Thirty-two years ago, the name Danang was almost as familiar to American television viewers and newspaper readers as Detroit, because it appeared constantly in accounts of the fighting in the Vietnam War. Today, it carries no more significance for most Americans than Dakar or Dortmund.
But Tony Accamando is different. In 1967, he was an infantryman on combat patrols around Danang. And tomorrow, the 55-year-old Pittsburgh businessman will be leading 14 other western Pennsylvania ex-servicemen back to Danang, bringing a message of reconciliation that will make this a special Veterans Day for all of them.
Unless the floods that have bedeviled Vietnam in recent weeks make it impossible for them to complete the last leg of their journey, they will join the American ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, in dedicating the fifth school built under the auspices of the Vietnam Children's Fund in the past five years. The project is an inspiring example of how people of goodwill can turn violence and tragedy into a cause for hope.
I learned of this effort and wrote about it 5 1/2 years ago, when grieving friends of Lewis B. Puller Jr. contacted me, a week after his suicide, to tell me how they were going to see that his remarkable life was memorialized.
Puller was the son of a World War II officer whose valor had won him more decorations than anyone else in the long history of the Marine Corps. The namesake was a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam when he stepped on a land mine; both his legs were blown off, parts of his hands were torn away, and his body was riddled with shrapnel. Puller's account of his combat experience and his long years of hospitalization and rehabilitation, "Fortunate Son," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
With that literary success, he left his job as a Pentagon lawyer and became a writer-in-residence at George Mason University. But he could not escape the alcoholism and addiction to pain-killing drugs that were part of his personal legacy from Vietnam, and in 1994 he put a gun to his head.
A year before he died, Puller returned to Vietnam, and he came back determined to contribute to its future by helping build a school. Two of his closest friends, Washington consultant Jack Wheeler and former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, asked me to help see that Puller's dream was realized by letting people know where they might send contributions.
The first school--bearing Puller's name--was opened a year later in Quang Tri province, site of some the heaviest fighting in the war. Puller's friends have been adding about one school a year, and they hope to increase the pace. Ambassador Peterson, himself a former Vietnam prisoner of war, told me the school-building project "is something for which the Vietnamese people are enormously grateful, because the population is growing so fast and the needs are so great."
The project speaks not just to the compassion of these veterans but to their success--a story that is often lost in all the publicity about their "troubled" generation. The Puller school was substantially aided by a gift from James Kimsey, one of the founders of America Online. Soon to open is a school in Quang Nam province whose financing was organized by Fred Smith, the man who built and runs Federal Express.
Accamando, the vice president of Adelphia Cable, and George D'Angelo, his Duquesne University roommate and an Air Force Vietnam vet, have raised virtually all the $45,000 cost of the Danang school from fellow veterans around Pittsburgh, which has adopted Danang as a sister city. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, himself a Vietnam vet, broke ground for the new school when he was on a trade mission in Vietnam last May. The Pennsylvanians also persuaded Playground Systems Inc. of Lewisburg, Pa., to donate to the school about $25,000 worth of recreational equipment--a real rarity in Vietnam.
The Vietnam Children's Fund has picked out 20 more sites for future schools, including An Doai, the village where Ambassador Peterson was shot down and began his captivity.
When I asked Accamando why this project so motivated him and his fellow vets, he said, "Vietnam left an indelible impression on me. To the extent that I can show my gratitude for my life being spared and help a people who were ravaged by warfare for so long, it's important to me to give something back. That is the American way. We can debate the war, but every American I know went there thinking we were going to help those people. So in a sense, we're just continuing that effort."
(To contact the Vietnam Children's Fund, call Marcia Landau at 202-347-2422 or e-mail: email@example.com)