Category Archives: Veterans

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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!

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. 

 

VFP Hòa Bình Chapter 160: We appreciate you!

Vietnam Friendship Village has always found strong support within the ranks of Veterans For Peace, a global organization of military veterans and allies working to build a culture of peace, expose the true causes and enormous costs of wars, and heal the wounds of war while working to end all wars.

Several years ago, a number of US veteran ex-pats living and working in Viet Nam got together and formed a Veterans For Peace chapter in Viet Nam. It’s known as Chapter 160, the Hòa Bình Chapter (Hòa Bình means peace in Vietnamese). VFVP-USA Board Member Don Blackburn was one of the founding members, along with Suel Jones and Michael Cull, who were both involved with the Friendship Village early on. (Suel now splits his time between Danang and Albuquerque, New Mexico, while Michael and Don both live in Nha Trang.) Other recognized leaders within the chapter are “the two Chucks”—Chuck Palazzo and Chuck Searcy. Palazzo’s home base is Danang, and Searcy’s is Hanoi, although Searcy also spends a lot of time in Quang Tri Province supporting the work of Project RENEW.

Among other things, VFP Chapter 160 members provide assistance to Vietnamese people still affected by remnants of the American War in Viet Nam, such as the landmines and unexploded ordnance that continue to cause injury and death, and the dioxin that remains in certain “hot spots” in the environment as well as in the gene pool of those originally exposed.

To raise awareness about these issues as well as some money to help victims and their families (funds are often distributed through VAVA, Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin), VFP Chapter 160 began conducting an annual springtime tour of Viet Nam, geared toward peace-oriented veterans and associates. Now in its third year, their tour has been a big success. A stop at the Vietnam Friendship Village is on the Hanoi itinerary, and it is one of the projects benefiting from the tour, as participants help decide how to direct tour monies among many deserving charities at the end of their trip.

One of this year’s tour participants happened to mention the Hòa Bình Chapter’s good work to filmmaker Michael Moore, and Moore subsequently named Chapter 160 as one of two recipients of memorial donations for his father, specifically to help victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam. This news—not of Mr. Moore’s passing (may he rest in peace), but that both the issue Agent Orange and VFP Chapter 160 had been highlighted in this simple way—caused a ripple of gratitude among those of us in the peace community who have been working on this issue for a long time. Hopefully, as a result, our circle will grow just a little bit wider.

2014 Viet Nam Tour group members led by VFP Chapter 160 poses in front of Ushi's, a world famous restaurant (and personality) located in Hue, Viet Nam.

Members of VFP Chapter 160 pose with 2014 tour group members and friends in front of Ushi’s, a world famous restaurant (and personality) located in Hue, Viet Nam.

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

Looking Forward to 2014

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As we turn the calendar to another year, we find ourselves a little bit behind… Our Fall 2013 print newsletter is just now being prepared to be mailed, and our New Year email has just now been sent—one sole message riding on the tail end of a great flurry of solicitations mailed in the past month by too many organizations.

Our message is simple. The Friendship Village is a one-of-a-kind facility that provides nourishment, medical care, physical therapy, and special educational opportunities to about 120 children of varying ages (as well as rotating groups of aging Vietnamese veterans whose care is funded by the Veterans Association of Vietnam). Many of the medical conditions or physical disabilities treated there are presumed caused by Agent Orange, lingering effects of the American war in Vietnam.

Now in its sixteenth year of operations, the Vietnam Friendship Village has an inspirational founding story, having grown from one American veteran’s gesture of peace and reconciliation toward his former “enemies.” George Mizo’s dream lives on and continues to inspire people from all over the world who find the Friendship Village and are moved to become part of our extended community of volunteers and donors.

In 2014, our U.S. Committee will continue our efforts to double our fundraising capacity. Your help is needed and there are many ways to contribute. Whether making a personal financial donation, serving on our board, or helping introduce Friendship Village to new supporters via word of mouth, social networking, or a special event (film, slide show, or fundraising party), we welcome your involvement!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Veteran’s Day

Vietnamese Military Cemetary

Last December my father and I traveled around the demilitarized zone in Vietnam with the son of a Vietnamese veteran.  We visited the cemetery pictured above.  All of these stones are for unknown soldiers.  All of them Northern Vietnamese.  As far as I could tell, there didn’t seem to be any national memorials honoring the memory or spirit of the Southern Vietnamese soldiers.  Our guide Quang’s father fell during the early part of the war so his family was lucky enough to have had a military burial.

On this Veteran’s Day I would like to honor all veteran’s and acknowledge the possibility of peace between friends and former enemies.

I called my father to wish him a happy veteran’s day, and to thank him.  He told me a funny little story that I think shows how much has changed in the past 40 years.

This morning he was chatting with our friend Mr. Po, a resident of the Vietnam Friendship Village.  My father told Mr. Po that today is a holiday in the United States, “Veteran’s Day.”  Mr. Po thought this was interesting and asked my father why there would be a holiday that was celebrated by refraining from eating meat…  My father’s confusion broke when he realized Mr. Po was asking about “Vegetarian’s Day.”  After many laughs, they were able to understand one another, and give thanks for what they have, each honoring veterans in their own way.  I will always be amazed that a Vietnam veteran can have these simple happy interactions with a young Vietnamese man forty years after conflict…

Peter Abatiell with Vietnamese veteran at the Friendship Village

Peter Abatiell with Vietnamese veteran at the Friendship Village