Question: What freedoms as well as restrictions do you experience while working in a Communist country as opposed h0seo working in a free country?
Answer: (Bruce) This is addressed in our book. In Vietnam, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are severely curtailed. The government and party seek to control all information available to the general public. Public gatherings ,with more than a certain number of people in attendance, of any kind cannot be held without first obtaining permission from the local People’s Committee or police.
(Elaine) We are very careful when in Vietnam to abide by the rules and regulations. As do all tourists, we register our whereabouts by handing in our passports to the home stay owners or hotel desk. If staying in a private home we must register with the police. All tourists must get permission to visit villages outside of the usual tourist destinations. The different levels of government each have permission procedures for visiting schools or hospitals. Not only are the officials of the institution contacted, but local district and provincial offices are also contacted. All foreigners joining a project must be registered with passport information. Often they are not allowed to wander off from the project or group. None of this would happen in our own country.
Question: I understand Bruce’s connection and motivation. Does Elaine have direct personal experience (a close family member who served, suffered or died) with the Vietnam War other than through Bruce?
Answer: (Elaine) No. My motivation in returning to Vietnam and working is simply that I saw a great need, we were invited to volunteer at Reaching Out and the rest just grew from a desire to serve.
Question: Throughout the book you describe many conversations in which the Vietnamese speak, or try to speak, English. After so many years of travel to Vietnam, why have you not learned Vietnamese?
Answer (Bruce) Vietnamese is extremely difficult for a Westerner to wrap his/her tongue around. The language is based on six tones and any given word in the language can mean any of six things depending on the inflection, sometimes very subtle, that is used. Elaine and I have studied various language aids and used audio video media such as Rosetta Stone. We have slowly developed a vocabulary of perhaps 100 words each and can put a few rudimentary sentences together. We find, however, that if we are anywhere near a city of sizeable town, the Vietnamese people under age 40 or so usually speak some English.
Question: Why do you choose to focus the majority of your charitable work with the people of Vietnam rather than with the people of American who were directly involved in the Vietnam war?
Answer: (Elaine) Bruce does work with American veterans through Tours of Peace. He guides groups of American veterans and their families in Vietnam and through his research and map reading skills is often able to find, and lead them to, sites that are significant to them. Vietnam found us rather than the other way around. During our first couple of visits we had not yet decided our retirement path. Our decision to help the Vietnamese evolved slowly as we saw the suffering that the war has left behind. We work with victims of Agent Orange, who are not compensated in any way by the Vietnamese government, the American government or the chemical companies responsible for this horrible legacy. We are also involved in helping disabled persons become productive citizens integrated into society and working with an foundation that seeks to prevent girls from becoming victims of trafficking.
Question: Do you think that the average lower ranking Vietnam veteran who served in combat will be able to relate to the sentiments in the book?
Answer (Bruce) Perhaps not, although it is very difficult to generalize. Anecdotally, I can say that some Vietnam veterans, including a number of those with whom I served, are deeply bitter about the whole Vietnam War experience and harbour feelings about the Vietnamese that range somewhere between complete indifference and hatred. They have no interest whatsoever in returning to Vietnam and do not care to hear about social problems in that country. On the other hand there is an emerging body of literature by lower ranking Vietnam veterans who eloquently express sentiments similar to ours.
Question: Do you think the average Vietnamese person who experienced combat or lived with the experience and aftermath of war first-hand are able to relate to the sentiments?
Answer (Elaine) In our travels and work we meet “average” Vietnamese people regularly. It is our experience that they have moved beyond the war more rapidly than Americans have. Persons old enough to remember the war do not dwell on its memories or the aftermath. The younger generation would just as soon forget about the war and seem pretty indifferent to it.
Question: What similarities do combat veterans on both sides share. What is different about them?
Answer: (Elaine) It is impossible to generalize. There are those who still think in terms of winners and losers on both sides, who harbour bitter resentments. Interestingly, there are within the Vietnamese community in the USA, particularly in Southern California former South Vietnamese who still agitate for the overthrow of the Communist regime. There are some on both sides who simply want to forget.
Question: What similarities do family members of American veterans and Vietnamese veterans share?
Answer: (Bruce) This would be a good research question for a graduate student to pursue. I’m afraid we haven’t the data to answer this one authoritatively.
Question: Where do you think the common ground lies?
Answer: (Elaine) We have met family members/ survivors of the conflict from both sides through our travels and Bruce’s work with Tours of Peace. It seems that the American family members are seeking answers to their painful experience of loss, or living with PTSD. The Vietnamese do not linger or wallow in the past, although grief may still be present. They seldom analyze. Their first words to us usually reflect gratitude that we have survived and that we are now friends.
Question: What do you think is the next step in healing and progress for people from both Vietnam and America?
Answer: (Bruce) I think the US must step up to the plate and own its culpability in the lives, both Vietnamese and American, devastated by the effects of Agent Orange and its legacy of poison.
Question: What is the next step for the two of you personally?
Answer: (Bruce) We will continue to work in, and write about, Vietnam for as long as our health permits us to travel there. I have started work on a novel addressing child trafficking in Southeast Asia. It is set partly in Vietnam and partly in Cambodia. We have been influenced and changed through our encounters with the courageous people live with differences and the bitter cycle of lives lived in poverty. We hope, by using our voices, we can make a small difference.