Maury Z. Levy

The Lucky Ones: Vietnam’s Saddest Casualties

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 15, 2009 at 5:28 pm

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THE BOY HUONG doesn’t have a mouth where his mouth is supposed to be. It is a hole, a very wide one where lips have been shaped from scar tissue to run all the way across his face. Twenty-one operations in two years have done that. Yet it’s only the beginning. The boy Huong is taking it all pretty well. He lives in Southamp­ton in Bucks County now, which is a long way from Vietnam where he lost his mouth.

He was just 16, American age. In Vietnam, where things work in different ways, it would have been the 17th anniversary of his birth. In Vietnam, though, where things work in different ways, it might also have been the second anniversary of his death.

In the 23rd year of our lightning campaign in Vietnam, the boy Huong lost both his parents. They weren’t soldiers and they weren’t Viet Cong, they were farmers and they were dead. There are no reports on how they died. The body count sheets just list numbers.

The orphanage was in Danang. The boy Huong took it well. Being without parents is not a novel thing in Vietnam. He made friends at the orphanage, but he was still a shy 14-year-old, known to go off by himself. One morning when the sun was shining he got up early and went for a walk alone. He kicked at the dust in the fields that used to be fertile. He picked up a small object and shook off the dust. It felt hard as he squeezed it in his bony fingers. It was a strange toy because it didn’t seem to do anything. He wanted to make it work, so he put it be­tween his teeth and bit down very hard.

The explosion blew away his teeth and his lips and destroyed half of his chin and part of his tongue. There is a lesson for all you parents in this. Don’t let your kids pick up blasting caps left behind by careless soldiers.

The boy Huong has new parents now, Lydia and Leon Carlin of Southampton. They give him love and a good home and food and clothing. But Bui Ngoc Huong, his full name. still likes some touches of home.

“One morning,” Lydia Carlin remembers, “Huong came for breakfast wearing a very used pair of dungarees, one of the half dozen things he had brought from Vietnam. ‘These,’ he explained in a language neither Vietnamese nor English, but wholly human, ‘are the pants I was wearing the day I was hurt.’ Then, with pantomime and a few words of English, he showed how he picked up the percussion cap and attempted to unscrew it with his teeth. Then the explosion, then his agonized contortions on the ground, and then the blood.”

FOUR YEARS AGO, Lydia Carlin was listening to a late night radio talk show. The man being interviewed was Dr. Herbert Needleman, a Philadelphia psychiatrist with the strange idea that a small group of American profes­sionals could help save the children of Vietnam. What Lydia Carlin couldn’t see on the radio were the pictures that Herb Needleman brought with him, pictures taken in Vietnam of the war’s children, their faces melted away by napalm and white phosphorous, their bodies busted by bombs.  

Herb Needleman told of a trip he had made to Vietnam. He told about the civilian casualties and the hospital conditions and he made a lot of people sick. And then he told of his plan for a group that might help. It was called the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Vietnamese Children. For purposes of fitting it on a letterhead, the name was shortened to the Com­mittee of Responsibility, Inc.—COR, if you want to bring it down some more.

It was set up as a private organization of doctors and laymen who believe that “to rescue as many children as we could reach would be an act of essential justice that would speak clearly of the importance of life in a time of wholesale killing.”

PENNSYLVANIA HOSPITAL IS ALWAYS hot and sticky. In the winter, the steam heat blasts like an open hearth. In the warmer months, the heavy pollution of Spruce Street pants in hot puffs through the white wooden windows. To a boy like Huong, it is heaven. In Vietnam, the beds were on the floor—straw mattresses shared by two or three people and a lot of flies.

Heaven. Huong has his own bed now and shares the room with only one other person, an old black man with a broken arm. The surgeons at Pennsylvania Hospital have volunteered their services for months of step-by-step plastic surgery. The lower half of Huong’s face is being reconstructed. But there is a long way to go. The latest operation moved the salivary glands back to cut off a steady, dribbling flow of spit. The doctors also tried to make room for some teeth. Huong couldn’t chew anything in the hospital. He took most of his food lying on his back using a mirror held up to his mouth to help him find the place to drop it in.

Once Huong was out of the hospital, he could lead an almost normal life again for a while—until the next time he had to go in. He could go to school and he could play with friends, and he could go on family trips with the Carlins’ older children to great places like Long Beach Island. Huong loves to run along the sand and fly a kite. He runs so fast. He has built himself up to a muscular 95 pounds now.

The sand reminds Huong of home, of Vietnam. He’ll go back there when all this is over, back to the orphanage. That’s the agreement the Committee of Responsibility had to make with the Vietnamese government, to return the kids. When Huong finally goes back, he’ll take with him many of his souvenirs of America, including his hand mirror. He carries it with him often, even when he doesn’t need it to find his mouth to eat.

Sometimes when he’s all alone, he holds the mirror up to his face and looks in. It is a very sad stare. There are an awful lot of things looking back at him.

HERB NEEDLEMAN HAS undergone some physical changes too. His hair is a little bushier now and he’s got a mustache and a lot of scars that are hard to see because they are on the inside. Herb Needleman is 42. He has lived in Philadelphia all of his life, except for the time he was a captain in the Army after the Korean War and before the total involvement in Vietnam.

He went to Muhlenberg College and to Penn Medical School. He was trained in pediatrics at Children’s Hos­pital before he decided to go to Temple and become a shrink, working in the dirty streets of community psychia­try. His wife is a former social worker. She has walked those streets too. They have three children, all healthy.

Herb Needleman got the idea for the Committee of Responsibility from the wife of a doctor in Scarsdale, New York, who read about a European group called Terre des Hommes, an organization set up to try to evacu­ate war-injured children to Switzerland. “We’re in this war more than they are,” Needleman thought. “I kept seeing these horrible pictures of kids burned to hell by napalm and white phosphorous. Well, damn, we’re the ones over there using that stuff. We’re the ones burning the kids. So why shouldn’t we be the ones to help them?”

He wrote letters to about 200 doctors. Many of them felt the same way. The committee was pulled together by feelings of mutual guilt and obligation. A few big names, like Albert Sabin and Benjamin Spock, helped attract the first national publicity. Herb Needleman became national chairman. Chapters quickly popped up in Boston and New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Philadelphia chapter spread under Needleman’s guidance. Benjamin Dickstein, a Northeast Philadelphia pedia­trician, soon became head of the Philadelphia unit.

Through some sticky dealings with the Department of State in Washington and the government in Saigon, the Committee of Responsibility managed to send a team of doctors over to examine conditions and choose the chil­dren who would benefit most by their help. Later, Needle­man went over himself to bring back witness and testimony before Senator Edward Kennedy’s subcom­mittee on refugees. What he saw turned his stomach.

“We were in Vietnam a short time. But one does not have to spend a long time looking at an extremity to know that it is gangrenous. The diagnosis leaps out at you. The unpleasant truths about the civilian wounded and their care leap out to one’s senses in Vietnam also.

“It is an unpleasant truth that the hospitals in I Corps —Quang Ngai, Quang Tri, Tam Ky, Hoi An, Danang, Hue—are generally overcrowded, lacking in minimal sanitary facilities, filthy, evil-smelling and fly-ridden. War casualties, blasts and burns are a prominent part of their population. Crowding is so extreme that the isolation of open wounds from infected cases is not attempted. One can see, as we did, an open gunshot wound lying in the next bed to a case of typhoid. The sight of two adult patients head to foot in a bed is not uncommon. The patients lie on filthy, woven straw mats. The odor of gar­bage, pus and excrement is everywhere. Screens are a rarity. We saw flies walking on open wounds and burns.”

It took months of negotiation before the committee’s medical team evacuated the first children. That was in October 1967. In the next year, 60 children had been brought over for treatment in hospitals across the country. They represented a very small number of those who could be helped. Every year in this war more than 200,000 Viet namese civilians are being wounded or maimed or killed. Since many of the men are out fighting and many of the women out pimping themselves off to soldiers to get money to live on, a large percentage of the casualties are unprotected children.

By providing specialized orthopedic and plastic sur­gery, cosmetic repair, artificial limbs and training, nerve grafts, skin grafts, tendon transplants, and paraplegic rehabilitation, the committee set out to help these children function and look like normal children again. There are several reasons why all of this had to be done in the United States and couldn’t be done in Vietnam.

Health care in Vietnam, for civilians, is an atrocity in itself. Most of the able-bodied doctors are in the army. There are around 200 left to take care of a civilian pop­ulation of over 16 million. The nursing situation isn’t much better. For every 100,000 people in Vietnam, there are nine nurses.

Over half the people of Vietnam are under the age of 16. There 40%been at least a million child casualties in the last ten years of the war. About 40°/i have been fatal. Thirty more are being hurt every hour. Many have to travel hours or days to get to a hospital. In that time, the permanent damage has already been done. Infection has usually set in and the hospital doesn’t have the equipment to handle it. The most common prescription for a civilian war injury is amputation. A Vietnamese doctor will cut off your arm quicker than he’ll shake your hand. There are more than 50,000 amputees in South Vietnam.

IN THE BEGINNING, things looked sort of promising for Herb Needleman and the Committee of Responsibility. Doctors in this country were volunteering their services. So were many hospitals. The supply bank of foster parents to take care of the kids was great. Then came the ampu­tation. It was performed by the combined forces of the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments. And it wasn’t an operation to cut off an arm, either. They went right for the testicles.

Since the original 60 children brought in four years ago, only 16 more have been allowed to come—none dur­ing the past year. Even the kids who have been finishing their treatment in this country have had trouble getting
back home. About 50 have made it, but the U.S. government has gone back on its promise to cover their air fare.

The new minister of health in South Vietnam has banned Committee of Responsibility medical teams from scouting the country. The official policy now is that COR can no longer pick its patients. The new minister of health says COR can’t just take war-injured kids. It seems like war-injured kids have become somewhat of an embarrassment to both governments.

The original hassle was over the definition of “war-related” injuries. The Vietnamese government demanded an almost unbelievably detailed report on just how each child was wounded. This led to the argument of whether a child who had half his face blown off by a dud flare he picked up while he was out playing, or one whose legs might have been blown off by a land mine would qualify in the category of “war-related” injuries. The Vietnamese said no. The U.S. government, holding the Vietnamese hand, even insisted that the committee show some sort of record of proof of troop movements around the child’s home at the time of the accident.

Delaying tactics like this have put the work of the committee at just about a standstill as far as bringing in kids is concerned. It has had other effects too. While the politicians in Washington and Saigon have been playing their bureaucratic games, two children have died awaiting evacuation. A four-year-old girl who had been badly burned in a mortar attack died while the governments stalled in lining up transportation. This was at the begin­ning of last year. Less than four months later, the same thing happened again, this time to a young boy. No one has gone so far as to accuse either government of having dipped its hands in the blood of these kids. It’s just that they do such a great job of sealing the caskets with red tape.

Some outrage in the press, mostly by Washington Post columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman, got some wheels rolling for a short time, just long enough for the State Depart­ment to save some face. And then things stopped again. Some of this is the committee’s fault. Somewhere along the way, these doctors were dumb enough to take a stand against the war. This is something you just don’t do—at least not when you’re trying to get the support and help of the government.

The thing that put the big crimp on its efforts was a full-page ad the committee took in the New York Times two years ago. The headline, in very bold face at the top of the page, read:

ONE-HALF OF ALL CHILDREN BORN IN VIETNAM
DON’T LIVE TO REACH THE AGE OF FIVE.

MAYBE THEY’RE THE LUCKY ONES.

The ad went on to tell of the poverty, hunger, disease, disfigurement and crippling pain brought on by the war.

“We will continue to bring children to the United States and have our doctors treat them,” the ad said. “But we know that the greatest medical aid we can offer the Viet­namese children is an immediate end to the war.”

The ad also pointed out a fact that the U.S. government would rather not have spread around—that up to 80% of all civilian casualties are caused by American firepower. Things like that helped put COR on everybody’s unofficial government black list.

One of the first things to happen, Herb Needleman remembers, is a U.S. Air Force doctor in Vietnam step­ping in to halt the evacuation of a little girl who’d been paralyzed from the waist down. “No left-wing organ­ization is going to get propaganda out of this hospital,” the good doctor said.

Not only is the U.S. government stopping the committee from bringing kids in, it’s now refusing to foot air fare anywhere but from San Francisco to Vietnam. When two girls returned a few months ago from Philadelphia, Herb Needleman had already written out the check for their air fare. But help came from an unexpected place. A group of pilots and flight engineers from the TWA Boston Airline Pilots Association dipped into their own pockets to pay the transportation to the coast. The gesture was a welcome aspirin for one of the committee’s bigger head­aches. But other problems need stronger medicine.

HERB NEEDLEMAN and the people at the committee are worried. “The major thing that held our national effort together,” Needleman says, “was the steady influx of kids. We haven’t brought any into this country in over a year now. We’ve got the fa­cilities, we’ve got the doctors. All we need are the kids.”

There is no question that the supply of kids is there, dying every day, being added to every day. Herb Needleman, through the committee’s national office in Washington, is trying to talk to as many officials as he can to get things moving again. But if he can’t bring the kids here, he’ll go to the kids. For months he’s been walking around with a set of blueprints under his arm for a hospital and health care center in Sai­gon. The original idea was to use this as sort of a halfway house for the kids who would be returning. Now the focus has been set on using it as a hospital for the kids who can’t come. It would be staffed almost entirely by Vietnamese, with only equipment and money being furnished by the commit­tee. It would cost just under $200,000 to build, and it could be built pretty quickly if the government decides to let the committee put the place to­gether with cement instead of red tape.

It’s going to take a good deal of money-raising to get it going. Much of that is done out of the committee’s local office in the Germantown Community Presbyterian Church at Greene and Tulpehocken Streets. The rent-free office amounts to a very crowded balcony manned mostly by Marcy Adamski, the committee’s executive secretary.

Marcy Adamski, who used to be a nun in Korea, has to keep track of a million things—three of the most important things are the Vietnamese kids who are still in the Philadelphia area. She works with the kids and the foster parents and Herb Needleman and Philadelphia chapter chairman Dr. Benjamin Dickstein.

BEN DICKSTEIN got involved with the committee early on. After a meet­ing at Herb Needleman’s house in Wynnewood, Dickstein became one of the prime movers. At first he let the politics slide. “It started out to be mostly a medical thing,” he says from his crowded office on Castor Avenue, “but I just couldn’t divorce the medi­cal part from the realities of this war. There were all political shades in this committee when we started with about 40 local doctors. But then we started to think.

“I sat here day after day and looked out on a waiting room full of kids. A few years ago, I might have been treat­ing these kids for polio or TB or God knows what. But we have ways to stop those diseases now before they can start. What I’m practicing here now is preventive medicine.

“And I think of all those burned and mutilated kids in Vietnam. We should be practicing preventive medi­cine on them, too. But the only way to prevent the things that ail them is to eliminate the cause. The best preven­tive medicine for Vietnam is no war.”

Dickstein is appalled at the lack of just about any medicine of any kind in Vietnam right now. “The hospital fa­cilities there are abysmal. Some poor kids just lie on cots and languish there for years.”

Those are the kids the committee had hoped to bring over here, at the rate of about 30 per month. Now Dick­stein is also concentrating much of his efforts on the proposed COR-spon­sored center in Saigon. In addition to a hospital, he sees it as a way to follow the kids and try to get them back into society.

This is a problem the committee is acutely aware of, especially since a re­cent Life magazine article traced one of their returnees—a kid who had a hell of a time readjusting to his native customs after becoming accustomed to American standards. The case was an extreme one and the kid eventually made the adjustment, but the bad ink of the article has left a memorable taste in the mouth of the committee. There’s a lot more follow-up now.

Ben Dickstein takes all the hassles in stride. No one will ever convince him that this whole effort, no matter what the end result is, has not been worth it, even at a cost of almost $15,000 a child.

“I’ve personally carried four war-torn kids off planes in Philadelphia and seen them walk back on them­selves for the trip home. Every child was worth the whole effort.”

This is to affirm that the boy Do Binh, age 13, from My Tho hamlet, Chanh Dao village, Phu My district, Bihn Dinh Province is an orphan with his only living relatives being a blind older brother residing in a refugee camp and a younger brother, age ten, also living there. His mother died three years ago; his father died one year ago.

Two months ago Do Binh was struck by an American military vehi­cle resulting in the amputation of both legs above the knee. He is presently residing in Cho Ray Hospital, Saigon, where he is awaiting evacuation to the United States by the Committee of Responsibility, Inc.

B. S. Thai Minh Bach

BEN DICKSTEIN carried Do Binh off the plane because the boy didn’t have any legs. Do Binh is one of ten of the committee’s children brought to Philadelphia. He was operated on and fitted for new legs, artificial ones. A foster family was found for him.

Richard and Sondra Scott live in a very large house on a nicely wooded winding road in Villanova. Richard Scott is a pension planner. Sondra Scott is active in clubs and civic groups. They had eight children of their own before Do Binh arrived.

The Scotts were very carefully screened by both the committee and social workers before Do Binh came. The screening doesn’t include politics. In fact, a couple of the foster parents were high-flying hawks. But that didn’t matter. The committee looks for love. Sondra Scott heard about the commit­tee at a meeting of one of her groups. She saw one of their films. It was a tragic thing that showed the story of Vietnamese civilians. It was very gory and sickening and real. It opened up with a boy with very bad wounds and burns all over his body. He was a very small and sad boy, sitting in a Viet­namese hospital. The camera came in close and you could see the flies eat­ing away at his wounds. The film closed with a lot of tears from the au­dience. Sondra Scott, though, felt she had to do something more than cry. She talked it over with her husband and they decided to apply as foster parents.

Do Binh has eight brothers and sis­ters now, and a new mother and fa­ther. He’s put on a good deal of weight since he came here. He is a dark, happy boy with straight black hair. He likes steaks, and trips to the seashore and he is doing very well in school. His English is very good. He’s a brother to the other Scott children, not just a visitor from another land. It’s quite likely that he will stay here for a while. He really has nothing to go back to. The Scotts and the committee are looking into ways to further his education.

Do Binh is doing fine on his new legs, when he’s on them. In the after­noons he likes to come home from school and take them off, to unstrap them just like any other kid likes to unlace his shoes and slip on his sneaks. Do Binh is more comfortable without his legs. Before he came over, he was getting very used to the idea that he would have no legs at all.

“There was a boy in the next bed to me,” Do Binh says, “they told him he was going to America and he was very happy. But he waited for many months and they never took him.

Then they tell me I am going to, America too. I didn’t believe them. But soon the men came for me, and then I come here.”

“Here” is a new life for Do Binh. But maybe you don’t even have to put the “new” in there. It is a life, probably more than he would have gotten in Vietnam.

It is a great spring afternoon and Do Binh comes running down the stairs on his hands, swinging his leg­less torso between his arms. He pops into his wheelchair and rolls out to the Scott’s backyard, where one of the boys is shooting some baskets. Do Binh wants to play. He takes the ball and throws it at the hoop. Again. On the second try he scores.

IF THEY EVER GET a team up, Do Binh and Nguyen Hue will make a great backcourt combination. Hue has become a basketball nut, too. He and Do Binh have many things in common. They are both 13, and Hue lost his legs in the war too. He is from a village in Quang Ngai. He was shot up by artillery fire.

Hue, who now lives in West Chester with his foster parents Ed and Barbara Holcroft, remembers it well. “I lived on a farm,” he says in his shy, halting English. “I was out in the field with the cows when the soldiers came. I didn’t know where to go when they started to shoot. The cows were smarter than me. They didn’t get hurt.”

The Holcrofts have been a great help to Hue. Ed Holcroft is Kennett Square recreational director. He spe­cializes in physical therapy for debili­tated children. He knows the physical part of Hue’s recovery as well as any­one. And the whole family knows the psychological part. It is called love.

There are three other children in the family—two younger blonde-haired girls, and a boy, David, just a year older than Hue. David and Hue room together, eat together and play together. David also helps Hue study his schoolwork. This, of course, is the part that Hue doesn’t like so much. He came here with only a couple months of formal schooling. He can’t read much English and he doesn’t speak much outside family circles, but he doesn’t have to. Hue is happy. You can see it in his face. He walks around the Holcroft house with his new legs and his two canes and a beaming smile.

The Holcrofts have taken care of everything. They’ve given him the best. Like the other foster parents, their medical bills for Hue are picked up by the committee. But they pay for everything else. And there is just no way you can put a price on most of it. Herb Needleman, who has to put a price on some things, has been going around telling the story of Hue and the others to groups with a lot of money, trying to get some to keep things going. Last month, he made a plea to a Variety Club convention in Las Vegas. He showed pictures of war-torn kids. He was turned down and asked to leave because the pic­tures were “too political.”

Hue, who is finished with most of his medical problems now, has be­come a real camera bug too. Just about his favorite sight now is the mailman filling up the box with prints of his latest pictures. He will take the snapshots back to Vietnam with him.

“It’s both a sad and a happy thing,” Barbara Holcroft says. “He’s become so much a part of the family, but we know that one day he’ll have to go back. That’s really going to be tough on all of us. He’s had such a good time here and he’s made so many friends. How do you say good­bye?”

EVENTUALLY, they will all go home, these children of the war. Life will never be the same for them in Viet­nam, but they will always have their stay in America to remember and the Committee of Responsibility to thank for their lives. One of them, a pretty girl named Diem, went home in March. She was 14, and she also had lost both legs, thanks to a booby-trapped grenade that took a couple of fingers in the bargain. Last month, her foster parents in Newtown Square got their first letter from her in Viet­nam.

Dear Parents,

I send you greetings and hope that everything is as well as the time when I was with you. I am now in Vietnam and very happy to see my parents again. It is as though God gave me another life.

I miss you and all my brothers and sisters since the time I got on the air­plane. I remember the times when my brothers and sisters taught me many words and helped me with my first step. Dear parents, I miss you.

Diem

SOON, MAYBE, all of the war’s chil­dren will be gone from this country and we won’t have to look at them any more. Even the boy Huong will leave, as soon as they can put his mouth together again. He will go and he will take with him his little hand mirror, and he will look into it and he will see many things. He will see the summer sand of Long Beach Is­land and the winter white of South­ampton. All the fun of America will be over. He will go back among his own people, back to his own land, the land beyond the snows. Arrange­ments have already been made. The letter has already come from Saigon.

Saigon

March 2, 1971

Visited the China Beach Orphan­age in Danang last week to confirm a place for Huong on his return to Viet­nam. Mr. Tran Hut, the new super­visor, sees no problem for Huong’s return to the orphanage. He can de­cide after returning what he would like to do—study in the school or learn a light trade.

The facility is in a beautiful set­ting, perched on the beach. It is al­ways cool and fresh, very healthy. There is lots of swimming. The buildings are large and clean, no overcrowding. Seems like a good place for children if they must be away from family. The orphanage is sponsored by the United World Mission headed by Pastor Smith of Danang. Mr. Smith has lived in Vietnam almost 20 years and also heads a colony for lepers.

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  1. Maury,

    I remember this story so vividly. “The boy Huong doesn’t have a mouth where his mouth is supposed to be.” I actually use it in the college English and Journalism courses I teach as an exapmple of a great first sentence. What you didn’t include here was the photo accompanying the article of the boy Huong with that enormous, gaping, scarred black oval of horror in the middle of his face. And above that two ancient, glowing dark eyes.

    Thanks for making this accessible. I should do the same with my Inquirer columns.

    Clark

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