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Ridding Vietnam of Deadly Remnants of War


Hello again. I'm Alex Chadwick, and this is DAY TO DAY on Memorial Day, picking up with something we began Friday: an interview from years ago with a man who's now a friend, Jan Scruggs. He is the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. That was his idea. Now he has another one, also born of war and suffering, but this one is in Vietnam. It's called Project RENEW, and Jan and I were talking about this when we met several weeks ago in the capital of our former enemy, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Mr. JAN SCRUGGS (Project RENEW): I guess I was thinking about that whole thing last night because in the---Project RENEW in Quang Tri started--one of the reasons it started was I met this kid who had this hat on, and the hat said `USA.' And he took me to his backyard, and here was a pile of mortar shells. Suppose this kid were to get blown up like my friends and had their arms and legs all over the place, suppose this were to happen to this kid. And it just pissed me off, so...

(Soundbite of traffic)

CHADWICK: What irked Mr. Scruggs, on an earlier visit to Vietnam a few years ago was this: the ammo that kid found, we left in the American War.

It took me most of a day to fly down to midcoastal Vietnam and then drive several hours to near where the old DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, had once divided north and south during the war, and then to find the country road that led me to the team from Jan's Project RENEW.

(Soundbite of mine detector)

CHADWICK: There's a young man sweeping a mine detector over a stony slope that falls away to a muddy pond. And here's a tall, slim, older American with a worried frown. Chuck Searcy just saw two guys on motorbikes pass this farmyard, and he's got a good idea where they're going.

Mr. CHUCK SEARCY (Project RENEW): Those people, they'll be searching for scrap metal really. I thought the Mine Risk Education Program had convinced people that it was too dangerous, and they should not be...

Mr. PHAN VAN HUN(ph) (Project RENEW): Most of them have quit, but some of them are still doing that job.

CHADWICK: Phan Van Hun, also with Project RENEW--it's almost all Vietnamese. Chuck is the only American. Anyway, we just witnessed what this project is about. In ordinary life here, looking for old unexploded bombs just for the value of the metal seems OK to many people. Bombs. Since the war officially ended 30 years ago, munitions like those have killed or injured almost 7,000 people just here in Quang Tri Province. That's more than one person in a hundred. Many of them are kids who find old grenades or rockets and play with them.

Mr. SEARCY: Some of this stuff is very unstable and very dangerous. Other pieces of ordnance, after many years, maybe will not explode. But you never know the difference. That's why it's so critical that experts who know what they're doing remove the stuff safely.

(Soundbite of mine detector)

CHADWICK: We're on a small promontory of land with a cinder block building, a dozen acres or so of rice fields. There's a small pond down below us. There are a couple of these red danger mine signs staked out around here. There's a team of workers. They're all wearing protective vests and helmets, but they don't look like they'd protect you from very much if something went off.

(Soundbite of mine detector)

CHADWICK: These are young men on the team. They look very young. They're led by an older officer, Colonel Bong.

Colonel BONG: (Vietnamese spoken)

(Soundbite of footsteps)

CHADWICK: I was in Quang Tri Province once during the war, but I never fought there. Men I know who did say that it was just horrible. The old North Vietnamese infiltration route, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, ran through here. Some people say this was the most bombed place in the entire country with a lot of the notorious defoliant Agent Orange here, too. Before the war, there were 3,500 villages in Quang Tri, and at the end, there were just 11 left. People are coming back, many of them, but the residue of what we did is all around and unavoidable.

Mr. SEARCY: All right. Well, there's some rounds right there.

CHADWICK: That's Chuck Searcy. He's standing over several objects someone has gathered near the base of a small tree. They're the color of dirt. You might kick one like a clod.

What is that?

Mr. SEARCY: I think those are from rocket grenade launchers, M79 and the...

Mr. VAN HUN: M33.

Mr. SEARCY: M33.


Mr. SEARCY: Yeah.

CHADWICK: There's a group of about a dozen grenades here at the base of a small tree. They're called M33s, which are actually hand grenades that you throw, and M79 shells, which are also grenades, but they're fired from a gun. They look like very fat bullets about three inches long. And they're all corroded. They're all corroded. Colonel Bong just kneels down beside these things and pulls away the leaves that are covering them. His hands are right above those shells, and it doesn't look at all safe to me.

Don't you have to be careful, Colonel?

Col. BONG: (Through Translator) So I just take away the leaves, and I avoid touching them.

CHADWICK: He does look as though he knows what he's doing. And after a couple of years of this work, no one on the team has gotten hurt. They spent half a day in this farmyard to clear an area of only a few hundred square feet. Later I was able to interview the local Project RENEW director, Hoang Nam.

Mr. HOANG NAM (Local Director, Project RENEW): I think that it take a long time finish, but we cannot wait until the day we're free from the landmines. People have to work, children have to play.

CHADWICK: Did you grow up in Quang Tri Province?

Mr. HOANG: Yes.

CHADWICK: You were a boy here?

Mr. HOANG: Yes. I have friend. He live not very far from my house. He found, you know, an bomb that we call Bomb B(ph). And it looked like a glass stone. Time make it change.

CHADWICK: It looked like a stone because time had changed it?

Mr. HOANG: Yeah. The time changed. And it exploded, and he got killed.

CHADWICK: How old were you then?

Mr. HOANG: Six or seven years old. And now that feeling still happens. People, especially the children, still get killed, get wounded.

(Soundbite of traffic)

CHADWICK: Quang Tri province: Even all these years later, the landscape still looks like napalm-scarred skin. This is what led the Vietnam Veterans Memorial founder, Jan Scruggs, to create Project RENEW, to begin trying to clear away the leftover bombs and grenades. He called another vet, the man who founded E-Trade, who put up $250,000 of his own money to get Project RENEW started. Now Congress has included $5 million to really get it going. That money should be available in a few months. And next week, the Defense Department is inviting some Vietnamese experts to a mine-clearing seminar in this country. Not bad, I thought, watching my friend Jan Scruggs at a cafe in Hanoi, revisiting this land where we once had been at war.

(Soundbite of traffic)

CHADWICK: First you build the Vietnam Veterans Wall, then you get a project to clear all the bombs and the landmines and the grenades and...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, I think innocent people--and these are very impoverished farmers in the Quang Tri province in Vietnam--deserve to be safe, and if I can do something about it, as a Christian and as an American, I'm going to, and somehow or another I've been quite lucky.

CHADWICK: Jan Scruggs and Project RENEW in Vietnam.

(Soundbite of traffic)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY continues on Memorial Day. I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.