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U.S. veteran leads clean-up of Vietnam War’s lethal remnants

November 20, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
There are still ongoing lethal consequences of the Vietnam War that ended in 1975. Undetonated "bomblets," dropped by the U.S. military during the conflict, are killing and maiming people who discover them by accident. To help close a painful chapter in history, American veteran Chuck Searcy has made bomb removal and education his humanitarian mission. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to Vietnam and one American veteran’s mission back to the country to help save those he once fought.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

MIKE CERRE, Special Correspondent: Fifty years ago this spring, the first contingent of 3,500 Marines was sent to Vietnam. By the end of 1965, the American military force had grown to more than 200,000, marking the start of one of the country’s longest wars.

While the United States government and several veterans’ organizations work on meaningful ways to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, there are a handful of American vets living and working here in Vietnam cleaning up the dangerous legacies left behind from the war.

CHUCK SEARCY, Vietnam Veteran: I’m Chuck Searcy. I’m from Athens, Georgia.

When I came to Vietnam in 1967, I couldn’t find Vietnam on a map. I came here because I’m a veteran of the war, and ended up staying, working on humanitarian projects related to the consequences of the war, which is unexploded ordnance.

MIKE CERRE: More than 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called UXOs, since the end of the war in 1975.

Here in Quang Tri Province, bordering the DMZ, the former demilitarized zone that once separated South and North Vietnam, more bombs are believed to have been dropped than in all of Europe during World War II. Many of them were cluster bombs containing hundreds of these small but very lethal bomblets that were supposed to have exploded on impact.

CHUCK SEARCY: The Defense Department estimates that about 10 percent didn’t detonate as designed. So, when they fell to the ground intact, now, today, 40 years later, they’re exploding, and they kill and maim people.

MIKE CERRE: A community newspaper publisher and small business administrator in Washington after the war, Searcy first came back to Vietnam in 1992 as a tourist. He moved to Hanoi nearly 20 years ago to work with American veterans organizations on restoring diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Afterwards, he took on the UXO, unexploded ordnance problem, as his full-time job and mission.

CHUCK SEARCY: For me, Vietnam was an unclosed chapter, in the sense that, when I left, it was a painful experience, and it’s one of the reasons that I hoped that I would come back and in better circumstances, because that was a terrible state in which to leave things.

MIKE CERRE: This unexploded bomb was spotted by a farmer at the edge of his rice patty, less than 30 yards from his home and where his children play. Having attended one of Searcy’s bomb education classes, not only did the farmer know what it was. He knew how to call one of Searcy’s more than 20 bomb removal teams trained to safely blow it up in place, rather than risk trying to remove it.

Before leaving, the bomb squad found two more UXOs in the farmer’s field.

CHUCK SEARCY: The seriousness of the unexploded ordnance situation in Vietnam is beyond what most Americans could imagine. We dropped about 15 million tons of ordnance in this part of the world.

And in Quang Tri Province, which is the most heavily bombed area in the history of warfare, the province was virtually destroyed. There was hardly a tree left standing when the war was over.

MIKE CERRE: Project Renew is what Searcy calls his education and bomb removal operation.

Bui Trong Hong, a former North Vietnamese army colonel, an explosives expert, is Searcy’s chief technical officer. Adversaries during the war, they now work together as allies.

BUI TRONG HONG, Technical Officer, Project Renew: Any time we were under bombing, the noise, all the earth was shaking and a lot of smoke, so flying all over the place. Not until the bombing mission was over that we knew we were alive. After the war, I came back to my school and I became an engineering officer.

CHUCK SEARCY: The real challenge in Vietnam is not how to clean up every bomb and mine, but how to make Vietnam safe, but that doesn’t mean that every bomb and mine needs to be cleaned up. It means that people have to understand the problem, they have to be part of the process of solving the problem, which is to know how to call an explosive ordnance disposal teams that will come in immediately and clean up the ordnance that they found.

MIKE CERRE: In addition to their bomb disposal teams, Project Renew has set up educational programs for preventing accidents, along with prosthetic services and occupational programs for the unfortunate victims of UXOs.

CHUCK SEARCY: The management of the problem will have to be continued for a long time to come, but nobody should be killed, nobody should have an accident, should be injured, lose an eye, or an arm or a leg in the future.

MIKE CERRE: Most of Project Renew’s funding has been coming from foreign relief agencies in Norway and Japan, rather than private or public funding from the United States.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) Vermont: And if my grandchildren lived in an area where you had to worry about land mines, wouldn’t we, everybody in this country come together?

MIKE CERRE: After Senator Patrick Leahy’s fact-finding visit to Vietnam earlier this year, Congress has nearly tripled the amount of funding for UXO removal projects throughout Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.

SAMUEL PEREZ, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State: After the soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen go home, you recognize that the hurting doesn’t stop.

MIKE CERRE: Sam Perez, a U.S. Navy admiral, heads up the State Department’s Weapons Removal Office. He’s charged with administering this increased U.S. funding to nongovernmental agencies, such as Searcy’s Project Renew, as well as the Mine Action Group and PeaceTrees.

They coordinate their activities with local officials and military, but the actual survey and bomb removal work is done by Vietnamese crews the NGOs have hired and trained.

SAMUEL PEREZ: And I think what you’re seeing is tangible actions by our government to clean up our brass, to make that right.

MIKE CERRE: The military expression clean up your brass after firing your weapons is something both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are familiar with, as Vietnam veterans themselves.

Chuck Searcy is hopeful that the start of next year’s Vietnam War anniversaries will draw more funding from the U.S. and other American veterans for one last mission in Vietnam.

CHUCK SEARCY: I think the most appropriate and the most meaningful commemoration of the war for us Americans will be to come together to help Vietnam make this country safe from cluster munitions and other ordnance like this. It could be achieved. We could have full closure.

MIKE CERRE: For the “PBS NewsHour,” Mike Cerre reporting in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam.

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