Lao Vice President Bounnhang Volachith hosted a reception in Vientiane on May 23 for Nong Quoc Tuan, deputy head of the Vietnamese Government’s Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs (CEMA), who is on a working visit to Laos from May 21-29.
by Minh Thu
Rae Cheney and Ho Thi Moan, mothers who lost children in the Amercian War, embrace one another in shared grief. — VNS Photo Minh Thu
Rae Cheney, who is now 90 years old, travelled halfway around the world from the United States to Viet Nam to visit the country where her son Daniel Cheney came to fight but never returned from.
When the doors to Viet Nam reopened, Rae and her daughter Jerilyn Brusseau created Peace Trees Viet Nam, a non-profit pro-gramme that removes landmines and other unexploded devices in the central province of Quang Tri and then replants the cleared land with trees.
This year, on the 15th anniversary, Rae returned to Viet Nam to join Jerilyn and meet a Vietnamese mother who had also lost her son in the war.
The power of healing
Daniel and his co-pilot died in Viet Nam when their helicopter, providing cover fire for a downed pilot, was shot down.
He graduated from high school in Vancouver and attended the community college before enlisting at the age of 19. "Daniel was an ambitious young man," Rae said. "He was truthful and honest, he was a good friend to many people and he excelled in multiple fields. Daniel loved children and had a warm sense of humour. He would have been a wonderful man."
Daniel was 21 years old when he died and Rae ultimately blamed the Vietnamese people for his death.
"Losing a child is the most tragic experience a mother can go through," said Rae. "No words can describe it. A mother will never get over the death of her child."
Daniel and Jerilyn, though four years apart, were very close to one another and Jerilyn was stunned when she heard news of her brother's death. "It was the most bitter moment of my life," she said. "My life came to a screeching halt."
Jerilyn understood that just as she and Rae blamed the Vietnamese for Daniel's death, they too blamed Americans for the deaths of their loved ones.
In 1995, the year the US and Viet Nam finally normalised in diplomatic relation, Jerilyn offered her mother a chance to heal. Since the death of her brother, Jerilyn knew that she wanted to help the people of Viet Nam in some way and was active in raising funds for Vietnamese war veterans. Rae, heartbroken over Daniel's death, also searched for a way to contribute.
Eventually, Rae joined her daughter on the programme's board of directors.
Rae wasn't sure she was ready to go to Viet Nam and fully engage in her daughter's programme but she began her road to forgiveness with simple gestures of support for Peace Trees Viet Nam, namely by writing personal thank-you letters to all of the donors.
"It did not heal my broken heart," she said. "But it did give me purpose."
Peace Trees Viet Nam was the first non-governmental US-approved organisation to operate in Viet Nam. Since then it has helped clear landmines on 137ha in Quang Tri Province. On the newly safe land, the organisation built 10 libraries and kindergartens.
Eventually Rae travelled to Viet Nam. "I felt anxious before the trip, I had so many questions about the Vietnamese people, but when I knew I was to meet a mother who shared my experience, I felt ready."
Ho Thi Moan, a Van Kieu ethnic woman from Khe Da Village, Huong Hoa District, lost her son when US troops attacked the province. Her son joined the army to protect his country but was tragically killed in the process. Moan has never forgotten the moment that she learned of her son's death and will forever hate the war that took so many young lives.
The 92-year-old woman works everyday on the field with her two other sons. Despite her age, she still walks and climbs the mountains to grow maize.
Moan was told that Rae would visit her village along with many others who were generously building libraries and kindergartens for the Vietnamese people.
She considered these foreigners her guests and bought beautiful new clothes from the Van Kieu's festival to welcome them.
Seeing Rae, an American woman of the same age, who had endured the same tragedy, sparked immediate empathy between the two women. Despite the language barrier, the women were able to understand each other without words.
The two mothers cried and embraced one another and their meeting touched the hearts of all who witnessed it. The two women went on with their day, together planting trees at Khe Da Village Kindergarten and sharing a newfound sense of peace and a shared dream for the future. — VNS