Vietnam veterans return to battle for the D.O.V.E. FundWritten by Jordan Finney | | email@example.com
A chorus of 5- and 6-year-old children prepared to serenade their guests, stumbling through English lyrics and giggling at each other’s singing voices. Today was a special day in Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province, an area ravaged decades before during the Vietnam War. The kids knew from the plaque at the schoolhouse entrance that Americans had built their elementary school. And today the Americans were coming.
“On the wings of a dove / We will rise high above / All our differences, so far in the past / Through the eyes of the children / See the bridges we’re building / Hope will find a way / Love will save the day, and peace will last …”
The Americans never knew what to expect on trips to Vietnam. But when their 18-person envoy stood outside the elementary school and heard the kids singing “Dove,” they knew why they kept coming back.
Dan May said he wrote “Dove” from the perspective of a former U.S. soldier who returns to Vietnam with the intention of helping his former enemies and rebuilding the land he once helped destroy. He wrote it for a group of Vietnam War veterans who have dedicated their lives to helping the people of Vietnam through The D.O.V.E. Fund.
Founded in 2000, The D.O.V.E. Fund is a Toledo-based organization that aims “to provide humanitarian and development assistance to areas in Vietnam, to provide communication, education and cultural exchanges that reflect the best qualities of both cultures. To create an environment brightened by hope and sustained by peace,” according to its mission statement.
“So many times after we go in and destroy a country, we forget about it,” May said. “These Vietnam veterans have taken it upon themselves to mend the fences.
“That’s what’s great about this organization: It rises above the past and looks toward the future.”
The D.O.V.E. Fund is comprised of mostly Vietnam War veterans who raise money to build schools, complete community projects and provide material items to impoverished areas in Vietnam.
After hearing children sing the “Dove” song during the group’s January trip, D.O.V.E. members said they “are more inspired than ever” to share their story and spread some dove love.
The nonprofit organization relies 100 percent on volunteers with the exception of one employee in Vietnam, a liaison who coordinates the logistics of projects on the ground and communicates with The D.O.V.E. Fund on a daily basis.
During the past 14 years, The D.O.V.E. Fund has raised more than $2.5 million in donations, almost all of which has funded its various humanitarian projects. Its members pay for their own trips to Vietnam and help cover 95-100 percent of operational costs. Last year, this group of a couple dozen veterans and their families fundraised $200,000.
However, D.O.V.E. veterans said that The D.O.V.E. Fund has accomplished feats far beyond pumping investment capital into Vietnam: It has helped them mend the wounds of war with former enemies and regain meaningful lives by making peace with their past.
One school at a time
John Abbey came home in 1970 as a “closet veteran with an anti-war spirit” who participated in several major Washington, D.C., demonstrations and not much else.
Abbey’s youth had been hardened by the realities of life as a soldier. He spent the next five years finishing his education and attempting to reintegrate into civilian life. As far as he was concerned, 18-year-old Abbey in a U.S. Army uniform had never existed. It was only begrudgingly that he revealed his past to the few people who ever asked about it. One weekend in 1975 shattered the charade.
“I was working at a private psychiatric hospital when a depressed woman with reoccurring issues was readmitted,” Abbey said. “We had a policy that someone had to be with you every second of the day for the first 24 hours. She convinced the person with her to leave the room so she could go to the bathroom. Once alone, she hanged herself on the sprinkler with a nightgown.”
That’s when the nightmares started. The suicide reminded Abbey of how “some things happened overseas” and he couldn’t cope.
Abbey spent the next two years seeing a psychiatrist twice a week in Boston, who eventually convinced him to fill out paperwork for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But the Veterans Administration turned Abbey’s application down, saying that PTSD “didn’t really exist.”
“That’s when I threw in the towel and went into even greater anger and denial,” Abbey said.
“I disappeared for a year, traveling on my bike and living in the woods. I eventually rejoined society on a conditional basis and got hired at Ford Motor Co., where I worked for 30 years. But I wasn’t OK. My first marriage didn’t last — which had a lot to do with my inability to handle this whole thing — and I wasn’t an honest person.”
Everything changed again when Jim Taylor, a D.O.V.E. Fund member and then HR manager for Ford’s former Maumee plant, walked through the door of Abbey’s office in 2005.
“Are you a Vietnam veteran?” Taylor asked, pointing to a small poster of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Abbey’s wall. The two men chatted briefly and Taylor convinced his new friend to confront the angry 18-year-old soldier at a D.O.V.E. meeting. At the time, Abbey said he didn’t believe that the shadows of his past or the nightmares of his present could ever go away. Today, he’s the first to admit he was mistaken.
“I never set out for redemption but that’s what I’ve found with The D.O.V.E. Fund,” Abbey said. “Reconciliation. Healing. Making a difference in a world that I had long given up on because I was consumed by tremendous survivor complex and guilt. As soon as I joined D.O.V.E.’s board of trustees, my life completely changed.”
Since 2005, Abbey has returned to Vietnam with The D.O.V.E. Fund about 10 times, dedicating the majority of his efforts to funding school projects, helping leper colonies and administering scholarships.
The D.O.V.E. Fund collects donations and asks Bui Cam Nhung, its lone employee, to secure a local contract bid within its budget before D.O.V.E. leaders inspect and sign off on the project.
One of the largest school builders in Vietnam, The D.O.V.E. Fund has constructed about 50 schools, including a school for the blind in both Hue and Cam Lo. These two schools provide vocational training and advanced computer systems for visually-impaired students.
“We realize that we can’t build enough schools. There’s always a new one that’s needed,” Abbey said. “We meet with government officials every year and they tell us that lots of people come to Vietnam and some people donate lots more money than we do. But what’s different about us is we come back and check every time.”
The D.O.V.E. Fund also finances $100 high school and $250 college scholarships, which pay for a year of tuition in Vietnam. Last year, it gave away about 180 high school scholarships and 20 college scholarships. D.O.V.E. members said they hope to match those numbers this year.
“When I first joined The D.O.V.E. Fund my life was really, really bad. I couldn’t escape reality anymore and these guys saved my life,” Abbey said. “Happiness isn’t the right word for this story, although I am happiest when I’m there. The Vietnamese have no evident animosity toward Americans even though we attacked them. When your enemy can forgive you, maybe it’s time to forgive yourself. Forgiveness is the word I’d use. That’s what I’m learning one trip at a time, one school at a time.”
Microfinance and PET carts
Fred Grimm had been in Vietnam for a couple of months when the vehicle he was driving got sprayed with bullets. One round shattered the windshield. Another missed his torso to the left. One caught the dusty mirror inches above his head.
“I never shot at a Vietnamese soldier but I was ready to and I wanted to. I could feel myself changing,” Grimm said. “Then one night we were attacked. My buddy and I caught a lot of shrapnel and I blew out my left eardrum.”
It was a warm night in 1969 when Grimm, wounded after only four months of duty, left Vietnam on a U.S. medevac. Today, he has returned to the former battleground 15 times, amassing eight months of volunteer time.
“I’ve been back with The D.O.V.E. Fund every year since it was founded. That’s eight months of helping, which about doubles the time I spent raising hell,” Grimm said.
Grimm serves as the vice chairman of Vietnam projects and coordinates The D.O.V.E. Fund’s ventures, including a new microfinance initiative that helps poor women who ask for a small loan to jump-start a business.
“For example, we met a young seamstress and lent her $150. We went back the next year, and her whole little hut was full of beautiful fabric worth $800,” Grimm said. “She had another brand-new sewing machine at home, too. We were all impressed, and this is just one of many stories. We’ve had huge success with microlending to these women.”
Another woman, who Grimm called the “queen of the market,” developed a method of buying fresh food items in bulk that she would sell to street vendors in the morning on a loan. Others raise chickens or pigs, sell eggs or fruit, or become seamstresses.
In addition, Grimm said he was particularly proud of The D.O.V.E. Fund’s recent partnership with PET (Personal Energy Transportation) International, an organization that makes special carts that allow disabled people to travel on rugged terrain. PET International provides the approximately $300 carts for free and D.O.V.E. members have paid to distribute more than 300 of them.
“We hope to send another shipment of these amazing PET carts this year because a wheelchair won’t be of any real use to these people with lower limb loss. The Vietnamese people are so appreciative and that makes it all worthwhile,” Grimm said. “I just want to thank all the people in the U.S. who have donated money and believed in what we’re doing. I guarantee you that I make sure every dollar is spent wisely. In fact, I’d put our organization up against anybody’s.”
He didn’t want to be “that coward” who opted to go to jail and shame his country. So Tom Treece put on his camouflage and clenched his teeth for a war that he said “would never make sense.”
“I was raised in a loving Christian family then got plucked out of life, trained on all the ways you can kill another human being, sent to the other side of the planet and handed a weapon to go do it,” Treece said. “When it was over, there was no deprogramming except ‘Thanks for your service, sir.’ You hand in a uniform, get a free dinner and you’re on a plane back to your hometown.”
At 21 years old, Treece came home in 1969 without knowing what home meant anymore. His friends were watching movies at the theater. Some other guy was dating his girl. Life had carried on without him. And he didn’t have much use for it, either.
“I felt like a worm on a hot tin; everything had changed, I didn’t fit in anymore and I couldn’t sit still,” Treece said. “I was an angry young man who lost so many of my dear friends. And somewhere along the way, I lost myself.”
From 1969-2000, Treece traveled around the United States, bouncing from job to job. He hitchhiked to Madison, Wisconsin, and lived on the streets for a couple years before forming a rock ’n’ roll band. There was something therapeutic about rolling into a town, jamming out for a few hours and leaving again without ever having to confront himself in the mirror.
“I was screwed up and had so much hate in my heart,” Treece said. “It had eaten me up and I could never figure out how to get rid of it. When I was recruited by The D.O.V.E. Fund in 2000 all that hate started to melt away. For the first time in a long time, I felt like my life had purpose.”
After his first return trip to Vietnam in 2003, Treece wrote a three-and-a-half page article for Michigan’s Monroe News. He said he was shocked when they printed the entire story, and “even more shocked” when the first $100 check arrived in the mail one week later.
In three months, Treece’s article about his trip generated $50,000, including one $35,000 donation. That’s when Treece decided to write “The Ghost Closet,” an autobiographical account of his healing process “on the wings of D.O.V.E.” All profits from the book have been donated to The D.O.V.E. Fund.
“To be able to go back to where I spent 13 months of my life and saw so much death — there’s just nothing like it,” Treece said. “I believe that we are called to be like the good Samaritan who couldn’t walk by and see trouble without stopping to help.”
To date, D.O.V.E. members have built water purification plants and latrines, installed solar lights for villages without reliable electricity and distributed hundreds of pairs of shoes. But “nothing tested the group more” than their recent work with leper colonies, Treece said.
Treece got an unusual call one day from a California woman named Linda Stocker who had found his dog tag in a Ho Chi Minh City jewelry store. The two became friends and Stocker’s volunteer group, the Bandage Brigade, became a close partner with The D.O.V.E. Fund. The Bandage Brigade crochets bandages for Vietnamese lepers and since 2008, D.O.V.E. members have delivered 12,000 of these bandages.
“We’ve taken a special interest in people with leprosy who are unattended, stigmatized and isolated in rural villages,” Treece said. “They wear their clothes until they fall off. Many can’t remember what village they grew up in because they’ve been isolated for so long, grinding it out every day to survive.”
The lepers are the outcasts of society, isolated in rural mountain or coastal villages away from most of the population. Many are missing arms and legs, infected by disease and covered with sores. But D.O.V.E. members say the lepers’ disfigured faces always share one thing in common — they never seem to stop smiling.
Story in a story
As a 22-year-old soldier in the U.S. Army, Dan Gregg frequently traveled in an armored personnel carrier down a dirt road with a schoolhouse nearby. After his tank broke down one day, Gregg went inside the school.
“The kids came up instantly, thinking that I had all kinds of food,” Gregg said. “I handed out some stuff from my C-ration kit … canned peaches or whatever. I made friends with some of them and made it a point to stop there once in a while.”
After returning to the United States, Gregg saved several photos of the school in a photo album, hoping that he could “someday see it again.”
He got his chance more than four decades later. In 2013, Gregg stood outside of the same school, now barely recognizable except for a familiar flagpole at the front entrance.
“I met with teachers to tell them my story and about how much this school meant to me,” Gregg said. “Vietnam was really the most transformative period of my life. I saw it in a totally different way than I do now. Now I see the transformation of a country slowly coming out of war. I like to be part of the rebuilding process because I played a role in the destruction process. It’s life-affirming.”
Gregg, who said he feels inspired by civil rights activists like Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, is currently writing a book about how he turned his negative experience as a soldier in Vietnam into a positive experience as a returning veteran. In addition, Gregg said he plans to include his perspective on coping with PTSD and what it’s like to “reconnect with the young soldier that you were years ago.”
“My PTSD didn’t form until 2003 when we invaded Iraq,” Gregg said. “I saw images of bombs on TV and planes exploding … and that brought back a lot of bad memories. Soon afterwards, I joined The D.O.V.E. Fund.”
His book, “Return to Tay Ninh,” describes the guilt of a soldier who remembers seeing Vietnamese civilians suffer — orphans crying for their fathers, a child’s skin blackened by burns — and the overwhelming experience of reconciling with a former enemy.
“I never thought I’d get rid of those images. I still haven’t but they don’t debilitate me like they once did,” Gregg said. “I’m struck by the amazing sense of forgiveness from people who have every reason to hate us. I cried a lot when I went over. I still do. But it’s a good cry because it means my heart is opening up and being repaired. I’m not afraid of the tears and the feelings because I know it’s healing me.”
The stories of Abbey, Grimm, Treece, Gregg and other D.O.V.E. members may not be unusual. But what they do with those stories sets them apart.
“We were young and far away from home / Cast into a world we’d never known / In a time, so surreal / Oh … now / There’s a chance to go back and repair / Damage that was done when we were there / Pain we feel, scars we heal …”
D.O.V.E. veterans say that May’s words “perfectly encapsulate” how their organization helps repair both the physical destruction in Vietnam and the emotional pain that many veterans continue to suffer from.
“We all shared the same experiences. We all went through the same things. Even though we didn’t serve shoulder to shoulder, we all know the smell of gunpowder,” Gregg said. “We’ve seen men put in body bags, dead people, arms separated from bodies. There’s a certain understanding among us that this is why we do what we do. We love each other and we would do anything for each other.”
The group has tentative plans to make its next venture overseas on New Year’s Day 2015. In addition, a group of university students from Wisconsin and Minnesota will be traveling to Vietnam with medical supplies as volunteers at The D.O.V.E. Fund’s Hai An Medical Clinic.
“The D.O.V.E. Fund has turned into one of the most important things in my life,” Treece said. “First is my salvation. Second, my wife —the delight of my life. And three or four is without a doubt going back to Vietnam and shedding off that old skin of hate that I had from the war. This group has done more to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people than 15 years of war. No one cares about how much you know until they know how much you care — and believe me, we care a lot.”
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