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PeaceTrees Vietnam replaces weapons with trees, trust

When Jerilyn Brusseau learned that her younger brother, helicopter pilot Daniel Cheney, was killed in action on Jan. 6, 1969, during a combat mission in Vietnam, she immediately knew she would do something so his sacrifice would not be in vain.

With thoughts of peace, a seed was sown.

The idea incubated as the family’s grief caused her father to withdraw and her mother to be overwhelmed by incessant pain and anger – not unlike any parents who suffered the loss of a child in that crippling, incomprehensible war.

Brusseau was afflicted by the loss, too, but in partnership with her late husband, Daanan Parry, she eventually found a way to begin the healing process.

By the time the U.S. and Vietnam finally normalized diplomatic relations on July 11, 1995, Brusseau and Parry were living on Bainbridge Island and primed to launch PeaceTrees Vietnam.

The humanitarian organization initially focused primarily on the removal of unexploded ordnances – land mines and U.S. bombs – in heavily bombarded Quang Tri Province.

Then they replaced the weapons with trees.

“We wanted to reach out to the Vietnamese to build trust and understanding,” said Brusseau, who spent 10 months in Vietnam to orient herself to the culture. She still makes at least two trips annually, and remains president of the nonprofit’s board of directors.

Most importantly, the effort has saved thousands of lives during the last 15 years. But the expanded mission, which includes providing funds for new schools and libraries, has helped heal scars created by war as the former enemies gradually learned to share their grief.

Personally, however, Brusseau felt the circle wouldn’t be complete until her 90-year-old mother, Rae Cheney, visited Vietnam.

That finally happened last September, and Cheney was treated as celebrity by the people in the province, the people in the province, the media and officials in Hanoi during a two-week visit. It marked the first time an American mother who had lost a son or daughter in the war had visited the country.

But the journey to forgiveness was lengthy, beginning on Jan. 6, 1969, when her 21-year-old son’s Cobra helicopter was shot down 15 miles north of Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. He had been in Vietnam only 16 days.

She blamed the North Vietnamese, their leaders and all of Vietnam for her loss.

“He was gone, suddenly, and the pain was always there,” she said. “You just have to handle each day as it comes.”

Cheney didn’t isolate herself as did her husband, Bernard “Bum” Cheney, a Montana native and a U.S. Marine who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. But her thoughts turned overnight from conventional to chaotic with a ubiquitous sadness that became the center of her life.

After her husband died, Cheney moved from her long-time home in Bellingham to Bainbridge to be closer to Brusseau. And when her daughter became involved in PeaceTrees, she decided to join her, primarily by writing personal “thank-you” notes to contributors to the cause. It was the beginning of her healing process.

“I was a little skeptical that she (Jerilyn) was going to Vietnam,” she said. “I wasn’t very enthused about having another child going there. But she is so level-headed that I knew she’d be OK.”

Brusseau had decided that in some way there had to be a reconciliation and she would work toward that by helping the people remove one terrible obstacle at a time. There were more bombs dropped in North Vietnam, for example, than all dropped from the sky by the combined forces during WWII, she said. Something like 6.6 tons per person, and Quang Tri Province’s location made it the worst of the worst.

And with all the landmines placed just below the ground, their land, which is mountainous and agriculturally unfriendly in the first place, became useless. The result was a plethora of untilled soil and severe poverty.

Cheney’s reluctance to participate fully in PeaceTrees stemmed from her bitterness and distrust of “my perceived adversary” even though more than a quarter of a century had passed. But Cheney was eventually won over by the need to support her oldest daughter and the principles of Brusseau’s mission.

“When I realized that writing notes of thanks to donors was giving me a purpose, my thoughts traveled across the miles to the Vietnamese mothers,” she wrote in response last month to a Vietnamese journalist’s query. “They too were in the depths of sorrow and pain of loss. At that same time, I was aware I was experiencing feelings of forgiveness and a level of healing was taking place within me. I became strong and confident I could ‘turn sorrow into service.’”

The transformation was gradual, but eventually Cheney became fully involved in supporting humanitarian efforts with the Vietnamese people. She became a Gold Star Mother and often speaks to veteran groups, always sharing her healing journey, “which really began only when, when in my mind, I reached out to the Vietnamese mothers.”

Still, she resisted communicating directly to them and traveling to Vietnam with her daughter, who was careful not to push her mother into doing something that Brusseau felt she would eventually do.

“I never encouraged her,” Brusseau said. “But it was apparent how much she had grown to love the Vietnamese people.”

Cheney’s resistance ended when she learned last January that the organization’s 15th anniversary project – construction of a new school and library in Khe Da village – was being dedicated to the Cheney Family in September. She then knew she would journey to the Lao Bao district in western Vietnam to cut the ceremonial ribbons for the Dan Cheney Kindergarten and the Mothers’ Peace Library, which honors all mothers who lost children in the war.

Her visit was more public and meaningful to the Vietnamese than she expected, including several media events, a brief meeting with the Vietnam’s top leadership, and conversations with ambassadors from both countries.

But nothing topped what happened when she took the stage for the well-attended opening ceremony at the small village of Khe Da, where the new school and library were built near a 20-foot tree that was the first plant by PeaceTrees Vietnam.

First she Cheney received a standing ovation and then a 92-year-old Vietnamese woman, Ho Thi Moan, a soldier in the war whose son also died in it, joined Cheney on the stage.

Without speaking a word, they stretched out their arms and hugged, cried and clung to each other for much of the celebration.

“It was a wonderful reception,” she said. “I felt so much just like one of them.”

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DID YOU KNOW?

Seattle-based PeaceTrees Vietnam (a 501(c)3 ) focuses on removal of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the Quang Tri Province, where over the last 30 years about 11,000 people (mostly children) have been killed or maimed by explosives. The organization also promotes:

• Mine risk education and accident prevent education.

• Environmental and community restoration projects.

• Tree-plant/citizen diplomacy programs for environmental restoration and friendship building.

• Assistance to UXO victims and their families through emergency and long-term medical care, nutritional and economic support, educational scholarships and micro-credit lending.

Its accomplishments (through Aug. 31, 2010) by the numbers:

• 411.38 acres of land cleared

• 55,734-plus ordnance items removed

• 41,387-plus trees planted

• 492 participants on 36 citizen diplomacy trips

• 72,750-plus people received mine risk education

• 100 family homes, 10 libraries and five kindergartens built

• Assistance to 719-plus UXO victims and their families.

Rae Cheney and Ho Thi Moan, both of whom lost sons in the Vietnam War, hug last September after meeting for the first time during the open ceremony of a new kindergarten school named after Dan Cheney.


Courtesy of Rae Cheney

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