Imagine Peace: The Vietnam War: A perspective, by Katie Costello
Katie Costello was born and raised in Hubbard, Ohio, USA. Her greatest passion in life has always been to help animals. She is lucky enough to be a licensed veterinary technician and owner of The Canine Campus Training and Wellness Center where she helps animals through behavior work. A vegetarian since she was 6 years old and a vegan for the last 11 years, she currently has 7 dogs, 7 cats, 7 chickens and 2 roosters and 3 farm pigs that are amongst her dearest friends. She is founder of 2 non-profit organizations, K-9’s for Compassion (Co-founded with her father), a therapy animal group and The Together Journey, a service dog organization. She has been on the board of many animal organizations throughout her life, including Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary and C.H.A.I.N. (Community Helping Animals In Need). After losing her Father to Agent Orange in july 8, 2015, she also acquired another great mission…to help people who are living from the effects of Agent Orange. In April of 2017 Katie and her husband, Sam, a veterinarian, went to Pleiku, Vietnam to kick off their understanding of the mission. Fundraising is underway to assist VAVA in Pleiku on several projects.
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”
- John Lennon, Imagine, 1971.
The effects of war are far reaching, both internally and externally. Both sides lose in so many ways-generations affected, lives forever changed. Political decisions deciding the fate of so many.
Everyone who has ever lost anyone to war would inevitably wish things could somehow be different. No matter the country there is unbelievable pain from the loss of a loved one. There is a commonality. We spend a lot of time noticing the differences and the lines that have been drawn in the sand when we would be better served to embrace the differences and grow from them to a unified front that overcomes amazing problems. The color of our blood, the beating of our heart, the love we feel so deeply-we are all the same.
58,000 Americans and more than 2 million Vietnamese both North and South as well as tens of thousands in Laos and Cambodia died during the war. Multiply that by family and friends involved and it would be difficult to find many not affected by it in some way.
Life magazine headline, America 1963 “”17 hours that destroyed Diem”
Army Newspaper, North Vietnam 1972 “Victory in Quang Tri province”
Life magazine, America. 1967 “North Vietnam under siege: Chest-deep in sidewalk shelters, Hanoi residents wait for all-clear siren during air-raid alert”
Army Newspaper, North Vietnam 1972: “3,451 B52’s shot from Tay Ninh to Kon Tum, Pleiku. Victory!”
October 1970 a daughter was born in Hanoi, Vietnam. Her Father, a North Vietnamese soldier during the Anti-American war called her Nguyen Thuy Hao which means “Blue Flower”. June 1971 a daughter is born to a Vietnam veteran in Hubbard, Ohio, America. Her father an American Army soldier. I am this daughter.
Fast forward to July 8, 2015 my world changed. A great light had gone out-and a heavy blanket placed over me that will never leave. The way in which I would see the world would be tilted just slightly differently and all that I had known would be forever changed.
I stood with family in a small white room around a bed where my father lay. Machines hooked up and a respirator breathing for him. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 squamous non-small cell. We are here today after a 12-month battle with a disease that he was given 100% disability for.
1969-1970 Pleiku, Vietnam — Depending on which side you were on it was thought of as The Vietnam War or The Anti-American War. Agent Orange was sprayed throughout the countryside and sitting in barrels everywhere on the bases. Monsanto deemed it “safe”. It was anything but. Huge Scars on the American veterans, the Vietnamese veterans and the beautiful land of Vietnam where many died due to this “safe” chemical. This “safe” chemical was used in Operation Ranch Hand to spray 20 million gallons of agent orange over a 10-year period. A chemical that is difficult to break down. For more information:
Forty five years after my father was exposed to the chemical, he was diagnosed and spent his last year of life struggling to breath, control anxiety and deal with the inevitable end of his life. A war that had taken so much from the soldiers on both sides was still killing them decades later. And we only need to look at the Vietnamese people who are still being affected four generations later in some cases that this chemical was anything but safe.
Half way around the world in Vietnam, Nguyen Thuy Hoa had become fatherless 11 months prior and felt that same loss and pain.
During my drive home from the hospital after my Dad had died, I was struggling to control the anxiety and emotions I was experiencing. I arrived in my small town to find a Huey Helicopter from the Vietnam era landed in front of my town’s school. The timing of this was interesting, I noted. This was the first and last time this had ever happened. At that red light I said out loud, “I have to go to Vietnam.” I needed to bring back the piece of my Dad that was left behind in that country. I had a purpose there, I simply had to find it.
During his multiple stays in the hospital after his diagnosis my dad would ask for a member of the catholic clergy to come and visit him. He explained on a number of occasions he needed to understand how you reconcile the fact that you weren’t going to Vietnam war without killing someone. How is it okay when “thou shalt not Kill”. Of course, this bothered my Dad for all of those years. During those conversations I would put my head down with tears in my eyes that this is a real conversation that I am certain every soldier holds within and carries with them all the days of their lives. This bothered him greatly. I was certain that the strong feeling that I needed to go to Vietnam was part of this healing. I would go to Pleiku, where my Dad was stationed and help people still being affected by Agent Orange. Through the help of The Red Cross and Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) I found out that a facility existed in Pleiku, so now it would be for us to figure out how to help the current facility.
While I started fundraising, I was met with some resistance. Never meaning to offend anyone, I wasn’t ignoring the American veterans, but instead going to the source. Agent orange that had killed my father wasn’t in America. It was in Vietnam. While American Vietnam veterans needed a lot of help, I believe that there are programs in place in America that if someone needs help, they can receive that help. I set my goals on the country that we had sprayed. And all of those Americans effected came home and left behind the land that effects the Vietnamese people even today.
A few local newspapers had written the story of what I was doing. I hadn’t even begun to try to figure out the details of the logistics going to Vietnam. I received a FB message from someone in Vietnam in March 2016. “Dear Katie Costello, I am Hoa, (then) Vice Editor in Chief for Online Newspaper of Radio The Voice of Vietnam. Yesterday a Vietnamese overseas living in the US sent me the link of this article about your project. I think your project is very thoughtful. So, I posted this article on our website in English and Vietnamese versions, just to let you know. And I wish your project will soon finish successfully. Best Regards, Hoa.” Over the next few months Hoa helped me from start to finish in planning in my trip. She made many phone calls for me and answered endless questions. She found us an interpreter and she continues to interpret our letters to continue to work with VAVA.
We became friends. We started to explain our positions, and share information about our fathers. To find someone so open to helping a complete stranger was such a refreshing idea to me.
I truly find it so important to understand all sides of a picture. Otherwise, it is only partially understood. A solution will never be found in that way, and most importantly we will always be doomed to repeat history. We can learn from others who struggled and survived. Two examples are Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s Diary that was found after her death, “Last Night I Dreamed of Peace”, https://theculturetrip.com/asia/vietnam/articles/last-night-i-dreamed-of-peace-the-story-of-dr-dang-thuy-tram/ or from Captain Earl A. Pike https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/238/a-vietnam-diary
Hoa and I spoke for many hours. She taught me the ways of Vietnam, answered all of my questions that I had. Helped me to understand the culture, the history. I could never begin to thank her for all that she has done. One evening we were talking late into the night in America and not long before our visit to Vietnam. We had been talking about our dads and things we remembered and stories they told. I had asked her to send me a picture of her dad, and I remember realizing all at once that her dad and my dad would have been fighting against each other. It was in that moment that I realized how special this relationship was to me. How this relationship alone was a part of the healing I so badly needed from my dad’s death.
One generation from the soldier who fought, and two strangers, daughters of soldiers in that war were reaching across the table and shaking hands. Able to speak of what happened, and how our lives were forever changed-and be respectful of possible differences in opinions, while still allowing the other to have an opinion. Our experiences were no doubt vastly different. But we still knew what it was to lose a father. We still knew what it was like to feel the effects of agent orange, and to be passionate to the fact that people died on both sides of the war.
While in Vietnam I was so impressed with the Vietnamese acceptance of Americans. I never once felt like they were blaming us for anything, like we were there for any reason other than what we were there for. They were polite and congenial and kind. Hoa was merely one in many that endeared me to the culture. In one of our conversations Hoa explained that no one in Vietnam blames anyone for the war. Every soldier was simply doing his job. And what a beautiful way to overcome and accept what had happened. Holding hatred and greed in your heart was never going to be the answer for certain.
Hoa helped us so much that we decided to go to Hanoi during our trip. How could we possibly go all the way to Vietnam and not meet her after all that she had done for us? She showed us all around Hanoi. The John McCain memorial at Truc Bach Lake, the Long Bien Bridge, we saw the opera house and the museum of art. She presented factual historical pieces of her culture.
I went to Vietnam to bring home a piece of my father that had been lost there, however, in reality what I did was added a renewed spirit for the goodness of people within my heart. I found a friend and learned a lesson that I wish more would learn. Reach out, ask for the other sides’ opinion, listen. Stop the hatred and the divisions. Help a fellow being. And most of all, IMAGINE PEACE. Life is short. Embrace every moment in love and truth.
We sat down in a bar with a glass of wine and we toasted to our fathers. An unlikely duo, yet a forever friendship was born.
-Thank you, Nguyen Thuy Hoa, for your kindness and friendship you have strengthened my passion and desire to help the Vietnamese people suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. I plan to continue this project and have begun more fundraising as we determine the best way to help.
Anyone interested in donating to the project can go to the Gofundme page at: https://www.gofundme.com/agent-orange-relief-in-pleiku-vietnam&rcid=r01-155889906932-a994f5e1ba734e96&pc=ot_co_campmgmt_w
© Katie Costello