Category Archives: U.S. Committee

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The Original Intent of Veteran’s Day

I’m squished in a taxi rushing through the tight streets of Hanoi’s western neighborhood.  I’m riding with 6 of our Vietnamese partners, as we make our way to drop everyone off after a long day of Friendship Village budget meetings, agreement setting, and celebrations.  I am an American, son of an American who fought in Vietnam.  The oldest passengers in the taxi fought with the North Vietnamese Army.  Mr. Nguyen Cao Cu, the director of education and vocational training at Vietnam Friendship Village, asks me something over the tired and joyful chatter.  He wants to know where my father fought and when, and I tell him, Bien Hoa and the nearby firebases, ‘70-’72.  Suddenly Mr. Cao Cu is laughing, and it’s not just vapors of the Russian vodka we toasted before our taxi ride home, he says, “I fought your father!”

I am filled with anxiety for what this election cycle means for the United States and the world.  I am concerned about our national divide and fallout that may result from these divisions.  I am concerned about the solutions to pertinent problems that will be lost in the chasm of these divisions.  If anything this year has been illuminating.

I have broken bread and toasted with a man that fought my father on the field of battle.  Today we work together to support the special education needs of innocent youth whose health problems stem from that conflict.  Vice Director Nguyen and I could be deeply divided, enemies even, if not for the spirit of reconciliation and dedication to the hard, slow work of peace.

Dedication to peace work is the original intent of Veteran’s Day.  In 1926 congress passed the resolution to set aside the 11th of November honoring the Armistice of World War I with these words…

“Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations…”

I have found great peace and personal growth from the work of goodwill and mutual understanding.  There is immense power in working across divisions.

What will you do this week to perpetuate peace and mutual understanding?

Send your ideas to vfvpusa@vietnamfriendship.org and we’ll share them on our social media feeds!

Director Tuyen receives cast grizzly claw from Stephen Abatiell, as a gift from the US committee.

Big Medicine in Viet Nam

During the US war in Vietnam there were many things carried over hilltops and through jungles by young American men.  These things brought the soldiers luck, memories of home, escape from the reality of war, or protection from it.  Among these special items and as out of place as the young man who’s neck it adorned, a claw of a great grizzly bear made its way through the humid forests of Vietnam.  The man who carried this claw was a Montanan of European decent, the claw a gift from a Native Blackfoot friend, who when unable to dissuade his friend from avoiding the draft, gave his powerful family heirloom as protection…

“When he saw I was going to leave, he loaned me his great, great, great, grandfather’s grizzly claw and told me to wear it all the time and it would bring me what I needed to get back. I believe it did. I held onto it around my neck and it held onto me. When I returned I gave it back to him in worse shape. He said the battering it took was taken away from me.”

Forty-five years later this symbol of strength, protection, and friendship between cultures has been cast and reforged in bronze by the Yellowstone area artist George Bumann.

Last month Becky Leuning, Don Blackburn, and I represented the US committee at the 16th Vietnam Friendship Village International Committee Meeting.  I carried a bronze casting of that original grizzly claw and was proud to present it on behalf of the US committee and all of our supporters, to Dinh Van Tuyen, Director of the Friendship Village.

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The beautiful bronze casting has a heft to it, you can feel the power and weight of the stories it carries.  Blackfoot, American, Vietnamese. This symbol was brought to life by one of our Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA supporters, George Bumann, and he is graciously sharing the proceeds from this artwork with the Friendship Village.

“To share the good fortune that has come our way in life just seems like the right thing to do. We have seen enough to realize how truly fortunate we are and though we are by no means ‘well off’ by American standards, we have been the benefactors of a great number of special opportunities and good luck-opportunities that others have not, or may never have. Caring for our fellow man seems like one of the greatest monuments that we can leave to future generations.”

George is one of many Friendship Village supporters giving their talents and inspiration to honor the lives and stories of our friends in Vietnam.  While you are giving remembrance to the past this Memorial Day, please consider what you might be able to create to honor our future.

If you would like to support the Friendship Village by purchasing one of these limited bronze castings, please contact George Bumann directly.  The price is $105 plus $10 shipping (in the US).  Each claw comes with the story of the original that traveled to Vietnam, a story of strength, protection, and unity.

George Bumann    gb@GeorgeBumann.com    406.223.6859

www.GeorgeBumann.com

 

Peter Abatiell,  Specialist 4 with the 1st Calvary Division.

Veterans Day Donation

On this Veterans Day I would like to thank all Veterans for their service, and especially my father Peter Abatiell, Specialist 4 with the US Army’s 1st Calvary Division, 1970-1972.

In June of 1969 President Richard Nixon, as part of his “Vietnamization” policy, ordered a stand-down of troops in Vietnam for withdrawal.  The reduction of American troop strength in Vietnam began the following fall.

Troops began leaving the 1st Calvary Division’s Bien Hoa Army base, and with them, the state of the art punch card computers used to track the division’s personnel logistics.  This draw down of men and machinery led to my father’s military occupational specialty change from infantry to clerk typist, where he spent the remainder of his time in Vietnam manually keeping logistics by hand.

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In 1971 the move to take computers out of the office of military personnel management in Bien Hoa created an opportunity for my father to work in the rear offices, away from the front lines.  Today, In our hyper connected, technological work spaces the computer is a necessary tool for creating opportunity.

On this Veterans Day, we at Vietnam Friendship Village Project-USA would like to express our gratitude and thanks to our friends at NatureBridge for the donation of laptop computers to support our mission at VFVP-USA.  This donation will help VFVP-USA support our friends in Vietnam, while helping them create their own opportunities.

NatureBridge Yosemite Director, Kristina Rylands, presents VFVP-USA board member Stephen Abatiell with a generous donation.

About NatureBridge:

NatureBridge provides hands-on environmental science programs for children and teens.  Our multi-day programs take place outdoors in the magnificence of nature’s classroom, where students are immersed in the wonder and science of our national parks in Yosemite, Golden Gate, Olympic, Santa Monica Mountains, Channel Islands, and Prince William Forest.

Founded as Yosemite Institute in 1971, today NatureBridge welcomes more than 700 schools and 30,000 students and teachers each year to our six campuses.  After more than 40 years of teaching and inspiring students, NatureBridge has provided life-changing experiences for more than 1 million participants and is a national leader in the field of environmental education. 

 

The Owl Famliy Band gets everyone hootin' an' hollerin'

Vietnam Friendship Village benefit concert in Yosemite!

One of the things that struck me about life in the Friendship Village, was the abundance of music and dance on a regular basis. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that a place aptly named “Friendship Village” would be a place of celebration and gathering…

On May 29h and 30st atop a hillside in Yosemite National Park, a group of musicians, DJ’s, rock climbers, National Park scientists, and yes, even fire dancers paid tribute to the celebratory spirit of the Friendship Village. In some cases the musicians were scientists, as was the case with Greg Stock, Yosemite National Park geologist, and with the ornithological crew comprising the Owl Family Band.

This community of Sierra mountain people converged on the Flying Spur to celebrate my friend Kylie Chapell’s 29th birthday, and to benefit The Vietnam Friendship Village. Kylie, Outdoor Programs Manager for the Yosemite Conservancy, was generous enough to share her birthday with the Friendship Village, and her home with about 200 Spur Fest revelers. Lagunitas Brewery was generous enough to donate the kegs and raffle items!

A fired up Party go-er.

A fired up Party go-er.

Lagunitas t-shirt raffle winner!

Lagunitas t-shirt raffle winner!

Most of the folks that came up to the event had never heard of the Vietnam Friendship Village, but as I worked my way through the crowd selling raffle tickets on Friday and gave a presentation to kick off the festivities on Saturday night, I was able to share the story of my friends in Vietnam and how their story of chemical legacy connects to us today in 2015.  The ignorance turned to interest, and then to full on rejoicing that we were able to have such fun event FOR a good cause.  People gladly purchased raffle tickets, beers, pizza, and by the end just shoved 10’s and 20’s in my hands like we were at an Italian wedding- all to support the Friendship Village and the George Mizo Scholarship Fund!

By the time DJ PT had dropped his last beat on Saturday night, and the sun rose over El Capitan, (No, really I’m not making this up) The Spur Fest family had had one heck of a time and managed to pool together $800 of their pocket change for the Village!

If you missed out on the music and dancing in Yosemite, there are a few things you can still do to share in the experience!

  1. Put up a picture of Half Dome and dance!
  2. Have a delicious pint of Lagunitas and eat wood fired pizza.
  3. Donate to our Spur Fest Yosemite! fund drive and help us reach our goal of $5,000 for the Vietnam Friendship Village and the George Mizo Fund! (Even small donations can make a BIG difference!)

Here’s how: www.crowdrise.com/vietnamfriendshipfund

The Clangers pulling at the crowds heartstrings...

The Clangers pulling at the crowds heartstrings…

Wood Fired Pizza.

Wood Fired Pizza.

DJ PT's late night closing set.

DJ PT’s late night closing set.

Lighting up the night!

Lighting up the night!

 

Sharing the Peace of Christmas

by Becky Luening

One hundred years ago today, a spontaneous ceasefire took place along a large swath of the western front—the line where troops from opposing armies were dug into muddy trenches separated in some places by mere yards, engaged in one of the bloodiest wars in history, World War I. This temporary pause in fighting was borne of a cultural tradition shared by a majority of the  soldiers on all sides, the celebration of Christmas. Troops not only stopped shooting at each other, but actually came out of the trenches to fraternize in no man’s land. They sang together, shared food and drink, and swapped gifts and stories. This very un-warlike event, which came to be known as the Christmas Truce, threatened to weaken men’s resolve to fight. In essence, enemy soldiers, given the chance to meet face to face without threat of violence, could not help but recognize the common humanity of “the other.” For some, taking up arms again when fighting resumed was quite difficult if not impossible.

George MizoAs the celebration of peace in our culture is dwarfed by the celebration of war, I believe that the 1914 Christmas Truce centenary is well worth celebrating, and I hope the story was shared around many a family table today. But in reflecting on this one popular example of peace breaking out during wartime, I also hope that people will remember and celebrate other moments and examples of peace-making between enemies, perhaps less known but no less powerful. One such example is the story of George Mizo’s return to Vietnam in 1988 in search of reconciliation with his former enemy. Mizo’s passion for peace not only led to the founding of the Vietnam Friendship Village that our Committee exists to support, but also paved the way for many different people to establish a relationship with Vietnam based on peace and friendship and healing of the wounds of war.

My wish this Christmas Day is that people all around the world come to recognize our collective capacity for laying down arms (ceasing violence) and recognizing the humanity of “the other,” and begin working together to heal and feed our war-weary, peace-hungry world. Near the end of The Friendship Village [the 2003 film by Michelle Mason], George Mizo says:

“Hope is an illusion. If you want to create something, you have to actively work at it, and not hope that somebody else, somehow, some miracle is gonna happen. . . . We either will create a world of peace, or we won’t. But it’s our choice.”

If you are inspired by the story of George Mizo and the Vietnam Friendship Village, please consider making a charitable donation to Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA today, and when you send us your check or fill out the online donation form, please include a personal dedication to help inform and inspire others in turn. [See examples of dedications in our past newsletters. Please sign up for our snail mail list if you wish to receive our next print newsletter, due out in early 2015.]

 

Supporter Spotlight: Carol Konyha

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Sgt. Tony Konyha in Vietnam—in uniform on one of the bases he served at (left), and during a moment of relaxation (right).

Carol Konyha’s father, Toby Konyha, was stationed in Vietnam for a year between August 1967 and August 1968, serving as a mess sergeant at both An Khe and Pleiku military bases east of the Cambodian-Vietnam highlands. This was a heavily forested region. Even in the lower coastal areas, in the tropical climate, dense vegetation provided ample cover for the North Vietnamese Army, who were staging attacks from neighboring Cambodia at the time. US military commanders’ institution of “Operation Ranch Hand,” the infamous aerial spraying of Agent Orange and other defoliants in Vietnam, helped eliminate enemy cover and thereby reduce the threat to its combatant forces. [To see an interactive map of spraying missions, visit: Chicago Tribune Watchdog.]

The widespread chemical warfare had devastating side effects, not only for Vietnam’s environment, but for many of the humans caught in the drift. Dioxin, a highly toxic byproduct of the Agent Orange formula, caused permanent health problems, even death, to both military and civilian personnel on both sides of the conflict, including genetic mutations that resulted in children being born with severe birth defects such as spinal bifida and other neurological disorders. Sgt. Toby Konyha was one of those whose exposure to the herbicidal “agent” eventually took a heavy toll on his health and on his family.

In 1973, just five years after his stint in Vietnam, and the same year American troops pulled out of the country, Sgt. Toby Konyha died after being diagnosed with leukemia. At the time of his death, he and his wife Mary had seven children: Dorothy, age 22; Jim, 20; Suzanne, 17; Carol, 8; Ed, 6, Christine, 4; and Dan, 2. In addition to his own illness, Toby’s exposure to Agent Orange led to his youngest daughter Christine being born with a malformed spine and water on the brain, as well as an abnormality that required her to undergo open-heart surgery when she was only 2 years old. The first child to be born after he returned from Vietnam, Christine was conceived in Hawaii, when Mary joined him there for a mid-tour R&R break (rest and relaxation).

Despite her physical difficulties, Christine, nicknamed “Ina,” matured into adulthood and managed to live a relatively full life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Windsor and had a dream of helping children with disabilities and their parents. She suffered a setback, though, in 1997, when she lost her eyesight, a loss directly caused by her birth defects. A shunt implanted as a baby to drain fluid from her brain had deteriorated over time, causing permanent damage to her optic nerves and ultimately, blindness. Ina was just getting her life back on track when she suffered a serious fall, a tragic accident from which she never recovered; she was on life support for nine months before dying at the age of 34.

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Left: Christine “Ina” Konyha in her first communion dress, with her grandmother, Ida. Right: Ina as an adult.

Brother Ed Konyha describes the ripple effect on their family. “The Agent Orange not only killed Dad, it killed Ina too. Mom was devastated after Dad died and she was never the same again. She suffered terrible and persistent depression after being left a widow and having to raise four young children as a single mother in her forties and fifties…it aged her prematurely.”

Toby and Mary’s middle child, Carol Konyha, lived near her younger brothers in Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990s, but during the final months of Ina’s life, she relocated to Phoenix, Arizona to help care for her sister. In 2003, Ed called to tell her about a documentary titled The Friendship Village he’d happened to see on Canadian television. Produced by Canadian filmmaker Michelle Mason, it tells the story of George Mizo, the American veteran who played a major role in the founding of the Vietnam Friendship Village, and documents the ongoing tragic legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Mizo himself had suffered serious health consequences from his wartime exposure to dioxin, and passed away in 2002. When she watched The Friendship Village, Carol felt an immediate connection with the Vietnamese families interviewed in the film. The health issues they described were much the same as her own family’s experiences. She subsequently became a regular supporter of the Friendship Village, through VFVP-USA, always dedicating her donations “In memory of Sgt. Toby Konyha and Christine Konyha.”

Three years ago, Carol decided to step up her support for the Friendship Village. She asked herself, “What can someone like me do that would be even halfway meaningful?” She figured she could raise some money within her own circle of friends and family, but felt that everyone was probably already inundated by donation requests. She wanted to do the fundraising in a way that would be fun and appealing. A freelance baker known for her chocolate cake and cupcakes, she finally hit upon the idea of holding a month-long bake sale.

Carol’s first bake sale, held in 2012, brought in close to $400. The next year, she raised $578. In 2014, in addition to a bake sale, she decided to throw a “Christmas in February” party—a celebration she had hosted when she lived in Vancouver, just for fun. Carol said party guests were happy to contribute to “her charity”—Vietnam Friendship Village—and most generously gave more than the $10 suggested. On her invitation, she also provided the option to donate online, and some friends did so. By combining a fun social event with her bake sale, Carol tripled her return, raising $1,487 this year!

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Left: Carol’s chocolate cupcakes are always a big hit. Right: Carol offers up a tray of Danish sandwiches at her 2014 “Christmas in February” party. From left: David Smith, Carol Konyha, Carolyn Christy, Patrick Murphy and Joseph Ho.

VFVP-USA depends on volunteers to help with our fundraising efforts, and to have someone like Carol, who knows firsthand what it means to be a “victim of Agent Orange” is all the more meaningful. We hope her family’s story, and her “fun and appealing” fundraising model will inspire other Friendship Village supporters to consider what they can do.

“The devastation caused by Agent Orange on our family is massive. It goes beyond Dad’s death. It left young children without a father, killed our sister and caused her extreme physical and psychological pain throughout her life, prematurely aged and devastated our mother, and left grandchildren without grandparents. The horror of war and chemical warfare came home with Dad. This is why we relate to those children in Vietnam so well—they are Ina’s mirror image. Their families are our mirror image. We are them and they are us… That recognition is the one silver lining that can be salvaged from all of this: By supporting them, however we can, we heal our own wounds.”

—Ed Konyha

Welcome Springtime!

blossomThe Vietnam Friendship Village Project’s U.S. Committee — that’s us! — is a very small group of people, currently made up of eight core members (our board of directors), plus a few stalwart supporters and volunteers. Although we consider our group to be national, that is, we wish to be raising funds throughout the USA, most of us core members are grounded in the West: Judy resides in Alaska; Becky, Don, Dan and Bill in Oregon; Carl and Paul in Northern and Southern California respectively. Then there is Liliane, who sometimes feels kind of lonesome way over there in Maryland…

Our little nonprofit is also unique in that we have no office, no paid staff, and no physical assets to speak of. We meet monthly via conference call; once in a blue moon we try for an in-person meeting. We all do what we can to share tasks, and although some of us may feel spread thin at times, we are proud to be able to say our efforts on behalf of the Van Canh Friendship Village are 100% volunteer. The same thing can be said for our counterparts, the Friendship Village’s German, French, Japanese and Canadian Committees.

In order to boost our fundraising capacity, we have set a high — yet do-able — goal to raise $50,000 during the current fiscal year (Our year starts on October 1st.) At the time we set this goal, each of us board members committed to personally bringing in at least $1,000. My favorite way to do fundraising is by organizing public events, and I’m happy to report that on March 10, my friends and I managed to raise a total of $720 in Santa Cruz, California. (Details to be blogged sometime soon…) I am now looking forward to a second event in Portland, Oregon: a Springtime dinner benefit slated for the evening of March 21, the first day of Spring! Through good food, music, poetry and story-telling, we will celebrate the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Van Canh Friendship Village and the (approximate) Twentieth Anniversary of our U.S. Committee. All the details can be found on the flier below (click for downloadable half-page version). Please help us spread the word… THANK YOU and Happy Spring!

In Memoriam: David Rocovits

David Rocovits, a long-time board member of VFVP-USA, a.k.a. the U.S. Committee, passed away suddenly on January 5, 2013, of difficulties related to a blood clot. He was a good friend to the Viet Nam Friendship Village—a frequent visitor and one of its most dedicated supporters. He will be greatly missed.

David’s brother Dan has resided in Hanoi for many years, and after being introduced to the VFV on a visit to the city in the early 2000s, David made a point of visiting every time he came to Viet Nam, usually every year or two. He was invited to join VFVP-USA’s Board of Directors in 2007, and in 2010 he attended the biennial international meeting at the Friendship Village as the U.S. Committee’s official representative. Over the years, David documented life at the village with his photographs, many of which have been published in our newsletters and on our website. He was a creative fundraiser and brought in a large share of the contributions raised in the USA. Here is the bio Dave submitted several years ago for our Board of Directors web page:

David Rocovits received a BS in Civil Engineering in 1963 from Case Institute of Technology and has been a practicing engineer in Nevada since 1973. He was drafted into the army and served from 1964 to 1966 as a research engineer in nuclear weapons effects. Between 1968 and 1972 he backpacked throughout much of the remote region of Asia from Turkey to Taiwan, and developed a love and respect for the Asian people and their culture. He worked for the California Division of Highways and several consulting firms before going into business for himself, acquiring and restoring residential buildings and managing them as rental properties. Dave and his wife Amy, a native of Taiwan, have a daughter who is an attorney in Reno and a son who is a college student. Dave’s hobbies include photography, pistol shooting, and restoration of Borgward automobiles. Dave has visited the Friendship Village multiple times and enlisted many of his friends, family members and associates in his efforts to raise financial support for the project.

The Rocovits family asks that memorial donations be made to the Viet Nam Friendship Village. Checks should be made to “Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA” and mailed to P.O. Box 599, Arcata, CA 95518-0599.

NOTE: Below is a small gallery of photographs of David Rocovits, taken (with his camera) at the Friendship Village in 2008, 2010, and 2011. The solo pic is from 2010 when he represented our committee at the international meeting, as is the photo of him and Paul Wicker sitting on the bench that was arranged by Dave to memorialize Don Flaxman, a VFVP-USA board member who passed away earlier that year. Dave preferred eating alongside the children in their dining hall rather than in the guesthouse dining room. Of all our board members, Dave was the least “political” in terms of identifying as a “peace activist” or working for peace or against war in any organized way, but he really understood the importance of reconciliation. He always made a point of visiting with groups of veterans who happened to be at the village during the times he was there (with the help of an interpreter). I think part of his motivation was simply cultural exchange. He probably brought along the small photo album of his travels—the same one he shared with me when we were getting to know each other. But he undoubtedly also meant to create more positive perceptions of Americans in the minds of a number of these Vietnamese veterans, and in that I have no doubt he succeeded.

Come Sit at Our Table

US Committee table at Friendship Village

VFVP-USA members Paul Wicker, Becky Luening and Don Blackburn enjoy a meal at the Friendship Village.

As we get ready to turn the calendar page from 2012 to 2013, I want to thank all of our friends in the USA and elsewhere who have helped support the Viet Nam Friendship Village with a donation this year—whether $10 or $1,000 or more. Inflation continues to drive up the cost of food and other basic supplies around the world, including Viet Nam, so every dollar is appreciated.

If you have not yet given, I invite you to do so. Become part of our international community…come sit at our table. Make a donation to the Friendship Village today.

Whether it is time, labor or funds we donate to this project, we are all volunteers, but once in a while our contribution to the Friendship Village is rewarded. I felt like the recipient of a gift when I picked up this email message on Christmas Eve from our friend Long, who works in the computer classroom at VFV [edited slightly for readability]:

Dear Becky,

The kids and I  like to thank the international committee for your assistance and the pleasure you have brought to our lives. For us who were unlucky enough to be born with a disability, it helps to know there are people out there who understand and care about us. The gift you give us is not just a meal, but the great gift of the spirit, of sharing.

You are like the Santa Claus of the Vietnam Friendship Village.

I hope you will convey to your heartfelt charity my cordial words and wishes for good health as you continue your work in the new year.

Happy MerryChristMas from Long in computer classroom at the VietNam Friendship Village

Group photo in computer classroom

Members of the International Committee pose for a picture with computer class instructors and students. (Long is first person on left in front row.)

Flat Stanley Visits the Village

by Paul Wicker

When you see the title of this post, you may ask, who is Flat Stanley and where did he come from?

Well, Stanley was an ordinary student in Mrs. Stunkard’s Fifth Grade class at Paradise Professional Development School in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA until one day, while taking a nap, he was flattened by a falling bulletin board. But that did not stop Stanley. He knew that many children had to overcome physical disabilities to achieve their dreams.

Stanley had always wanted to travel, so his teacher put him in an envelope and asked me to him with me on some of my trips. In 2010 Stanley went with me to El Salvador in Central America. He traveled with other friends to exotic places like Turkey and Lebanon. When he returns to his fifth-grade classroom he always shows his pictures to his classmates and tells them about the wonderful people he has met.

This year when Stan heard I was going to Vietnam Friendship Village he begged me to take him with me so he could visit the residents and have his picture taken with them.

Flat Stanley with a Friendship Village friend

Flat Stanley with Ngo Hai Mai

Click here to see more photos of Flat Stanley at Viet Nam Friendship Village.

Click here to find out how to become a financial supporter of the Viet Nam Friendship Village.