A combat vet shares his inspiring story of healing and helping in post war Vietnam

In Spencer Matteson’s own words …

As a Vietnam combat veteran, I had a rough time when I came home. For years after my tour I had all the hallmarks of PTSD. Yet, even though I was a mess from the war and my experiences in it, I had a persistent, nagging urge to go back. Finally, in the spring of 2014, I returned for a two and a half month visit.

My intention was to travel Vietnam from top to bottom, visiting as many historical places of interest as I could, attempting to meet and speak with Vietnamese war vets (from both sides) and go back to some of the places where I fought. I also wanted to do something to help the Vietnamese people in some way – a kind of personal reparation, for my part in the war.

My first stop was Hanoi where I met a remarkable fellow named Chuck Searcy — a fellow Vietnam vet from Georgia who had been living there for close to 20 years. A member of Veterans for Peace, Chuck has been instrumental in helping the Vietnamese people overcome the lingering effects of the war.

Weeks later, at Chuck’s urging, I stopped in at the visitor’s center in the DMZ area just outside Dong Ha, for an organization called Project Renew (Chuck is an International Advisor for them). I was met by a young man named, Nguyen Thanh Phu, who told me how this organization has been working to rid their country of un-exploded ordnance. It’s still a huge problem. Since the end of the war, more than 100,000 Vietnamese people have been killed or maimed by it. The problem is country-wide, but most acute in the former DMZ area, which was the dividing line before reunification. More tonnage of bombs had been dropped on Indochina during the war than were dropped in all of World War II and it’s estimated by some, that up to a third of it never exploded. Tragically, most of those hurt or killed are young children.

Spencer Matteson (r) with Nguyen Thanh Phu (l)
Nguyen Thanh Phu (L) with Spencer Matteson (R)

Unlike Germany and Japan, after WWII, Vietnam got no help from us after the war. There was no Marshall Plan for them and they’ve had a monumental task cleaning up the mess after the war. To date, the U.S. has only contributed a few million dollars toward that effort. Considering the massive amount of damage we’d done, that’s a really paltry sum.

Among the many types of bombs we used, the most insidious were the cluster bombs, each of which broke open into dozens of small bomblets, about the size and shape of a baseball. Over 260 million of these bomblets were dropped and an estimated 80 million never detonated. When kids see these round balls, they want to pick them up and play with them and when they do, they can easily lose an arm, a leg, or worse. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just limited to the bombs we dropped, un-exploded artillery rounds and even small grenades from hand-held M79 grenade launchers continue to be a serious problem.

UXOs, cluser bombs, grenades
UXOs, cluster bombs, grenades

Project Renew reaches out to grade schools and educates children about the dangers and instructs them on how to report UXOs. Once PR is contacted, they send out rapid response teams to neutralize the threat.

I was very impressed by the important (and dangerous) work these people are engaged in. I’ve made it a pet project of mine to help spread awareness of this organization and to try to help then raise funds. In addition to the UXO problem, they help amputees by supplying artificial limbs.

Older prosthetic devices replaced by Project Renew with more modern ones
Older prosthetic devices replaced by Project Renew with more modern ones

My trip back to Vietnam was an incredible experience and went a long way toward helping me be more at peace with it. The Vietnamese people were, for the most part, friendly, welcoming and respectful. They are very curious about and interested in former vets, like me. At times it almost felt like a reverence for us. They seem to understand intuitively that we soldiers were not their true enemy, but that our government was. When all is said and done, in my opinion, despite the problems they still have with the after-effects of the war, I think they are more “over” the war than we are.

You can find out more about Project Renew, or help them out with a donation at: http://landmines.org.vn/