Michael Marceau of Rockville, a veteran critically wounded during the Vietnam War, spent two weeks in April in Vietnam as part of a peace and reconciliation tour. The tour focused on educating veterans about Agent Orange and unexploded ordnances.
Question: Why did you head to Vietnam for a peace and reconciliation tour?
Answer: The purpose of the trip ostensibly was to find out about Agent Orange and unexploded ordnances: What’s the situation there on the ground? What are some of the processes of trying to deal with the clean up of both of those problems? So we had meetings pretty regularly with some of the people and groups that are involved with that on a day to day basis on the ground in different areas of Vietnam. Some of the situations we ran across are pretty heartbreaking. Especially some of the Agent Orange victims. We sprayed millions of gallons in the 1960s and early 1970s … and there are still areas of the country where nothing has grown since then. We are beginning to see the third generation of victims over there.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the trip?
A: Seeing the Agent Orange victims. To me, the lucky ones are the ones with totally physical disabilities. You can learn to compensate for that. The difficult situations, emotionally, are the ones who are mentally challenged. We visited a dozen or 15 homes where parents and grandparents were caring for Agent Orange victims. I saw a 35-year-old man sitting in a bed unable to straighten his arms and legs with a tumor that covers the whole right side, back of his head. He had the mental capacity of maybe a three year old and his parents get about $40 a month from the government for his care and that’s it. That was a really, really tough part for me and for most of the people, too.
Q: What was the most rewarding aspect of the trip?
A: The warm welcome that we received everywhere we went. Not only from the organizations that we were meeting but the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange…Just to see the work that they were doing everyday for the victims up close and personal, trying to support some of the children in orphanages and to help the kids. And the kids that we met in these situations always seemed to have a positive attitude because there were people like themselves suffering disabilities physical and mental. They didn’t see themselves as different like they would out in the community, in the towns and villages. They kind of have formed that bond. You find people who are like you and you become less of an outsider and I think that support mechanism is very important to the recovery process.
Q: How does a trip such as this benefit U.S.-Vietnam relations?
A: Everyone was very welcoming. The U.S. for the last 10 or 12 years has partnered with Vietnam. They export to us and we export to them. They have several main things that they’re exporting to America. One is coffee. One of the other things that they’re trying to do is increase their efforts reaching out to American tourists to come over there. One of the things that is a priority for them is trying to expand the airport in Da Nang and lengthen the runways there because that is right on the coast and they want to promote their beaches.
Q: Did you have a defining moment when you realized you were back in the same place you were critically injured?
A: There were moments like that all throughout the trip. And some of the strangest moments, I guess, were when we met people who fought against us 45 years ago. They were among the most welcoming, open-armed people that we came across on the whole tour…I think our second or third night in Hanoi, which was our first stop, they had made arrangements for our group to be hosted by former North Vietnamese airforce pilots. There were four or five of them I guess. That group treated us to dinner and drinks at a very expensive restaurant in Hanoi…Instead of raising weapons, we were raising glasses and saying, ‘To our health.’
Q: Is it important for veterans to partake in peace and reconciliation trips? If so, why?
A: Absolutely it’s important. I think veterans have credibility. We walk the walk. We’ve been in the middle of all the nasty stuff that was going on and we can speak truthfully about what happened when we were there 45 years ago and what’s going on now. And I think people have this idealized notion of the American military personnel. Everybody calls them heroes and they are the first ones to say, ‘We are not heroes.’ We just go there, wherever it is, doing our job. I really dislike that word. I’m not a hero for being in the military and going over there to serve my country.