Vietnam Veteran Heals Old Wounds From an Unpopular War

For Vietnam veteran Chuck Searcy, the best way to overcome the demons left behind from war is to return to the very ground in which the bloodshed took place—only this time as a peacemaker instead of a soldier.

A former Army intelligence analyst and newspaper publisher, Searcy is now the international advisor for Project RENEW, whose mission is to rid Vietnam of leftover bombs, mines and other unexploded ordnance (UXOs) as well as remnants of Agent Orange that still plague the region. Just last year, RENEW teams recovered and disposed of more than 4,800 UXOs. The project has also spawned educational outreach programs in over 500 Vietnamese village communities in which more than 55,000 children and adults have learned how to be safe from accident and injury.

Project RENEW is run by the Vietnamese but receives funding from veterans, private donors and government grants from five countries: the United States, through the U.S. State Department, and Norway, Japan, Taiwan, and Ireland. Since 2008 Norway has supported Project RENEW through Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), Project RENEW’s main partner organization. As noted by Swords to Plowshares board member Paul Cox, the mission of Project RENEW and the mission of Swords to Plowshares is identical: “to heal the wounds of war.”

Having moved to Vietnam in 1995, Searcy is nearing the start of his third decade in the country whose namesake evokes one of the most divisive wars in recent history. During a visit to the U.S. in August, Searcy spoke to his work at the Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel in San Francisco; Swords to Plowshares’ Brian Jarvis caught up with the soldier-turned-diplomat to discuss his efforts to bring about a new legacy, coming on the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary.

How did you get involved with Project Renew? I returned to Vietnam in 1992 as a tourist with an old Army buddy. Like most veterans, Vietnam had been on my mind for years—a constant theme for Vietnam vets whether we admit it or not. When I went back after almost 25 years, everything came sharply into focus. For the first time in all those years, I thought about coming back to Vietnam for a longer period and doing something positive.

Tell us about your work. The threat of unexploded ordnance (UXO) is massive, so the real key is to identify the locations of the ordinance, where contamination still exists, decide what to do to minimize the threat, how to respond in the safest and surest way when ordinance is discovered. Some of that is aided by maps of old bombing runs turned over by the U.S. Department of Defense, and some of it is discerned through surveys conducted by technical teams that go out and interview local villagers who know a lot about contamination in their area, which saves a huge amount of time, money, and effort. UXO disposal teams then know exactly what they’re facing, and whether they can wait until the next day to respond. The result is that ordnance is disposed of safely and quickly.

Just how many UXOs are still in Vietnam? At least 8 million tons— Quang Tri Province in Vietnam was the most heavily bombed area in the history of the world— but it’s hard to be precise and give an exact figure. The Vietnamese estimate 15 million tons, and the number they use offhandedly is 800,000 munitions that still need to be cleaned up, but there’s no way to know really.  Frankly, the number is not that important.  The problem is huge.

Chuck Searcy speaks at the Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel in San Francisco as Mike Cerre looks on

What it’s like to live in Vietnam now, having served there during the war? For one thing it’s very peaceful and very safe, unlike wartime. There’s nothing threatening about it at all, other than a slight risk crossing the street in Hanoi traffic. But the warm welcome by the Vietnamese to us, especially veterans, is overwhelming. It really feels good to be there and to be making a small contribution to the rebuilding and recovery of the country.

How do the Vietnamese feel about the war? They’ve said it to me over and over—the war was a tragic mistake, a terrible policy of the U.S. government, but you as a soldier didn’t make the policy. You served your country when called and we respect that. You know what we suffered through because you shared the experiences with us, and we’re brothers. One way or another, over and over again, the Vietnamese will say that. They’re very generous in their attitude and respectful of vets who come back to make their country a better place today. They also, because of their history and culture, and the Buddhism that permeates their society, are very forgiving. They seek harmony and try to avoid animosity and anger. They’re very embracing of other people and other cultures, and very much have wanted to make peace with America and American people since the war ended. Their diplomatic approach internationally is to have diplomatic relations with all countries. They don’t see enemies anywhere.

What’s the toughest obstacle in getting the job done? Other than funding, the biggest challenge is to break out of the bureaucratic mold that has hampered the U.S. and Vietnam. Bureaucracies are bureaucracies anywhere in the world, people get comfortable doing the same thing year after year. We’ve had a lot of people walking around with mine detectors but without a clear strategy or plan in mind. The long-term change in thinking needed is that instead of cleaning up every bomb and mine, which is impossible, we need to make Vietnam safe—a different challenge that is achievable. That thinking seems to be falling in place now.

Chuck Searcy & Swords to Plowshares board member Paul Cox

What kind of response do you get from fellow Vietnam vets? Most are very interested and very appreciative when they find out what I’m doing.  It used to be, when I first went to Vietnam in ‘95, people were very startled that I was working and living in Vietnam. Some were even negative, not veterans but ordinary citizens who would say, ‘Why on earth would you do that?’  But some veterans are still dealing with a lot of emotional problems left over from the war, and there were a few who would express hostility toward Communists over there.  I never viewed it that way at all. Vietnamese children were not even born during the war. A lot of vets, after we spend some time talking, realize the perceived enemy they were describing no longer exists. Sometimes we have to create an enemy if we don’t have one to rationalize things that are painful to understand or accept. The Vietnamese people are not our enemies, if they ever were.

Who are the real enemies then? The real enemies that we are facing together are poverty, illness, and lack of opportunity. Everyone agrees that these are challenges we need to work together to try to resolve. Because of the U.S. role during the war, for many of us, America has a special responsibility to work with the Vietnamese – but we can also view this as a positive challenge and an opportunity to get things right, today, nearly 40 years after the war ended.

Where does Project Renew go from here? In Germany they still clean up several thousand bombs a year from World War I, World War II, but Germany has a good UXO management system in place.  No one gets hurt, no one gets killed.  Vietnam can develop the same capacity.  There have to be UXO teams always on standby.  As children discover ordnance, response teams will be there to neutralize the threat. The endgame is where we can say the situation is managed and the area is safe, and the U.S. can withdraw with the satisfaction that we finally did the right thing—creating a true management system in the Quang Tri Province that is a model for the rest of the country that will enable the Vietnamese to continue for many years in the future. If the U.S. can step in with funding to put that system in place, I think we’d be able to step back within the next decade and say that we, the United States, have finally closed this terrible chapter. We have done what we should have done 40 years ago to help the Vietnamese deal with this problem.

Is there anything else you want to say? This is not about blame or guilt. It’s about responsibility. It’s about stepping up to do the right thing, to finally bring an end to the war for the Vietnamese – who are still being killed and injured by bombs and mines and struggling every day with the consequences of Agent Orange. I’m working in Vietnam every day with the feeling that I’m representing the wishes and aspirations of a lot of other veterans not in a position to be doing the same thing, at this time.  The U.S. government has launched a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War.  What better way to recognize the men and women who served, to honor their service and sacrifices, and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war, than by safeguarding innocent children, a new generation born long after the war ended, from death and injury that still result from accidents in many areas of Vietnam where the casualties of war continue?  Before we plant trees to grow a better future, we have to remove bombs and mines.

To learn more about Chuck Searcy’s work watch below:

Brian Jarvis, Communications Associate
As Communications Associate, Brian manages our social media profiles on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, and other platforms. He also writes and edits marketing materials including blogs, articles, press releases and speeches, and he helps to maintains online relationships with donors and media outlets.

Brian has a BS in American Studies from the University of Southern California and an MS in Strategic Communication from the Missouri School of Journalism. He has served in the California Air National Guard since 2012.