him was great. I have known true love."
Remarkable encounters with the Vietnamese were also much on the minds of many PeaceTrees members on the buses heading north. Some of the encounters were ones they had witnessed themselves, others had surfaced in conversations, then were passed along, becoming part of the group's collective memory.
There was the time when Tom Dunne, the former Navy Seal, told a Vietnamese school teacher that he had fought in the war and the first words out of her mouth were: "I hope you weren't wounded." There was the time when one of the group's conscientious objectors was asked the inevitable, politely phrased question posed to the middle-aged male visitors -- "Were you here before?" The American responded that he had refused to fight in the war and the Vietnamese man immediately extended his hand to him and said, "Thank you very much."
But no moment in Vietnam seemed to linger in more of the group's memories than what happened during the final few minutes at the planting site. Almost 2,000 young trees and seedlings were now in the ground, the work of partners from Vietnam, America and other countries who held hands in a circle for the first and only time. It was a circle where people were supposed to share what the PeaceTrees experience had meant to them, although the Vietnamese seemed befuddled at first by that suggestion.
Slowly, but steadily, some of the foreign visitors began to speak, followed finally by a few of the Vietnamese, with translators making sure that what each person said was heard in both English and Vietnamese. Professions of peace and friendship were offered, sincere expressions of emotion and remembrance, but generalities for the most part, although one Vietnamese woman did voice a regret that language had proved to be such a barrier, along with her hope that "next time the communication will flow."
A light mist was falling when one of the oldest Americans in the group finally took his turn to speak. Peter Ways, a 74-year-old physician from Seattle, stepped forward in the circle and said words that many in the PeaceTrees group had pondered at some time during their visit, but few had managed to express, especially during such a public gathering. Ways' gaze moved around the circle, focusing on one Vietnamese after another, as he said in a strong voice: "Before we came here, many of us knew that the war in Vietnam was one of the biggest mistakes that the United States ever made. But since we came here, that opinion has only been greatly strengthened. Despite the fact that we Americans came here and killed your people, all I see on the faces of the people of Vietnam, both adults and students, is kindness and love. I, Peter Ways, have learned what forgiveness is from you."
Author's note: PeaceTrees Vietnam has continued its work at the park in Dong Ha since the planting was completed in December 1996. The group is now trying to raise the $100,000 needed to complete the Danaan Parry Landmines Education Center that is currently under construction at the park. Four members of the team have also helped organize the PeaceTrees Vietnam Education Fund, a non-profit program which now provides elementary school scholarships for 150 Vietnamese students, 100 of whom are handicapped, including many injured by landmines or with birth defects caused by Agent Orange. PeaceTrees Vietnam also has a video of the original planting project that is available for showing to groups or for purchase by interested individuals. PeaceTrees Vietnam can be contacted by telephoning (206) 842-7986. Or take a look at their website: www.bytestudio.com/peacetreesvietnam
Published on 11/1/98