Volume 11 Number 2
When Veterans and Draft-Dodgers Meet

01 April 1998

Healing is a community effort
A Vietnam War veteran describes how he held in his hands the heart of a buddy which had just been blown through his back. Another American of the same age tells of blowing off his toes to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. Both for the first time begin to understand the pain of the other. They are two sides of a searing experience which still divides Americans and which few are ready to talk about, at least together.

'You have to go into these painful experiences before you can come out of them,' says Jack Estes. He and his wife, Colleen O'Callaghan, organized the event at Portland State University at which this frank exchange took place. Their aim was to help heal the trauma of a war that is measured in the US alone by 58,000 killed, 300,000 wounded and more than 100,000 veterans who have since killed themselves. Portland State was the scene of some of the most virulent anti-war demonstrations in 1970.

'My family knows about pain,' says Estes, who was a marine in Vietnam and wrote a memoir of the war, A Field of Innocence. 'They have seen it in my face and heard it in my voice and lived it in a dozen different ways.' While he was fighting in Vietnam, Colleen, not then his wife, was participating in anti-war rallies in Oregon. She disagrees with his belief that it was a legitimate war and that anti-war demonstrations prolonged the fighting. It is perhaps their willingness to work through their differences that enables them to win the trust of those on both sides.

'War is a community effort,' says Colleen, 'and healing from war is a community effort. We see a need for communications between veterans, draft-dodgers, anti-war demonstrators and those oblivious.'

After returning from his service in Vietnam Jack Estes was consumed by nightmares. 'The war was with me, seared in my memory and pounding at my sensibility,' he says. Finally at Colleen's urging he went back to Vietnam in 1993, with their family. They brought along medical supplies, books and toys and wandered around giving them away.

In March 1969 he had been with a platoon which was overrun by the Viet Cong. Most were killed or wounded. His life was saved by Hien, a villager. For 25 years Jack had thought about Hien. On that first trip back he met him. They went to where they had been; the passing of years and the encroaching jungle had obliterated the scars of B-52 strikes and greened over the napalm memories.

He also met a young man named Quy who had one leg, no arms and was blinded in one eye. He had triggered a landmine when he was 10. They became friends but Jack felt he could do little to help.

Such encounters led Jack and Colleen to set up a humanitarian organization, the Fallen Warriors Foundation, which they run out of their basement.

He has recently returned from his fifth visit to Vietnam. This time, he went with doctors and nurses from Northwest Medical Teams to distribute health supplies, treating 150 patients a day and assessing further needs.

The Foundation has plans to build clinics, a well and toilet facilities for a school, and to provide arms and a leg for Quy. They have been asked to co-venture a landmine removal programme and have brought what they hope will be the first of several Vietnamese students to study in Oregon. Back in the US, they also help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and hope to establish a video archive of veterans telling their stories of Vietnam. 'We're not doctors or counsellors,' Jack says, 'but people are constantly looking to us for help.'

They believe a byproduct of helping to heal the scars in Vietnam will be the healing of some of the scars in the US. 'Forgiving our enemies is a step toward healing,' says Jack.

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