|Making a difference: Boehm takes photos with ethnic children at a primary school in Quang Ngai that has been sponsored as part of a clean water project by MQI. — Photo coutersy of MQI
by Luong Thu Huong
Roy Mike Boehm came to Viet Nam in 1968 as a soldier to fight in the Cu Chi battlefield on the outskirts of Sai Gon. He now visits the country as a healer of the wounds that the war has given to Quang Ngai Province.
Over the past 20 years, Madison Quakes, Inc, (MQI), a non-governmental organi-sation that Boehm founded, has raised more than a million US dollars to fund many humanitarian projects that help poor women, farmers and victims of Agent Orange in the province.
"I served in Viet Nam from 1968 to 1969 in Cu Chi with the 25th Infantry Division, G-3 Plans, and six months in Vung Tau," Boehm said, calling himself as a ‘child' during that period.
"I believed my government, in that we were doing the right thing to go to war in Viet Nam."
He drifted through his year and a half in the country during the war and returned home nearly unaffected physically, but with incurable wounds in his heart and mind.
Boehm returned to Viet Nam as a veteran for the first time, 24 years after the war.
"I was a little afraid. I didn't know what the Vietnamese people would do to us when they discovered we were American veterans," he said.
"My fears were unfounded, however, because the Vietnamese people then, and now, have never shown anger. They have always welcomed me.
"I understand there is a feeling of hatred toward Americans by the Vietnamese people who survived the war, but that is never seen. Instead, the people of Viet Nam have always shown genuine friendliness. This is a level of cultural maturity that other countries need to emulate, including the United States," he said.
Boem shed tears on visiting My Lai Village in Quang Ngai, where his comrades had conducted a terrible massacre that claimed many lives of the innocent and unarmed people, including women and small children.
He also cried his heart out on hearing the stories of many mothers who lost their husbands and children during the war, or seeing the dioxin-affected children – the indirect innocent victims of the war – living in dilapidated houses.
The trip profoundly changed his life and led to his lifetime commitment to help the poor in Viet Nam.
Madison Quakers, Inc. (MQI), which is named after an organisation in Madison Wisconsin that is famous for its charity work, was established as a result of that visit.
"The purpose of MQI is to help poor people in Quang Ngai Province. We do this by listening to the suggestions of local organisations such as the provincial People's Committee, the provincial Women's Union, the educational authorities and the Viet Nam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin of Quang Ngai," Boehm said.
By working with these organisations, MQI helps poor people meet their basic needs such as having enough food, access to clean water, access to education and housing.
The initial donation to MQI was pretty small, only about US$3,000. Boehm has been travelling across the US over many years, giving presentations to the American people to ask them for help with funding.
He also sends out a fund-raising letter twice a year to long-standing donors who have raised the maximum funds for MQI.
MQI has received more than a million dollars in donation for projects that help poor women and farmers, such as for the construction of three primary schools and two water wells in a H're ethnic village and almost 100 ‘compassion houses'.
Boehm's organisation has also funded smaller projects such as providing bicycles and scholarships to poor ethnic students and for medical supplies.
Recently, MQI established microcredit prog-rammes to provide loans to poor women to start businesses, which have positively contributed towards poverty alleviation.
Among his many projects, he pays special attention to the one of assisting farmers to raise cattle, which is being implemented since 2002 in Nghia An, Nghia Tho and Nghia Son communes, with an initial capital of VND300 million ($14,300). The number of families that have received MQI's support has increased to 284.
Pham Thi Bien's family is among those that have received financial support from the Madison Fund. After raising cattle for a few years, they have a herd of four large buffalos and a calf, worth about VND160 million ($7,600), helping to them to escape poverty.
Over the past 25 years, Boehm has also visited Son My Memorial frequently, where he plays his violin to pray for the souls of the massacre victims and to send out a message of peace.
He is still silently calling out to other American war veterans to visit Viet Nam to bridge and promote the relationship between the country and its international friends to alleviate the pain of war.
Boehm, 68, does not have a wife or child. He is growing weaker and weaker, while the scale of his projects is growing day by day.
"I live most of the time in the United States in order to raise funds for our projects. This work continues to be my duty that I must fulfill as long as I have my strength. I hope to keep helping the poor people of Quang Ngai till I am at least 80, or even longer," Boehm said. — VNS