American Veteran Chuck Searcy came back to Vietnam to help clean up one of the country’s most bombed provinces. Ten years later, he’s still here.
An interview with Chuck Searcy by Kevin Sites, Yahoo! News’ “Kevin’s in the Hot Zone”
HANOI, Vietnam – In 1966 Chuck Searcy was about to be drafted into the military. He decided to volunteer instead, hoping to avoid being sent to Vietnam. It didn’t work. He ended up in the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion and was shipped off to Saigon, where he spent his entire deployment handling documents instead of an M-16. Aside from the Tet Offensive, the most action Searcy saw were motorbike accidents on congested Saigon streets.
“Thank God I didn’t have to engage,” he says, sitting in his office in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. “I couldn’t even hold a rifle still, my hands would shake so bad. I’m lucky I never had to fire.”
But what Searcy says he did learn during his deployment was that the reality of the war in Vietnam bore little resemblance to the story that was being told to the outside world.
“I was part of team that reviewed classified intelligence reports,” he says, “and I gradually came to realize how much of the information was just wrong. Some of it inadvertently was correct. But there was [also] institutional pressure to cook the numbers on things like body counts and troop strength.”
Searcy says it didn’t take him long to become completely convinced that the war in Vietnam was a mistake. He did his year deployment, returned to the U.S. and served out his time with the Army. He went on to start a small town newspaper, worked for the Small Business Administration in Washington under the Carter administration and served as the executive director for the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.
For the last ten years he’s been the Hanoi-based project manager for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fund, which is working to clean up unexploded ordnance left over from the war along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which divided Vietnam between north and south.
I talked with Searcy about his own experiences as an American soldier in Vietnam and the reasons he returned.
KEVIN SITES: You were in military intelligence for the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1967-68. Tell me about that experience.
CHUCK SEARCY: I was an intelligence analyst and my unit was the screening point for final documents that were headed to the Pentagon or Congress or other places around the world. Most of it was classified. But the job gave me access to a lot of information about Vietnam. The result of seeing all of this information and also making friends with ordinary Vietnamese led me to the gradual conclusion that the war was a tragic mistake.
It was devastating to the Vietnamese but was also tearing us apart back home in the U.S.
After about three months in I began to have serious doubts and after six months I was completely convinced that the best thing we could do was get out of Vietnam. That was reinforced by the Tet Offensive. The truth is that even though [North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong] ranks were decimated, most of the destruction from heavy artillery and aerial bombardment was caused by us. And I could sense this gradual stunned awareness by Vietnamese citizens, many who were killed or uprooted [by the response to Tet] — I could see a change in their attitude about the war.
SITES: When did you begin to suspect that the official truth in Vietnam was different from the ground truth?
SEARCY: I can give you one example. In the fall of 1967 there were the beginnings of large anti-war demonstrations in U.S. In our unit in Saigon, we were doing high fives watching this on television and thought, “The U.S. can’t continue the war against this kind of opposition in the streets.” Then — I think it was November 1967 — Gen. William Westmoreland was called home to address Congress and he said that these anti-war demonstrations were damaging the morale of the troops and they had to stop. When we read this we thought, “Where did that come from?” People who wanted to end the war are standing behind the troops because we want to go home. The truth was not conveyed to the people or the media.
SITES: Is the work you’re doing now about healing for you — trying to make amends for what you considered was an unjust war?
SEARCY: I came back the first time in 1992 as a tourist with another veteran. It was on that trip I realized that not only did the Vietnamese not hate us, but they welcomed us. They were very forgiving. But they were also still recovering from devastation of the war. We covered the whole country from north to south and it was at that point I decided to try and come back and make some kind of contribution that would be constructive rather than destructive. It wasn’t so much about undoing what had been done. That was impossible. But we could build on the ashes and the bones of the war — build on the hopes for the future, better understanding and reconciliation.
SITES: How do you feel about seeing the closer ties between the U.S. and Vietnam, both economic and military?
SEARCY: I’m very happy to see that all we’ve been working toward for some time — a new relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. — is finally at a culmination. With Vietnam’s entrance into the WTO and permanent normal trade relations with the U.S., it seems like we’ve nearly come to the end of the process.
SITES: What has been the reaction of other American Vietnam veterans about this return to normalization with Vietnam? Is there any lingering bitterness amongst them?
SEARCY: Some are personally reluctant to come back, for whatever reasons, but there’s very little of the anger and bitterness that existed in the past. Very few blame the Vietnamese for anything during those troubled war years. But I wish I could persuade every American Vietnam veteran to come back here because for those who have come back, after the welcome they receive, and the realization that there’s no animosity whatsoever towards them, it’s such a surprise and relief.
I’ve never met an American Vietnam vet whose life wasn’t changed for the better [by returning]. I once made the suggestion that the government should take some of those millions of dollars that are spent on therapy and buy every Vietnam veteran a roundtrip ticket here. Let them spend two weeks in the country and all those problems would be gone.
SITES: Let’s fast forward to your current work in Vietnam. Through the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fund you’ve started a program called Project Renew, which is helping to remove UXOs [unexploded ordnance] and landmines from a region of Vietnam heavily affected by the war.
SEARCY: Quang Tri Province is the site of the former 17th Parallel, where North and South Vietnam were divided. It was the DMZ but that was a complete misnomer because it was the most heavily bombed place in world. We had 24-hour bombing raids by B-52s and now much of the region is still contaminated with bombs and mines.
A group of about twenty vets from the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fund visited Quang Tri some years back and we decided we had to do something. We secured the funding, in great part because of a former Vietnam veteran who fought and was wounded in Quang Tri, Christos Cotsakos, the founder of eTrade.
SITES: But it’s not just about cleaning up the mess of UXOs and landmines. Your program addresses a broad spectrum of issues affected by the remaining ordnance. Why?
SEARCY: UXOs are just one point of a larger problem. There is also poverty, loss of economic opportunity, loss of land, loss of education and of course the terrible loss of lives and limbs.
With our project we not only clean up bombs and mines, but we help the people in the region help themselves, especially landmine and UXO survivors, with micro-credit programs, small loans of $200 – $300 per family, to help them start mushroom farming or raising cattle.
These programs help the people to become productive and self-sustaining. There’s also a 95 percent payback rate of the loans which we recycle back into program.
SITES: You came here in 1995, initially to work for just three years. Ten years later you’re still here. Why?
SEARCY: I like the country and I like the people, but more importantly, the work is not done yet — not that it will ever be completely done. But I still see some things I think I can do. And I don’t have anything pulling me back. When I came here I had some personal flexibility, I was divorced, my daughter was grown, I had no real debt, no money either (laughs), but I didn’t owe anything. I could stay longer.
SITES: Will you eventually return to the U.S.?
SEARCY: I’m sure I’ll go back, I just don’t have a timetable. There’s a slight possibility I might not have a choice though. I don’t have any retirement provisions, so Vietnam might be the only place I can survive as an aging veteran with no means (laughs).
SITES: Do you worry about adjusting to life back in the U.S. once you do leave?
SEARCY: I did worry about adjusting to life back in U.S. after 9/11 because the U.S. seemed more strange than at any time in my lifetime. There was this fear, paranoia and absence of any real stability. It was even difficult to have a discussion with my friends in America about what this conflict was all about.
I wondered if I could stay in the U.S. comfortably. But after subsequent visits, now I feel more comfortable. I know I’ll go back eventually and spend the rest of my life on my front porch in Athens, Ga., watching the Bulldogs’ fans go by.
SITES: There have been a lot of comparisons drawn between Vietnam and the current U.S. conflict in Iraq. What’s your feeling there?
SEARCY: I think there are some significant differences between Vietnam and Iraq, as well as some similarities. It seemed like the Vietnamese, despite the war, always considered themselves one people — regardless of north or south, they always thought they’d be reunited. They would be one people. In Iraq there’s so much sectarian violence and animosities that splits communities apart. I don’t think Iraq ever felt strong nationalism the same way the Vietnamese have always felt.
As far as the similarities, in both cases U.S. policy makers and the U.S. government has shown an abysmal ignorance of the history, politics, cultural realities of both regions, and also held this naïve assumption that military power and weaponry can solve any situation.
We learned that was wrong in Vietnam. The Vietnamese fought in the south without any aircraft and the U.S. had the most powerful air power in the word and we still couldn’t defeat a determined force who just wanted us out, who wanted us to leave Vietnam.
I think the situation in Iraq just might be the same. If we left Iraq there would probably be continued chaos but I can’t see how it could be any worse than it is today when we see the terrible bombings and killings every day.
Photo: Chuck Searcy (L) talks with a group of Project RENEW personnel. Photo by VnExpress/Ngo Xuan Hien (July 11, 2020)