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US veteran sculpts the pain of VN past

Update: April, 30/2013 - 03:10
Building Bridges: Jim shares a meal with the family
and spends time with the heroic mother.

Former US soldier and artist Jim Gion first fell in love with Viet Nam when he was forced to serve here during the American War. Now, he is creating a statue of one of the war's most heroic participants, a brave mother who lost her husband and four sons in the struggle.

by Than Lai

Over the past few weeks, a mysterious middle-aged foreigner has been a frequent visitor to Nguyen Thi Nhut's house in Quang Hien Village, Dien Ban District, Quang Nam Province.

His name is Jim Gion, a 66-year-old American war veteran, who is working on a project no veteran has ever done before: sculpting a statue of a heroic Vietnamese mother.

Possessing a friendly smile and pretty fluent Vietnamese, Gion talks openly about the story that has brought him to Viet Nam and how he became unexpectedly attached to this S-shaped land.

In 1969, greenhorn Gion, who was just 22 at that time, arrived in Viet Nam for the first time to participate in what he calls an "unjust war". Like many other US youths, he opposed the war and disliked using guns to kill people, but he was paradoxically driven to war in Viet Nam through...being "madly in love".

Born into a poor family, Gion was very keen on creating statues and models because his family could not afford other toys. On leaving school, he studied pedagogy at university and then switched to fine arts.

While he was a second-year student, Gion's girlfriend fell in love with a pilot and left him. Tormented and disheartened, he quitted his studies, which forced him to join the army. Had he refused, he would have been put into jail.

Even though Gion did not fight directly on the battle field, he was fully aware of the brutality of the war that many American youths like him were stuck in.

After two years in Viet Nam, Gion returned to America in 1971. With his knowledge and passion for the subject, he chose sculpture as his career.

He created many statues in churches and cities throughout America, such as the Portland Immigrant Statue and Lions at the Oregon Zoo.

For many years after 1971, Gion lived in Japan, where he married a Japanese woman and had two daughters.

His family life passed by in tranquility, but his experiences of war led him to return to Viet Nam for the first time in 2000.

Arriving at the central province of Da Nang, Gion made friends with a motorbike taxi driver. It was through his trips with this friend across the length of the country that he learned more about the crimes committed by the invaders against the Vietnamese. The more he has travelled, the more he has fell for the beautiful country and the courageous but benevolent local people, leading to a deep and heartfelt attachment to Viet Nam.

Since then, Gion has travelled back to Viet Nam for one to two months annually.

Four years ago, he started to support a friend's production of statues in the southern province of Binh Duong to export to America.


Hard at work: Jim Gion works meticulously on the contours of the statue.

Gion has also visited many famous trade villages in Viet Nam to learn from their experience. He is nurturing a dream that in the near future, he will open and run a sculpturing centre in the country that he loves.

On returning back to Da Nang this March, Gion accidentally met Hoang Thi Kim Dung, a policewoman in the city.

Learning that Gion was a veteran and also a sculptor who loved Viet Nam so much, Dung asked: "Would you mind making a statue of my mother?" When he asked in response: "Why do you want me to do so?" she replied: "She is my mother-in-law, but I have always considered myself as her natural daughter. She is a heroic Vietnamese mother and to us, she is very sacred…"

Dung told Gion about the story, and also the autobiography of Nguyen Thi Nhut, a mother dedicated to the war and devoted to the country. Among her five sons, four of whom were revolutionary martyrs who sold their lives dearly for national independence and freedom. Nhut's husband also sacrificed himself during an enemy raid.

In 1966 alone, she lost both her husband and two of her children.

Nhut had no more tears to shed. Silently swallowing her pain, she continued to dig tunnels to protect the liberation soldiers.

There was a time when up to six secret tunnels were protecting a regiment of liberation troops. When the enemy discovered the tunnels, they tortured and destroyed her eyes, then threw her on the riverbank.

Her youngest son was also caught and exiled to Con Dao Island, but Nhut's love for the country and grudge against the enemy motivated her to continue the fight.

After hearing the story about Mother Nhut, Gion was so moved that he decided to model a beautiful statue of her.

The following day, he immediately visited Nhut's house in Quang Hien Village.

Hearing Gion introduce himself and apologise for the unjust war, which claimed the lives of many Vietnamese, even though he was just a soldier obeying orders, Mother Nhut utilised her waning strength to shake his hand and console him. This magnanimous gesture reduced Jim to tears.

According to Gion, Mother Nhut has taught him about the generosity and tolerance of the Vietnamese.

After several days preparing, Gion returned to Mother Nhut's house on March 13 with an abundance of equipment. He says this is the first time he has created a statue of a Vietnamese mother.

"It brings me a strange feeling, as if I was making a statue of my own mother. Even though she has lost her eyes, I will make her statue with two eyes. I have visualised those eyes, those of a courageous but also very benevolent woman". — VNS

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