Founded by Vietnam veterans but operated by the Vietnamese, Project RENEW is working to rid Quang Tri province of unexploded ordnance left over from the war.
Dong Ha, Vietnam – They say it’s 42 degrees… Celsius…this Monday in late May, around noon. That’s 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The 18 members of the Project RENEW Battle Area Clearance (BAC) team, all local residents, are sweating uncomfortably but walking care- fully through the newly planted forest in one of the most heavily bombed areas of the world, listening to the squawk of the metal detectors they carry. A high-pitched whine in the headphones means there is a substantial chunk of metal in front of them—a bomb or artillery shell left over from the Vietnam War. A young medic stands by the team ambulance parked at the rally point, just in case one of the bombs explodes. Periodically, Khiet, the team leader, barks into his handheld radio and gets a short reply. The team members move with slow, practiced steps, the same way they work eight hours a day, five days a week. And it’s hot…
Every workday, the BAC team heads out to its designated district in Quang Tri province to look for the dangerous leftovers of war. The team partitions the land into 50-meter boxes, then subdivides it into long 1.5-meter-wide corridors. They sweep the corridor with a loop metal detector of the same width, while a team member listens for sounds indicating metal. The detectors are recalibrated every day so that the team can distinguish between metal fragments (which can be ignored) and possibly active ordnance. Any indication of something potentially dangerous is marked with a small red flag on a stake. Behind the large loop detectors come the team members with more sensitive detectors who precisely isolate the metal’s location and oh so gently dig it out with a shovel or trowel. Metal fragments are thrown into a bucket; a whole shell or bomb is set aside for disposal or left to be destroyed in place. In one day, the BAC can clear 5,000 square meters of land.
For the first two days of my visit, Mr. Hong escorts me around the site, helping me get close enough for serviceable photos while keeping me away from any real danger. During one break, as I slump in a chair, sweating more than seems anatomically possible, I learn that Mr. Hong is retired Colonel Bui Trong Hong, a 30-year veteran of the People’s Army of Vietnam (NVA). During the 1972 saturation bombings in Quang Tri, Hong hid underground with his explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unit, emerging to deactivate and clear unexploded ordnance (UXO). He was surprised to have survived the war. Since 2008 he has been the national technical officer for Project RENEW.
Hong speaks virtually no English, I no Vietnamese. Through gestures, voice inflection and sounds worthy of a Looney Tunes cartoon, I learn that tomorrow we will go see the ordnance destroyed. “Good boom!” he promises.
Twice a week, safely removed ordnance is taken to the controlled demolition site, a sandy field about a square kilometer in size. On Tuesday the team sets off two controlled explosions—large, loud and impressive —under the watchful eyes of Hong: one of high-explosive shells, and one for white phosphorus. After each one, he grins at me and asks, “Good boom?” Yes, I say, putting a thumb up, good boom.
The war in Vietnam ended in April 1975, but many effects of the conflict are still present, and none more strikingly than unexploded ordnance. During 1965-73, it is estimated that the U.S. military dropped between 6 and 7 million tons of bombs on Indochina as well as millions of mortar rounds and artillery shells. Quite a few—maybe 10 percent, RENEW estimates based on information from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)— never exploded and have been resting on the jungle floor, or lying a few centimeters under the ground, or safely buried in the earth until thunderstorms wash the soil away or bulldozers show up to clear land. They are still fuzed and capable of exploding at the slightest touch. The ordnance ranges from 16-inch shells fired from battleships to antipersonnel cluster bomblets, notably the BLU-26/B and related sub munitions (called bom bi here) that weigh only half a kilogram and contain hundreds of round metal pellets. The teams also find and clear the Soviet/Chinese ordnance used by the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front units.
After the war ended, the Vietnamese started the dangerous job of clearing the agricultural land of mines and unexploded ordnance, often by villagers carefully prodding the ground in front of them with long bamboo poles. Not surprisingly, there were significant casualties. After a number of years, the mines were cleared, but the unexploded bombs were harder to clean up. The Vietnam Ministry of Defense estimates that since the end of the war, some 105,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by explosive remnants.
The most heavily bombed area in Vietnam was Quang Tri province, where the Demilitarized Zone and the area just south saw constant, intense ground combat throughout the war. In 1972 six NVA divisions pushed through the defending South Vietnamese and American troops along the DMZ, stopped only by extensive B-52 and other aerial bombardments over a period of months. By the end of the war, of the 3,500 villages in the province, only 11 still had most of their original buildings standing. Between 1975 and 2010, some 2,635 people in Quang Tri were killed by explosive remnants and another 4,435 injured. About 31 percent of the victims have been children. Using DOD data, the Vietnamese estimated that 84 percent of the land area of Quang Tri province was contaminated by unexploded ordnance.
A number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world have worked in Vietnam with sophisticated equipment and proven procedures to make the areas safe, including the Mines Advisory Group, Clear Path International and the German group SODI (Solidarity Service International). However, Quang Tri province is home to one of the most effective ordnance clearing programs in the country, Project RENEW (Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of the War), a model of international cooperation initiated by Americans who served in Vietnam during the war.
Chuck Searcy, one of the project’s founders, had been assigned to the Combined Intelligence Center near Saigon as part of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion during his tour in 1967-68. The intelligence he processed and what he saw around him convinced him—a Barry Goldwater conservative before he enlisted—that the war was unwinnable for the Americans and was causing horrific and unnecessary damage to the Vietnamese. Returning to his native Georgia after his enlistment ended, Searcy attended college and eventually became a public critic of the war. By 1995 he was living in Vietnam as the representative of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, headed by Bobby Muller.
As an American veteran living in Vietnam who spoke fluent Vietnamese, Searcy was respected both by the local government and by Americans who came to visit. For years he had urged the Vietnamese government to seek more international aid to clear mines and UXOs, but he says the Vietnamese had other priorities—such as normalizing diplomatic relations and winning favorable trade status—in their discussions with the U.S. government. An attempt in 2000 to create a cooperative structure for all the NGOs working on UXO clearance in Quang Tri also failed.
Shortly after that, Searcy began working for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, the nonprofit organization that built and maintains The Wall in Washington. In April 2000, VVMF President Jan Scruggs brought a delegation of about 20 key foundation supporters to Vietnam. They were moved by what they saw. Scruggs remembers walking around in the Quang Tri countryside, asking people if they knew of any bombs lying around. A young boy said yes and led him to the back of his home, where there were old 60mm and 81mm mortar rounds stacked up. That clinched it in Scruggs’ mind. As a result of that trip, VVMF decided to undertake a major project in Vietnam to clear unexploded ordnance. “This would benefit both countries,” Scruggs said, reducing casualties in Vietnam while creating goodwill for the United States.
Out of these efforts came Project RENEW, an independent NGO that would receive private and public financial support and American advice, but be run by the Vietnamese themselves. With the support of VVMF, American veterans chipped in. Scruggs reached out to Christos Cotsakos, who had been a fire team leader in Quang Tri with the 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Later, when Cotsakos became wildly successful in business, eventually serving as CEO of the internet-based stock trading company eTrade and other technology companies, he contributed $250,000 of the initial $500,000 budget for the project.
David Wells has also been a RENEW backer. Just out of Army ROTC, Lieutenant Wells had been attached to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and led a five-man mobile advisory team along a strip of Highway 1 in II Corps during his 1969-70 tour. He returned home with a Combat Infantry Badge and two Bronze Star Medals, but also with a sense that the Americans were not going to win. Wells became a lawyer and joined a large commercial firm, opening its London office.
Wells heard about Project RENEW through communications from VVMF, and thought it was a great idea. While he believed the American war effort was well-intentioned and worth the attempt, “The fact remains,” he said, “we flattened the country and killed an extraordinarily large number of civilians doing it.” Repairing the damage struck Wells as an important humanitarian project for his generation and for the United States as a whole. He began sending generous contributions to RENEW, and traveled to Quang Tri several times to meet Searcy and see the project in action.
Not all the support has come from military veterans. Steve Nichols and Sally Benson spent about a year in Vietnam in 1967-68 teaching English for International Voluntary Services, an NGO doing what is sometimes called “capacity building” projects with sizable grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Now married and running the Chino Cienega Foundation, Nichols and Benson arranged for $76,000 in grants to build the Mine Action Visitor Center in Dong Ha, a combination history museum and education center to build awareness of the continuing dangers of UXOs. More recently, the foundation voted to contribute $20,000 as a matching grant toward creating another explosive ordnance disposal team.
Project RENEW has also received financial and technical assistance from other sources, including the Freeman Foundation, the Humpty Dumpty Institute, the U.S. Department of State and the DOD. The Golden West Humanitarian Foundation not only assisted the project with mine clearance and research, but also facilitated the receipt of grants from the U.S. government that, among other things, allowed RENEW to obtain DOD maps and data showing where the United States had targeted bombing runs during the war, and where mines had been laid.
Project RENEW fields two mobile EOD teams, each with nine members, that circulate through- out the countryside in response to calls of dis- covered ordnance. Generally, the teams arrive within 24 hours; in emergencies, as quickly as 20 minutes. The UXOs that can be safely moved are taken to a designated blast area and destroyed. The more dangerous ones, like the bom bi and the 40mm rifle grenades, are destroyed where they are found. Team members dig a small hole, carefully lower in the ordnance, add a TNT charge purchased from the Vietnamese military, cover it all with pink sandbags, run the detonator cord back a safe distance and connect the detonator. Other team members fan out around a 500-meter perimeter with bullhorns to give stern warnings to all civilians that they must evacuate the area (the team also evacuates any water buffalo that stray too close to the blast site). Project RENEW maintains rigorous safety rules, and its teams are trained to international standards. A medic and an ambulance accompany every team. After a quick countdown over the team radio system, the button is pushed and an impressive amount of earth and debris launches into the air, along with flecks of pink sandbag covering.
Part of RENEW’s success rests on its integrated approach to the problems of UXO. In addition to clearing ordnance, it works on community awareness and education so that no one touches suspected explosives, but instead calls the project’s emergency hotline (actually Colonel Hong’s cell phone) to report the discovered munitions. RENEW provides prosthetics for those who have lost limbs from explosions. The project also offers micro-credit loans for families unable to sustain themselves because of injuries caused by exploded remnants. Through two Norwegian partners, it has provided advanced trauma care training to Quang Tri medical professionals. Its newest program, Mushrooms With a Mission, operates in conjunction with the Humpty Dumpty Institute and provides the supplies and know-how to those suffering disabilities from explosives so that they can grow and locally sell mushrooms. Project RENEW has 90 paid staff members, but relies on hundreds of trained volunteers to assist in community education and reporting new potential hazards.
Over the years, Scruggs says he received a few negative comments from Americans wanting to know why VVMF was helping its erstwhile enemy—but those comments were few and far between, and did not deter the project. About once a year, VVMF took funders to Vietnam to see Project RENEW in action. In 2011 VVMF decided to focus its efforts on projects at home, such as building a new visitors’ center at the site of the Washington memorial, and ended its financial support for RENEW. “Ultimately,” said Scruggs, “the logistical train from D.C. to Vietnam was too long.” A member of the foundation’s staff referred to it as a “mission realignment.” The VVMF’s role was assumed by Norwegian People’s Aid, a private organization heavily funded by the government of Norway and other governments, which had been deeply involved with Project RENEW for several years. Searcy still works with the project as an adviser, living in Hanoi but visiting Dong Ha two to three times a month as needed.
Although the Vietnamese were on the receiving end of so many bombs and shells, the explosions set off by the clearance teams do not seem to engender any anxiety among the local people. Maybe it’s because in the last four years, no child has been injured by UXOs in the districts where Project RENEW operates. Every explosion by the team means one less child who might be killed, one less farmer who might lose an arm or leg, one less hazard to planting crops or raising a family in a country where, finally, the fighting has ceased.
Ted Lieverman is a freelance photographer and writer based in Philadelphia. See more of his images at tmlphotojournal.com.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.