Project RENEW team members unload a shell that was found in the Ben Hai River and then transported to a demolition site for destruction. Credit:

The Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to end the Vietnam War, were signed Jan. 27, 1973. The United States pulled what American troops remained out of that country.

Congress then passed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 cutting off all military aid to South Vietnam’s government in Saigon. As the North subsequently advanced effortlessly toward Saigon, President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of all American personnel, including the removal of as many refugees as possible who had been friendly toward America. The U.S. Embassy was not intended to be a major departure point, but many became stranded there, including thousands of South Vietnamese hoping to claim refugee status.

I still remember the iconic pictures of those evacuation efforts through the night of April 29, 1975, and that last American helicopter taking off from the roof with people hanging off the sides—and many still lined up, unable to get out. At 3:45 a.m. on April 30, President Ford issued direct orders for the evacuation efforts to stop.

When North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon later that day, 30 years of war in Vietnam finally came to an end. More than 58,000 Americans were killed in the war, with more than 300,000 wounded and more than 2,000 missing in action. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of casualties in the South’s armed forces, it is estimated that more than 1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong died in action, with millions more wounded. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese civilians killed range into the millions.

Vietnam has come a long way in the 40 years since then. It has transformed from a rice-producing farming economy into a service economy, dominated by the tourism industry with manufacturing, construction, mining and transportation.

However, in the area of Quang Tri Province and what was known as the DMZ (demilitarized zone), remnants of the war are still blocking full-scale development and threatening people’s health and safety. The area was the focus of what has been described as the heaviest bombing campaign in the history of the world. Weapons that failed to detonate were left behind and pose dangers similar to landmines.

These dangers led to the formation in 2001 of an effort in Quang Tri Province called Project RENEW. Palm Springs resident Sally Benson; her husband, attorney Steve Nichols; Palm Springs philanthropist Gayle Hodges; and part-time resident and author Myra MacPherson have all worked through the Chino Cienega Foundation, started locally by Nichols, to help support the work of Project RENEW and other worthy non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Part of Project RENEW’s mission is to locate and reduce explosive remnants of war (ERW) to a level where local people can live without fear, and development is not impeded.

Benson, originally from Massachusetts, was an elementary teacher when she volunteered to teach English at the National Institute of Administration in Saigon in 1967. She met Nichols, a third-generation descendant of two prominent Palm Springs founding families (the Stevens and the Nichols), while he was also a volunteer, teaching with International Voluntary Services.

“Like a number of others, including many veterans, we have stayed engaged with the problems and people the war left behind,” says Benson. “Through the family legacy foundation Steve started here in Palm Springs, we were able to financially support projects we knew about, including ProjectRENEW.

“Gayle Hodges’ friend, (Vietnam veteran) Chuck Searcy, had the vision, along with the Vietnamese, to do this work. We helped support the building of their visitors’ center and have supported their Mine Risk Education Center, where Vietnamese children learn, through plays meant to entertain and educate, how to identify ERW and report it to the emergency hotline so teams can immediately respond.”

Project RENEW claims that more than 850,000 square meters of land have been cleaned up and released for safe development, with more than 30,000 cluster bombs, grenades, landmines and other ordnance safely removed and destroyed. However, the group also estimates that in Quang Tri Province alone, 83 percent of the land still has landmines and other unexploded ordnance. Benson says it was originally expected that it would take as long as 100 years to remove and/or disarm all remaining ERW, but through the work of Project RENEW and its 3,000-4,000 demolitions each year, they estimate that within 5-7 years, almost every square meter of Quang Tri Province will be safe.

“Do you know what a cluster bomb is?” asks Benson. “It’s made up of small components, each of which is a separate little ‘bomblet’ designed to disperse and kill. I remember a lovely school with walls covered with bright painted pictures in one village. At the edge of the playground, a couple of the boys pushed through a wooded area and spotted something. One stayed there so no one else could get hurt while the other boy ran back and reported it through the emergency call system. When the call came in, we got to see how they broadcast through the local area to keep people away, and then the Project RENEW team mobilized to retrieve it and explode it harmlessly.

“It’s frightening to think what could have happened to those children, and rewarding to see how the educational outreach program makes a difference.”

Quang Tri alone has had 8,000 casualties from ERW accidents, and 31 percent of the victims are children. They also claim that Quang Tri alone has more than 15,000 victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, including 5,000 children born with birth defects.

Benson has visited Vietnam more than 15 times. “We’re so proud of the work being done to help the people,” she says. “They had been bombed for so many years and left with a shattered economy and a shattered society. We and other volunteers wanted to do what we could. Lots of veterans have also gone back and been inspired to be involved, doing things like planting ‘peace trees’ to reclaim deforested land.”

Project RENEW claims to have provided new, artificial limbs for 1,000 amputees injured by bombs, and to have assisted almost 700 disabled bomb-accident victims to earn income from raising animals and crops and making products.

“We expect Project RENEW to be a model for other provinces,” says Benson. “We can’t forget that there are still bombs throughout the rest of Vietnam as well.”

Perhaps the most compelling part of this story is Benson’s experience of the Vietnamese people.

“Most people are stunned by how open and forgiving the Vietnamese are,” she says. “They say it was our government that caused what happened there, not the American people. And Project RENEW is doing its work with educated and highly committed young Vietnamese whose own families have suffered from the war. I have such a sense of satisfaction at being involved in something like this.”

My mother always used to say: “If you made the mess, you clean it up.” Benson, Nichols, Hodges, MacPherson and so many others are setting an example of the difference accepting that responsibility can make.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Anita Rufus is an award-winning columnist and talk radio host, known as “The Lovable Liberal.” She has a law degree, a master’s in education, and was a business executive before committing herself...