An American veteran of the Viet Nam War has been accepted into the Vietnam Women’s Union chapter in Quang Ngai Province, and the pride he feels is clear to all.
After witnessing the massacre of innocent civilians by US troops, Roy Mike Boehm, who was stationed in Cu Chi outside Sai Gon, sought and gained a discharge from the army.
Returning home, Mike felt betrayed by his government and even his family. The Americans’ unjust action in Viet Nam haunted the ex-soldier and he decided to do something to atone for his part in it and to ease the suffering of the people he had victimized.
|Mike kneels down beside Agent Orange victim Pham Van Thi as he shares sufferings with him|
Eventually he came up with the idea of raising capital for poor women in the central province of Quang Ngai so that they could escape their poverty.
In 1992, a nervous Mike returned to Viet Nam with a dozen other US veterans. His discomfort left him, however, as soon as he saw a Vietnamese security guard gently guiding a friend, who had lost one leg, as he hobbled toward the airport lobby.
Mike soon learned that Vietnamese people were happy to let bygones be bygones and make friends with any person whatever their nationality.
On the way to the house of Tran Thi My, Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong, who chairs the Women’s Union chapter in Son Tinh District, Quang Ngai, told us that 54 union members had each received between VND2 million and VND5 million (US$125-313) to fund their small business ventures in any way they saw fit.
Take Mrs. Tran Thi My for example. She used her VND2 million loan to buy equipment and ingredients for baking cakes. After five years, her business had thrived to the extent that she could repay the loan, keep her children at school and even fix her old house.
Another is Tran Thi Chi, who went into the salt business with her husband Truong Minh Tuan. He can well remember the hard times in the early days of their marriage, and smiles when he looks around at the comfortable life they lead today.
Another loan recipient, union member Nguyen Thi Rat, expressed her gratitude to Mike and told him how the money had saved her life when a heart ailment threatened to end it.
Not only hundreds of poor women get help; the victims of the lingering wartime defoliant Agent Orange do too. On the way to Ba To, an upland district of Quang Ngai, Mike was uncharacteristically quiet and said nothing.
But as soon as he entered the new home of 20-year-old Agent Orange victim Pham Van Thi, Mike suddenly knelt down beside him as Thi lay flat on the floor and managed to come out with a few faltering and hard-to-understand words to show that he understood the sufferings of the innocent.
Like Pham Van Thi, Huynh Van Teo of Pho Nhon, Duc Pho District is a long-term Agent Orange sufferer, 25 years in his case. Teo’s mother answered all the questions for her son, saying through tears that his body was getting smaller and smaller.
The unmarried sixty-year old Mike had to say good-bye to his girlfriend when he decided to make Viet Nam his second home. And it hasn’t been easy since, either. “I feel so lonely when I see a cozy Vietnamese family,” he confessed.
Nevertheless, like those who receive his help, I believe Mike – the American who led a march in the USA last June in support of Viet Nam’s lawsuit for Agent Orange victims – is not alone.