Church charities provide aid to former soldiers in straitened circumstances almost 50 years after war ended
Former soldier Joseph Le Duy Hien and his wife sell straw brooms for a living in a street in Dong Ha. (Photo: UCA News)
In the baking sun, Joseph Le Duy Hien, who is totally blind, and his wife carry handmade grass brooms on a cart to sell on the streets of Dong Ha on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They have to collect and dry grass and make brooms on other days.
“We try to work hard and earn some 3.5 million dong (US$150) a month. That is our only source of income,” said 70-year-old Hien, who looks pale and thin.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the couple lived on humanitarian aid from Catholic nuns and other benefactors as they could not sell products and had no money to pay electricity and water bills. Their three children and five grandchildren live far away in Vietnam's southern provinces.
The former soldier of US-backed South Vietnam said he lost his eyes in battle against northern communist forces 50 years ago in Quang Tri province, where bloody battles took place for months in 1972. The period was well named “the summer of fire.”
At first communist forces attacked targets in the frontline province, where the 17th parallel divided the two sides, and seized control of it in May that year. US and southern forces fought back and regained control of the area in September. Thousands of soldiers died in fierce battles.
Hien's parents died during artillery shelling on the national road while they were accompanying tens of thousands of others to move to Hue.
“We had nothing to do for a living and local Lovers of the Holy Cross sisters offered us money to buy a handmade cart and materials to make brooms"
After the south was controlled by communists, he and over 400 other wounded soldiers were forced to leave a convalescent home in Hue. Hien returned to his home town Dong Ha and lived with his uncle.
He had to make straw brooms for a living during the daytime and was made to learn the new government’s policies in the evening.
He joined a local group of visually impaired people in 1983 and married a woman with hearing loss the following year.
“We had nothing to do for a living and local Lovers of the Holy Cross sisters offered us money to buy a handmade cart and materials to make brooms,” said quietly spoken Hien.
“The war took away my eyes and now I am at a great age, but I have to work daily to put food on the table. I did nothing wrong but am only a victim of the war.”
Phan Dinh Thuan, another former South Vietnam marine, said he lost his legs in an attack on Quang Tri in June 1972.
Thuan, 72, said he lives in abject poverty and has not been given any living allowance from the government since the country was reunified.
“I live alone and have to sell lottery tickets on the streets and in markets to support myself,” he said, adding that he used to be robbed of his money and lottery tickets by young gangsters.
“I am in frail health and feel desperate about my future. I have no clue how I will live when I am too weak to work.”
Many soldiers from northern communist forces who joined the battle in Quang Tri that year are also in difficult situations.
“We owe the nuns a deep debt of gratitude for their financial help. We would still be living in a rough shelter on the riverbank"
Vo Dinh Huong, a former corporal from the 304th Division, said his right eye was damaged and his right hand broken in a bomb blast. After he was discharged from the army in 1977, he erected a hut near a river in his home district of Da Krong and raised ducks for a living.
Huong was married in 1980 and was granted a plot of 100 square meters to build a house by the government.
Their five-member family lived in the 10-square-meter hut and had to seek shelter in local schools to avoid annual floods. They could not afford to build a house until 2005 when Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate sisters offered them money to build a brick house.
“We owe the nuns a deep debt of gratitude for their financial help. We would still be living in a rough shelter on the riverbank,” the 74-year-old father of three said.
The old soldier, who only earns 25,000 dong (less than $1.10) per day by inflating tires of bicycles and motorbikes, said he receives a monthly allowance of 2,150,000 dong ($93) and uses it to cover medicine for his wife, who has suffered cirrhosis for 12 years.
He said many old injured soldiers live in poverty and have no stable jobs. They live with the help of their children or benefactors.
Simon Tran Quang Binh from Tam Toa Parish in Quang Binh province said that in July 1972 his military unit garrisoned in a church in the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang that was heavily bombed by southern forces. The church collapsed and many of his comrades died or were injured but “I survived and I believed God saved me.”
Binh, who is in his early 70s, said after he was discharged from the army in 1978, he returned home, got married and joined the parish council.
“They visit one another every time they have wedding parties and funerals and provide emotional and material support for those in difficult situations"
The father of two said he caught fish at sea to support his family as he was denied work at state agencies due to his Catholicism.
“God loves and blesses us, so we have earned a decent living so far,” he said, adding that he often visits the shrine to express his deep thanks to God and Mother Mary for saving his life.
Father John Baptist Le Quang Quy, who is in charge of charitable activities in Quang Tri province, said the long bloody war ended nearly half a century ago and soldiers on both sides should be treated equally and with respect as they are innocent and brothers of one another.
Father Quy said he gathers some 200 old soldiers at Christmas and offers them food, gifts and musical entertainment so that they can build fraternal ties and leave hostility behind them.
“They visit one another every time they have wedding parties and funerals and provide emotional and material support for those in difficult situations,” he said.
The priest also calls on benefactors to give disabled soldiers wheelchairs and walking sticks so that they can travel by themselves.
Lovers of the Holy Cross Sister Anna Tran Thi Hien from Dong Ha convent said nuns work with health officials to provide free health care and medicine for some 2,000 old soldiers per year.
Sister Hien said the nuns also provide food and scholarships on a monthly basis to their children.
“In the past they fought against one another but now they are good fellows and need one another to enjoy the rest of their lives,” she said.
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