05/01/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Hallo, Mr. Chuck," a Hanoi cyclo driver yells with a happy wave. Everyone in the capital, it seems, from shoeshine boys to government ministers, knows Chuck Searcy. He's hard to miss. Whether stopping at his "second office," the Au Lac Cafe, or zipping through town on his iridescent blue motorcycle or singing Willie Nelson songs in Vietnamese at a karaoke bar, the 6'3" Georgian with the easy manner and broad smile is a kind of American landmark.
Searcy, 55, is a former Army intelligence analyst who was based in Saigon in the late '60s. He returned to Vietnam in 1995 to perform a far different function-heading up the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's orthotics program, which provides corrective braces for disabled Vietnamese children. Says Searcy's boss, VVAF president Bobby Mullen "I once told Chuck, 'You are our donation to Vietnam.' "
It is a sizable contribution. Along with his formal duties, Searcy is also the unofficial concierge of Hanoi. He is continually fielding calls from visiting veterans, foreign correspondents, expatriate friends and humanitarian groups about how to negotiate Vietnam and its bureaucracy. When Mother Teresa visited Hanoi in 1996, he met with her in a vain attempt to help her get permission to open a mission there. The New York City-based Doctors of the World sought him out in 1998 when it wanted approval—which it obtained—to train health workers in rural Vietnam. (Health care in Vietnam is not free, and although government insurance is relatively affordable, medical resources are limited.) "He's very good at understanding the needs of the Vietnamese people," says Nguyen Dong, a doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation in Hanoi. "He has accomplished a lot."
The twice-divorced Searcy, who lives alone in a two-room apartment overlooking Hanoi's White Silk Lake, used to worry about how the Vietnamese would receive an American vet. But, he says, "when people find out, they seem to have even more respect. They assume we understand the suffering and sorrow."
Searcy translates that bond into action. At the National Institute of Pediatrics in Hanoi, the WAF spends about $100,000 a year manufacturing and fitting custom-made plastic braces for kids. Of the country's estimated 34 million children, some 3 million suffer from disabilities caused by diseases like cerebral palsy and meningitis and by congenital defects like clubfoot. "The braces make a big difference," says Dr. Tran Trong Hai, who helps administer the program. "Thanks to the VVAF, a lot of children move better."
Recently, Searcy accompanied a medical team in the WAF's first mobile orthotics lab to Vinh Phuc Province, an hour's bumpy ride north of Hanoi. A 15-year-old boy with clubfoot showed the team how he walked with a painful loping stride before he got his braces. "Working in rehabilitation is rewarding," says Searcy. "You can see people achieve some independence and greater self-esteem."
He ought to know. His sister Anne, now 41, was left a quadriplegic in her early 20s after a car accident injured her spine. "It was a great lesson for me in how difficult it is for the disabled and their families to deal with this kind of life-altering circumstance," he says.
The son of a Thomson, Ga., beverage bottler and his wife, Searcy was flunking out of the University of Georgia in Athens when he enlisted in the Army in 1966 at age 22. Working on intelligence reports for the general staff in Saigon, he began questioning the reasons for America's presence in Vietnam. "I had a palpable feeling of sorrow over what was happening," he says, "and felt helpless to correct it."
After his discharge in 1969, Searcy became a vocal antiwar activist and was named Georgia state coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He campaigned for George McGovern and later served in government jobs in Georgia and in Washington, D.C. "Chuck is like Forrest Gump," says pal Pete McCommons, an Athens newspaper publisher and former fellow activist. "He's wherever the action is. He's a true believer."
Searcy turned down a $130,000 job offer with the Department of Veterans Affairs to take the WAF job in 1995 at half the pay. He doesn't regret the choice. His work with children has helped the old soldier too. "I needed to mend not a physical injury but a psychological wound-the pain over what we had done in Vietnam," he says. "Having found a way to come back here and do something constructive has been a healing process."
Linda Kramer in Hanoi