Seeds of Hope
05/01/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
With quiet dignity, Nguyen Dang Chuong draws a curtain across a doorway in his mud-brick home to conceal his wife's tears from an American visitor. Jerilyn Brusseau, 56, has traveled to this rain-soaked village in central Vietnam's Quang Tri Province to offer condolences to the 42-year-old rice farmer and his 39-year-old wife, Nam, who are mourning the death of Luan, their 10-year-old son. Though Brusseau never knew the boy, his story is sadly familiar.
Luan was playing in the fields outside his family's home last November when he tossed what looked like a mudencrusted rock to two playmates. The explosion that followed killed Luan and one other child and left the third with shrapnel in his skull, burns and broken bones. "I told my son about bombies," says Chuong, using local slang for the grapefruit-size bomblets that still litter the area some 30 years after they were dropped by warplanes. "He was scared of them. This time, I don't think he knew what it was."
Vietnamese officials estimate that 4,000 people were killed or maimed between 1985 and 1995 by unexploded ordnance (UXOs) in Quang Tri Province, which saw some of the Vietnam War's fiercest fighting. What's more, as many as 5 million "bombies" and another 58,000 land mines are still scattered about Quang Tri waiting to go off. "You name the place—Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, Cam Lo, the DMZ—it's a huge problem," says Brusseau. "About one child a week is killed or injured from a UXO, not to mention the accidents in remote areas that are never reported."
It is Brusseau's dream to stop the killing, acre by acre. Nearly five years ago she helped launch PeaceTrees Vietnam, a humanitarian program that is working to rid the province—and perhaps someday the nation—of UXOs and turn war-scarred land into parks and forests. So far, demining contractors hired by PeaceTrees have removed 500 pieces of ordnance from 30 acres in Quang Tri. Meanwhile, Brusseau and her several hundred mostly American volunteers, who pay $2,500 each to travel to Vietnam for two weeks, have worked with locals to plant native trees across the cleared land.
For Don Shanley, 55, a landscape designer from Elk, Calif., who led patrols in Quang Tri as a Marine in 1968, returning to plant trees beside his former enemies is a way to honor the war dead on both sides—and bury the past. "If anyone said I would be back here planting trees with the Vietnamese, I'd have said they were crazy," he says. "But it's really important that people in America have new images of the future of Vietnam. I want to tell my friends that there isn't this hatred I thought there might be." Says Brusseau: "Americans working alongside Vietnamese is the only way to reverse the legacy of war."
The local Quang Tri government ceased its own mine-clearing operations 15 years ago, daunted by the estimated $20 million cost of completing them. "Others, like the war veterans, came before. They knew the names of our cities," says Nguyen Duc Quang, a foreign-relations official. "But Jerilyn came to improve relations. PeaceTrees helps us let Americans know that Vietnam is the name of a country, not just a war."
The war, though, will always hold grim memories for Brusseau. As the daughter of a U.S. Marine who served in the Pacific, she grew up well aware of the mortal costs of combat. But the death of her brother 1st Lt. Daniel Cheney—a 22-year-old pilot whose helicopter was shot down over a village 15 miles west of Saigon on Jan. 6, 1969, when she was 25—left her stunned. "It was the most bitter moment of my life," recalls Brusseau. "Part of my life stopped."
By then, Jerilyn was working as a chef at her family's restaurant in Edmonds, Wash., and married to industrial-sealant salesman Dennis Brusseau. Through the '70s she busied herself raising their children and running the restaurant. But in her spare time she looked for ways to promote peace. After breaking up with Dennis in 1979 ("The work at the restaurant brought out our differences," she says), she combined that mission with her culinary skills and in the mid'80s founded Peace Table, an exchange program between chefs from the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
It was while hosting a Peace Table event in Seattle that she met Danaan Parry, a psychologist and former nuclear physicist who shared her passion for changing the world. They married in 1992 and three years later, when the U.S. renewed diplomatic relations with Vietnam, vowed to help heal the wounds of the war. In 1996, during their first trip to Vietnam, Brusseau traveled to the village where her brother had been shot down and met an old man who recalled the crash. "As I listened to our translator," she says, "I got shivers down my spine."
With that experience behind her, Brusseau focused on helping the Vietnamese. A U.S. veterans group suggested demining and tree planting in Quang Tri, and officials there were happy to accept the offer. After raising $200,000 in donations back home, Parry returned in May 1996 with three volunteers to clear an area near the city of Dong Ha. The result, the Friendship Forest Park, is an oasis of native flora. But by the time it was planted, Brusseau endured another loss: That November, Parry suffered a fatal heart attack on the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island.
Through her grief, Brusseau worked on. "That would have been Danaan's wish," she says. Last year she and the PeaceTrees team opened the Danaan Parry Landmines Education Center in Dong Ha, where displays explain the dangers of different bombs. She and her group plan to complete the Friendship Forest Park with a badminton court and a children's library, then tackle another 26-acre site near Dong Ha. With the help of a Virginia-based mine-clearing firm, she hopes to train locals and, by the end of 2001, have a plan in place to rid Quang Tri of mines altogether.
What spare time she has, Brusseau spends with her three grandchildren at her Bainbridge Island farmhouse. But for several months a year she can be found in Quang Tri. On a recent drizzly afternoon, dozens of volunteers watched as she placed a three-foot sapling in a freshly dug hole—the last of 1,600 trees planted that week—and thanked them for their efforts. "Like so much of Vietnam, this area became a battleground, a place of death and destruction," she told them. "Now the birds have come back, there are wildflowers, and, with your help, a forest is growing."
Ron Arias in Dong Ha