Program in Vietnam tries to reduce risks from unexploded ordnance

DONG HA, Vietnam—The Vietnam War has never really ended for the 616,000 people who live in Quang Tri province, just south of the Demilitarized Zone at the 17th Parallel that once divided this country into two warring nations.

The war cemeteries where the North Vietnamese Army dead are buried line the sides of Highway One, offering silent testimony to the fact that this terrain was once the most heavily contested in the war. Thousands of U.S. Marines and Army troops died in eight years of this struggle for places such as Khe Sanh, the Ashau Valley, Hamburger Hill, the Rockpile, Con Thien.

What that fighting left behind—millions of landmines and unexploded mortar shells, grenades, artillery rounds and bombs—is what concerns those who live here and those who would help them someday live without fear of being the last person to die in a war that ended 30 years ago this week.

Since 1975, 2,579 citizens of Quang Tri province—many of them children—have died in the explosions of those old shells and mines. Another 4,335 have been seriously injured by the unexpected blasts that occur when people step on or handle the war relics.

The majority of the casualties, 52 percent, are men who farm the land. Next come the children, who make up 31 percent of the victims of a war that ended long before they were born. Then women at 17 percent.

Those who survive the explosions often lose one or both legs, or a small arm and hand that picked up and handled the curious old pieces of rusty iron and steel.

But there's hope for a better future, thanks in part to an organization of American war veterans, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), which funds a modest but effective program to educate everyone on the danger of the unexploded ordnance beside or beneath the dirt paths that village children use on their way to and from school. The VVMF also helps fund the first of what's hoped will become many teams of experts to find and remove or destroy the old shells and mines.

On Wednesday, VVMF Director Jan Scruggs led a delegation of 24 to Dong Ha to see the progress firsthand. In two of Quang Tri's most affected districts, Trieu Phong and Hai Lang, the number of casualties fell to 57 in 2004. In the first quarter of this year, there were nine casualties.

The VVMF's Project Renew provides mine education, victim assistance, mine clearing and mine action coordination among village officials. "What we know is that education has a great impact in saving lives," Scruggs said. "Project Renew has been funded to date by a donation from Dr. Christos Cotsakos, but Congress has appropriated $5 million to expand the work."

Cotsakos of Palm Beach, Fla., the founder of E(ASTERISK)Trade Securities, an online stock trading company, is a veteran who fought in this part of Vietnam and was a member of the delegation visiting Quang Tri.

The project has funded the training of 88 Vietnamese instructors, who take the message of mine awareness to schoolteachers and local officials. Fourteen television spots, 24 TV programs and a radio campaign have reached more than a half million people. People have overwhelmed a telephone hotline to report ordnance unearthed by farmers' plows or the annual monsoon rains.

The message goes out daily to thousands of schoolchildren through plays and performances and, for 2 cents each, through school writing pads whose covers warn against touching or handling any of the deadly detritus of war.

In one rural district, more than a thousand uniformed schoolchildren, many of them carrying flags and banners with mine education warnings, greeted the American veterans and then paraded off through the rice paddies to carry the message to others.

The Vietnamese still seem more than a little surprised that those who fought them would be the first to come and help them with one of the deadly legacies of that war.