War veteran returns to Vietnam to help clean up the mess left behind.
CAM LO, Vietnam —The deadly baseball-sized hunk of metal lies in a bamboo stand 15 feet from a house where children play. Another sits in a nearby rice paddy, where farmers tread.
Crisply trained professionals in brown uniforms attach dynamite to the two small bombs and triple check the connections. One uses a bullhorn to warn neighbors to keep their distance. The man making the final checks holds the detonator in his hand to make sure no one sets it off from afar.
A safe distance away, a dozen Americans raise their cameras. Some fought here. Some protested the war. All are back to witness the lingering effects of what was done in their name.
On this Monday afternoon in April, they are joining a clearance mission for live cluster bombs that still dot the Vietnamese countryside. One 50-meter-by-50-meter square at a time, removal teams are making their way through a sliver of the country near the Demilitarized Zone, in a mission funded by the United States government.
A muffled boom is accompanied by twin puffs of smoke. Two hazards removed, a pair of lives or limbs saved. A couple visitors exclaim at the noise, but most are quietly captivated.
Casting a tall, lanky shadow, their host hangs toward the back. He thanks the removal team in Vietnamese delivered with a Georgia twang.
He was raised in Thomson, with a spirit forged in Athens, but here in the countryside of Quang Tri province, Chuck Searcy is home.
America’s role as the world’s policeman and civilizer went unquestioned in mid-century Thomson.
Hayes Searcy, Chuck’s father, was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, marched through snow and ice, and returned home wafer-thin and ill. He recovered to start a family and manage the Coca-Cola bottling plant in the small town west of Augusta.
The men in his extended family all had served in the military, so it seemed inevitable that Chuck would too, even though he did not want to join the escalating fight in the jungles of Vietnam.
Chuck was the bookworm, while younger brother Tom was the rebel. Both ended up in the armed forces: Chuck in the Army, Tom in the Navy.
Chuck left home for Athens and the University of Georgia as a music student but felt aimless after a couple of years and dropped out. He picked up local radio news gigs, but with the draft looming, decided to jump back into school.
Too much beer and too little studying made a mess of his grades, weakening his chances for a student deferment. His number was sure to come up.
In October 1966 an Army recruiter convinced Searcy that enlisting would allow him to avoid Vietnam, while getting drafted would not. Eight months after enlisting, Searcy was on a plane bound for Saigon.
“How the hell did I let this happen?” he thought.
Photo: Searcy has visitors sign a release form and list their blood type before visiting a bomb removal site in Quang Ti province.
Shortly after removing the pair of bombs, we stop for a potent Vietnamese coffee. Le Thinh Long, a minder assigned by the government to accompany me as I report this story, approaches.
“We have a problem,” Le tells me.
Vietnam’s one-party Communist government is a bureaucratic maze that can feel impenetrable to foreign reporters and other outsiders.
After Searcy agreed to let me join a yearly tour he organizes for the American anti-war group Veterans for Peace, it set off a process of government approvals and hoops that lasted a month and was not settled even after I arrived in Vietnam.
Le sheepishly informs me that I cannot accompany the group for portions of two days in the mountainous A Luoi area. The reasons, passed from unspecified authorities, are vague and conflicting: It’s a border region with Laos. They are having elections.
Agitated, I start to consider alternative travel arrangements and pull Searcy aside to give him the news.
“This is really pissing me off,” Searcy replies. He whips out his cell phone to call Hanoi.
Seated at a table nearby, Suel Jones shakes his head and chuckles. Jones battled North Vietnamese soldiers nearby as a Marine. He returned in 1998, with one name to call when he arrived in Hanoi: Chuck Searcy.
They have collaborated to help victims of Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the U.S. military to defoliate the jungle to deprive the enemy of protective cover. Studies have since linked exposure to an increase in birth defects, cancer and other physical ailments — although the science is not definitive.
In 2001 Searcy launched Project RENEW, which stands for Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of War. The organization works with Quang Ti province and international agencies to assist families of victims of wartime chemical exposure and live bombs left behind after the fighting ended. It also educates the community on bomb safety, as well as locates and clears bombs.
Searcy is well known at the highest levels of government as the American who is always accessible and committed to healing decades-old wounds.
“If anyone can solve this, Chuck can,” Jones says of my bureaucratic dust-up.
Three hours later, Chuck walks by my seat on the bus.
“Don’t ask me how, but you can come along.”
Photo: Searcy pays his respects at Truon Son Cemetery, Vietnam’s version of Arlington National Cemetery, where 10,000 war dead are buried.
The war turns
Jan. 30, 1968, was like most other days for Specialist Fifth Class Searcy and his compatriots at Combined Intelligence Center, Vietnam. They left work around 6:30 p.m., observed the yellow warning sign notifying them to be slightly more vigilant of attacks, and had a typical evening: A movie, some beers, perhaps a little marijuana, lounging by the river, and then to bed.
At midnight they woke to sirens. Muttering expletives, they grabbed their guns and mustered for another training exercise, figuring they’d be back in bed soon.
But then a captain rumbled by in a jeep. This is not a practice alert, he called through a bullhorn. Saigon is getting the (expletive) kicked out of it.
The Tet Offensive had begun, one of the largest military campaigns of the war led by the Viet Cong and North Vietnam against South Vietnam, the U.S. and their allies.
Searcy’s job was to process intelligence from the field, and he and many of his fellow intelligence personnel were growing increasingly disillusioned with the war. Tet confirmed it. A friend of Searcy’s died after suffering friendly-fire in the aftermath. American retaliatory strikes flattened the neighborhood around the intelligence center on the outskirts of Saigon.
“Our compound was fully intact,” Searcy said. “But everything in between and around us – it was almost like a lawn mower that gets to the weed line and then it stops. Everything else was destroyed.”
Searcy’s tour wrapped up that June. Anger, bitterness and sadness formed an uneasy cocktail. But he still owed the Army one more year. He was stationed in Germany, where he drove the Autobahn, drank beer and lived among people who – unlike his old friends in Thomson — understood what he was going through as he processed the Vietnam experience. It was a restorative year.
After his discharge Searcy lingered for a while longer in Germany before returning to Athens and enrolling in the University of Georgia with renewed focus and a plan to join the anti-war movement.
Photo: Searcy (right) leads Mark Rudd (center) into the woods to inspect a bomb removal operation.
A motley crew
Heading west from Cam Lo and the bomb detonation site, the bus climbs through mountains, passing some of the bloodiest sites of the Vietnam war on the way to Khe Sanh Combat Base. The trees are newer, the old dense jungles long since eradicated by defoliants.
This is Searcy’s fifth Veterans for Peace tour, bringing people with a wide range of emotions and experience for a two-week voyage through Vietnam.
There’s Aaron Davis, the loquacious Marine and Army veteran from Utah who did not fight here but has memorized the battle history along Route 9 and the strategic reasons behind each disastrous move.
There’s soft-spoken Jackie Hider, a Zen Buddhist street minister in San Francisco. She was drawn to the trip by Searcy’s presentation at a Veterans for Peace National Convention, but seeing photos of the amputees and developmentally disabled Vietnamese, she wondered: “Could I handle this?”
Her approach is tactile, hugging and touching people suffering from birth defects likely connected to their parents’ Agent Orange exposure.
There’s Mark Rudd, a former leader of the Weathermen and one of the best-known radicals of the era, who spent seven years on the run from the FBI. John Koehler, a Marine from Wisconsin who served on an aircraft carrier off the Vietnam coast during the war, tells Rudd one day: “I would have considered you the enemy.”
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Koehler battled latent post-traumatic stress from seeing the new war as a repeat of old blunders. He joined Veterans for Peace and now speaks at schools about the horrors of war.
“Every once in a while my first instinct is … you shouldn’t be here. You haven’t earned the right in some crazy kind of a way,” Koehler later says of Rudd. “But then I gotta remember here, too, I think he was on the right side of things.”
At the middle of it all is Searcy, calmly handling mobility problems for his aging passengers, along with complaints about food and accommodations. Any time he tries to enjoy a few pages of a book in a hotel lobby, another interruption and logistical question arrives.
The trip helps fund Project RENEW, with each of the dozen travelers agreeing to put up at least $1,000 to be divvied among the causes they encounter during the expedition.
But it does not make a huge difference to the bottom line, when a new federal bomb clearance grant has pushed the organization’s coffers into the millions. Searcy’s trip director role seems less about money than guiding sympathetic members of the Vietnam generation through a shared catharsis.
A lot of it is hard to process. America left behind searing devastation, but the people remain unfathomably kind.
One home in Cam Lo houses two men born with severe deformities. One cannot walk. The other cannot get out of bed. Via a translator, I ask their mother, Le Thi Mit, who recalled planes spraying Agent Orange on her village, what she thinks of Americans after all she’s been through.
Le looks at the ground and mutters that she does not know. Her husband, Nguyen Van Loc, then turns to Searcy.
“You look like Kennedy,” he says with a smile.
That would be the same President John F. Kennedy who authorized spraying Vietnam with the herbicides that likely ravaged Nguyen’s family and his community.
Nguyen means it as a compliment. He is calling Searcy handsome.
Searcy holds an orthotic brace for a child in this photo from 1998. AJC file
Athens in 1970 was not Berkeley, but there was a growing anti-war scene. Searcy kept his head down for a few months, but then he was invited to speak before nearly 1,000 people at a candlelight war protest on the quad. Other veterans introduced themselves afterward, and they formed a small chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Chuck Searcy the activist was born, but the persona had its costs. He was interviewed on television speaking out against the war. That didn’t play well in Thomson.
What did they do, turn you into a Communist while you were over there? his father asked.
Father and son did not speak for two years.
Eventually, his father was passing through Athens one day and asked Chuck to coffee. After some small talk, he laid out his purpose: Your mother and I have been talking, and we’ve decided this war is a terrible thing and it’s just wrong and it’s got to stop. We’re going to do what we can. We think you were right and we were wrong, and we’d like you to come home.
“I’ll never forget it, Chuck said, recalling the moment. His father died in 1991.
Searcy was politically active on campus and in the community but never a self-serious liberal stereotype, said close pal Pete McCommons, then the head of the state government section at the university’s Institute of Government. Searcy was gregarious, a natural storyteller, a lover of women and whiskey.
Even though he lived off campus, he was pulled into a fight over campus housing policy because of his involvement in student government. Searcy reluctantly agreed to join a meeting with the university president but was so angered by the president’s dismissive attitude that he agreed to occupy the administration building in protest.
The “Athens Eight,” as they became known, went through a yearlong legal saga on disorderly conduct charges. McCommons was ousted from the UGA faculty as a result.
After Searcy did a stint in Albany working for George McGovern’s ill-fated presidential campaign, he came to McCommons with an idea that in the 1970s actually had some economic merit: Starting a newspaper.
The Athens Observer was born in January 1974 as a voice for the town’s outsiders, and it challenged the university administration.
Searcy pulled long hours plying advertisers and setting type. He took a detour to Washington for a Carter administration job for a couple years, then came back to the Observer, adding a cable television news venture. Searcy ended up selling his stake to McCommons so he could go work for Wyche Fowler’s U.S. Senate campaign.
After helping plot Fowler’s stunning 1986 win, Searcy moved back to Washington to become Fowler’s press secretary, but again did not last long in the capital. He moved to Atlanta to work for the trial lawyers’ association.
Still, Searcy felt a nagging sense of something missing. He started to find it on a 1992 trip to Vietnam. In contrast to his Saigon-centric war tour, Searcy and an Army buddy circumnavigated the country for a month, staying in ratty guest houses and getting the stunning response so many vets get when they return — welcome.
The Vietnamese were dealing with the wreckage of war but did not blame it on Searcy and his fellow foot soldiers. It was impossible to forget, but they could forgive.
Back in Georgia, Searcy knew he wanted to stay involved with the cause, as the U.S. and Vietnam inched toward normalized relations. Searcy was recommended for a Pentagon job to help smooth negotiations between the two countries on Missing in Action soldiers. But the appointment was torpedoed by conservative U.S. Sens. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, who pointed to Searcy’s antiwar days in Athens.
As a consolation prize, the Veterans Administration offered to make Searcy its congressional liaison. It would be a six-figure salary for someone who had never had financial security. It was the safe move.
But there was another opportunity from an old friend at Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation: move to Hanoi to manage a federal grant providing prosthetic limbs to Vietnamese blown apart by American bombs.
In 1995, Searcy touched down in Vietnam.
Photo: A Project RENEW staffer makes final checks before detonating a bomb in a rice paddy in Vietnam.
Standing out, fitting in
At 6-foot-2 with a shock of white hair, Searcy stands out walking streets of Vietnam. He’s a vegetarian in a land that prizes a steaming bowl of beef pho above most things. But like the locals, he is easygoing and quick with a laugh.
“He’s very Vietnamese,” said Dinh Hoang Linh, who works in the government’s foreign press center and has known Searcy for years.
Ngo Xuan Hien’s first encounter with Searcy came at a friend’s wedding. Ngo knew Searcy by reputation from his work, but he was taken aback when Searcy sang “You Are My Sunshine” for the whole party.
“Chuck is very popular,” said Ngo, who now works for Searcy at Project RENEW. “Everyone knows him … that tall American with a big heart.”
Even as Searcy has grown more critical of the American government, his conservative small-town Georgia upbringing has helped him assimilate. Both cultures value respect.
In 2001, Searcy helped launch Project RENEW as a way to help heal Quang Tri Province. Just south of the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Vietnam, the province was a constant battleground and remains full of bombs and Agent Orange victims.
After a life spent bouncing from one job and one place to the next, Searcy found stability at last.
“He warned me when we started the Observer that he wasn’t going to stay anywhere long,” McCommons said. “That’s what’s surprising about his long venture in Vietnam.”
Perhaps it’s because he is tackling a vast problem.
The Vietnamese government estimates more than 100,000 casualties from bombs since the war ended in 1975. Hundreds of thousands of tons of everything from small “bombies” to 500-pound canisters remain beneath the soil. But casualty rates have declined since Project RENEW became involved. In 2004, 35 people were killed and 54 were injured in Quang Tri. Last year the count was three dead and four injured.
Searcy’s team takes every safety precaution and had never had a casualty – until this month. On May 18, Ngo Thien Khiet, a 45-year-old senior technician, was killed in an explosion during a clearance operation. Another operator was injured.
Searcy broke the news in a mass email, writing: “This is the moment I have feared for 15 years.”
Still challenging authority
Enmeshed in the fabric of Hanoi now, Searcy has a platform to be an equal opportunity irritant.
For years, the Vietnamese government refused to allow non-governmental organizations to use GPS devices to track down unexploded bombs. Security reasons, they said.
A couple of years ago Searcy was in a meeting of top government officials in Hanoi, the kind of people who are not accustomed to being questioned.
You walk into a showroom of Toyotas in Da Nang, you drive out and there’s a GPS on the dashboard, Searcy told them. You go hit golf balls at the course and there’s GPS in the ball to help you find it. You’re saying you’re treating this as a national security issue?
They laughed with a twinge of embarrassment, Searcy recalls. Soon after, they relented.
He gripes that Vietnamese officials cling to the line that it will take 300 years to remove all the bombs left over from the war. The timeline is far more manageable and the Vietnamese know it, Searcy claims, but they do not want to contradict a higher-up.
Still, Searcy is toughest on his own government. Despite increasing amounts of money and attention to clearing bombs and cleaning up contamination from Agent Orange, the U.S. government is not doing nearly enough, Searcy contends.
He is seeking $6.2 million over five years to train health care workers and create a case management program for Agent Orange victims that the Vietnamese can take over. But he complains that the U.S. government would rather sprinkle the money around to various non-governmental organizations to keep everyone happy than build one large sustainable program to get the job done.
“Sometimes they’re just in la-la land,” Searcy said.
His biting public critiques sometimes irritate Washington. And even the Vietnamese are reluctant to go as far as Searcy does.
At a group meeting with government officials, I ask what they would like to hear or see from President Barack Obama during his scheduled visit this month. Phan Van Hoa, of the Vietnam-America Friendship Association of Da Nang, replies vaguely about forging closer ties.
Then Searcy grabs the microphone.
“I’m a little bit surprised that you’re so general in your response because some of us veterans, we want to demand that Obama and the U.S. do more to help Vietnam deal with war legacies,” he says. “The Vietnamese seem to be more polite than we are. You don’t seem to feel so strongly about this question?”
Phan replies: “Yes, your point of view is a little stronger than us, even from America. Yes, we thank you.”
Photo: Searcy (left) dances with disabled children at an Agent Orange victims' center.
Hope for a solution
The work has its joys. During a visit to a Da Nang victims’ center, a group of disabled children pulls Searcy and the other guests into an impromptu dance party. It is a splendid, goofy moment.
But then we head outside of town, to meet yet more people born with severe birth defects likely stemming from Agent Orange. Another mother cradles another gnarled child. The visitors snap photos and ask for details. It is not the first awkward and heart-rending scene of the trip, and it is far from the last.
Searcy and I walk back down a dirt road toward the bus. I ask if his work sometimes feels like a drop of water in the ocean. He’s been at this for two decades, and how far has he gotten?
His reply rings with optimism. The Vietnamese finally understand the problem and don’t react with blind fear. The U.S. government is finally committing real money.
“I see some closure,” Searcy says.
He has less of a handle on his own future. Now 71, retirement is on Searcy’s mind, but he’s still searching for what that means.
For years he anticipated leisurely days on the wraparound porch of the house he still owns in Athens. But he gets antsy when he lingers there too long, and Athens has changed so much that Hanoi is more like home now. He doesn’t have the money to travel the world as he’d like, and besides, he doesn’t find his work all that strenuous.
“Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans,” Searcy says.
“Well, in my case, life is what happens to you when you got no plan.”
ABOUT THE STORY
When I moved to Laos last year, AJC political columnist Jim Galloway suggested I contact Chuck Searcy. The AJC had written about Searcy in the past, but it had not gone in depth since he launched his initiative to remove unexploded bombs in Vietnam. A former journalist, Searcy was incredibly accommodating to my inquiries — even giving me contact info for his ex-girlfriend and helping me navigate Vietnam’s bureaucracy. I spent five days in March roaming Central Vietnam with Searcy and his charges on the Veterans for Peace tour. It was at times hilarious and sad, and the story had a heartbreaking coda when Searcy sent word that one of his bomb removal technicians died in an explosion this month. Regardless of one’s position on the war then or now, it was a powerful reminder that our leaders’ military decisions — from Vietnam to Iraq to Syria — resonate for decades after the fighting ends.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Daniel Malloy is a freelance writer who spent four and a half years as the Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before moving to Southeast Asia in January. He lives with his wife in Luang Prabang, Laos, and can be found tweeting about travel, politics and University of North Carolina sports @DanielPMalloy.