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Vietnam

Vietnam's old soldiers struggle to survive

Church lends a helping hand to veterans who have fallen on hard times, worsened by a nationwide lockdown

UCA News reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

UCA News reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

Published: May 03, 2020 07:04 AM GMT

Updated: May 03, 2020 07:28 AM GMT

Vietnam's old soldiers struggle to survive

Michael Nguyen Van Hung shows a picture of his army days in his shelter in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo: UCA News)

Michael Nguyen Van Hung, a former South Vietnamese soldier, receives daily food rations from churches for his survival in Ho Chi Minh City.

Hung, 63, has seen his meager income dwindle since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in late January.

The veteran, who is paralyzed in his right leg, used to earn 2.5 million dong (US$107) a month as a guard at a church-run daycare center and made another 50,000 dong from selling lottery tickets after work. The center was closed in February and lottery companies shut in early April due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I've had to borrow money from the center to pay for my rent,” said Hung, who lives in Vinh Hoi Parish. He pays nearly 2 million dong a month for a 12-meter-square room and utilities.

“I daily receive free food from Xom Chieu Parish and buy cheap food from other places to survive during the pandemic,” he said.

Hung joined the US-backed South Vietnam army in 1973 and earned money to support his seven-member family after his father, the sole breadwinner, suffered a stroke. He was in ninth grade at that time.

His leg was injured during a skirmish with communist guerrillas in early 1975.

He had to sell goods on the street and worked at construction sites after April 30, 1975, when communist forces took control of Saigon, capital of the former South Vietnam, bringing an end to the Vietnam War that claimed the lives of 58,000 US soldiers during its 16 years.

In 1979 he was forced to join Vietnamese troops fighting the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Three years later, he decided to illegally escape from the battlefield and returned home.

“I hid at home in the daytime and rode a trishaw at night for a living for years,” he said.

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He suffered a stroke and paralysis of his right leg and arm in 2000, blaming his affliction on years of hard work and poor living conditions.

After his parents died, their house was left to his siblings who were married and lived in poverty.

He gets around using a three-wheel motorbike given by a customer who won the lottery.

“The motorbike is not useful for me to travel to sell lottery tickets. I am happy that a Catholic group has promised me an electric wheelchair next week,” he said.

Hung said the local government has provided healthcare insurance for the past three years.

“I feel luckier than other old soldiers who live in extreme poverty and are prevented from getting social welfare. We are former South Vietnamese soldiers. We do not regret our choices. We try to live with dignity,” Hung said.

“I pray for the pandemic to end soon and people can return to normal life. Our simple joy is to attend Masses and meet our friends who are in the same situation at church on Sundays.” 

Nguyen Si Hat (center) talks with friends in Hue. (Photo: UCA News)

Lives of extreme poverty

“My family suffers lack of food since I have not sold lottery tickets for weeks due to social distancing measures,” said the father of five, adding that they live on his monthly disability allowance of 540,000 dong. In the past he made 50,000 dong a day from selling lottery tickets at markets and bus stations.

“We sacrificed part of our bodies for the nation but have had to live in extreme poverty for decades. We are innocent,” the old soldier said. “I wish to stay at home and have enough food for the rest of my life because I am old, but my wish seems unreal.” 

On April 1, Father Joseph Truong Hoang Vu, a Redemptorist who has worked with former soldiers for years, reported that the Redemptorists had launched the Grateful Season 2020 program.

Father Vu, who is based in Can Gio Parish in Ho Chi Minh City, said they had given the equivalent of US$337,000 to 3,588 elderly war veterans in 32 southern provinces from November 2019 to March 2020.

The money was donated from benefactors and other former soldiers in the US and other countries.

He said many injured veterans who could have lost contact with the Redemptorists have not received donations. He promised to provide handouts for them in the future.

In 2018, the Redemptorists gave donations to 6,375 elderly, battle-scarred soldiers throughout southern Vietnam.

Father Vu, an advocate for the marginalized, called on people to cooperate with the Redemptorists to look after disabled soldiers who have suffered much material and emotional distress for 45 years.

He said disabled soldiers have been badly affected by the government’s anti-coronavirus measures as many of them make a living by selling lottery tickets.

“We help bring gratitude and love of benefactors to disabled soldiers as a way to evangelize marginalized people,” he said.

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