Left Behind in Vietnam
Disabled vets get help from Vietnamese abroad
Thirty nine years ago on April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese Army marched into the South Vietnamese capital Saigon, bringing to an end to a 15-year-long war.
Today in Vietnam, April 30 is known as “Reunification Day,” when Vietnam became whole. But for the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, it’s “Black April”—the day these Vietnamese lost their country. The day thousands of families were torn apart.
Many Vietnamese were unable to escape. The new regime put thousands of men who had served in the armed forces of South Vietnam, particularly officers and NCOs, into “re-education” camps, where their captors subjected them to brutal treatment and hard labor.
Some junior enlisted men were able to escape that fate, but agents of the new communist authorities frequently subjected them to harassment and abuse.
This was particularly tough on those South Vietnamese who had suffered debilitating injuries fighting against the communists, suffering burns and losing limbs. For them, finding work proved nearly impossible. And with no government support system to rely on, they have few ways to support themselves.
But many of the Vietnamese who made it to safety in the United States never forgot the countrymen they left behind.
Helping from afar
Some South Vietnamese ex-soldiers who came to the United States formed veterans groups and fraternal organizations to help support each other and their families.
A hodgepodge of associations of Vietnamese army rangers, paratroopers, marines and police sprouted up around the U.S. in Vietnamese population centers like Little Saigon in Orange County, California.
In 1996, a group of influential soldier refugees in the Seattle area formed an association to help the wounded comrades they left behind. Calling on contacts in Vietnam, family members and former comrades still in the country, the association planned to send money to wounded veterans. The group raised thousands of dollars.
But in 2007, Heidi Dang Bui, the daughter of a respected South Vietnamese army officer who had made it to the U.S. with his family, began to ask questions. She said there was too little structure and insufficient accounting of where the money was going, who was handling it and how much was actually making it to the veterans in Vietnam.
“When I asked them, they had no answers,” Bui told War is Boring.
The fallout led to the organization dissolving and sending its remaining funds to a similar group run by Vietnamese veterans in California.
In turn, Bui started a new organization in 2012 using her family’s own connections with South Vietnamese military veterans. She now serves as the president of Families of Disabled South Vietnamese Veterans of Washington State.
Hong Phuc Nguyen, the group’s secretary, said there is a huge emphasis on tracking where the money goes, and to whom.
Nguyen himself is neither a veteran of the war nor a member of a military family like Bui. But he said he’s taken the organization’s goal to heart and is no less personally driven. “I could have been one of them,” he explained.
When Nguyen was finishing high school during the height of the Vietnam War, he filled out an application to attend South Vietnam’s military academy. His father found the application and forbid him to go. “He told me it was a one way trip,” Nguyen said. Many of his friends went … and met the fate his father feared for him.
Nguyen has lived a good life and is a father himself now, but he sometimes wonders what life would have been like had his father not stopped him—or if he would even be alive at all. As a result, he said it’s important to give back to the ones who weren’t so lucky.
But the need is great. When the organization started, it quickly identified around a hundred veterans in Vietnam. Word spread quickly. Today, in 2014, the number of veterans in the database has grown to 350.
As a result, the emphasis is less on fundraising than on finding sponsors who can connect with individual veterans in need. Bui and Hong focus on maintaining the networks that make it possible.
The work of helping these men half a world away is not simple. A reliable network is vital.
Bui and Nguyen recall one case, a soldier who’d lost both arms, both legs and both eyes. His grandson had to hold the phone for him to talk.
Bui, skeptical of his story, asked what time it was. He told her it was 3:00 PM. She asked him how he could possibly know that without being able to see. He told her his grandson had just returned from school, so it must be three. He was right.
But not everyone has a good answer. Bui and Nguyen are always have to be on the lookout for people making fraudulent claims. They work hard to verify that the people they are helping are who they claim to be, and are vouched for by a known networks of ex-soldiers.
South Vietnamese veterans still in Vietnam are incredibly close knit by necessity. Nguyen explained that the Vietnamese government often treats Southern veterans, particularly wounded ones, as undesirables. Buddhist temples are one of their few sources of help in the country. Sympathetic monks sometimes give them food.
Improvements in Vietnamese-U.S. relations have opened the country significantly and made much of this work possible. Bui said that while the organization strives to be non-political and non-religious, focusing solely on helping those in need, it often must confront the war’s lasting legacy.
Nguyen said the human rights situation in Vietnam is still far from ideal. Communist officials still harass former Southern soldiers and heavily scrutinize money coming from abroad.
Some of the donors who have made the trip back to Vietnam have had the opportunity to meet their beneficiaries in person. Both these meetings, and letters of thanks from veterans in Vietnam, have helped energize volunteers and donors.
But it has not been easy. Even in the United States, there are challenges.
The organization’s push to get dedicated sponsors for soldiers—rather than one-time donations—has met with mixed results. The Vietnamese-American community has done relatively well in its new country, but still has only so much to give. It can be difficult to commit to regularly sending funds.
Bui said that she also occasionally clashes with other community leaders. Some veterans, though respectful of her father’s service and the family’s legacy, have voiced skepticism of her qualifications—she having no military service of her own. There is also some residual bitterness left over from the questions she asked of the previous association.
Nguyen said generational differences and sexism play a major factor in many of these conflicts. “They have trouble dealing with the idea of a woman in charge.”
To top it off, many younger Vietnamese-Americans, removed from the experience of the war, would rather focus on their lives in this country.
Though the Vietnamese have a history of looking out for their own, they can do only so much. For this reason, Nguyen has suggested casting a wider net and reaching outside the Vietnamese-American community. But it’s a challenge getting other Americans to notice and to actually get invested.
“For a lot of Americans, [Vietnam] is a bad dream,” Nguyen said, adding that he understands why they feel this way. The war’s legacy is painful for everyone who was involved.
Regardless of the challenges, Bui presses on. She works another job, so she can’t devote as much time to helping as she would like. She said she often works well into the morning doing paperwork and going through the database.
“I wish I could do more,” she said.