Danny Cunningham didn't walk away. He was medivaced out of the Central Highlands near Dak To in '68, a short timer with only 28 days left in country. He'd hesitated for a long moment after Barbara asked about his injuries. "I was what's called a 'riding grunt' in the war. I rode on top of an APC on the look-out for signs of an ambush. I was wounded when we drove right into one.
There were eight guys in the APC and several of them were killed. A B-40 rocket-propelled grenade took off my left leg and three fingers. Shrapnel took out one of my eyes and blinded the other for eighteen months. I thought alot about forgiveness during those eighteen months," he reflected. If anyone had reason to hate the Viet Cong, it was Danny. "Why hate the poor Vietnamese? Nixon and Kissinger deserved it more. The thing is, people blamed our loss here more on the ones who fought the war than the ones who put us here. Sixty-thousand vets have committed suicide since the war ended. Alot of veterans who have survived don't want to get close to anyone because they're afraid that suddenly they won't be around anymore."
Back in the states, Danny felt out of sync with other veterans, he didn't understand those who wre gung-ho on the war, and they didn't under- stand him. "I'd get into arguments with World War II vets in bars when I said the war stunk. I told a different story than they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear war glorified."
Shortly after he was drafted and sent overseas, Danny decided he didn't want to be in Vietnam shooting those he thought of as kind, gentle people. He couldn't understand what the US was doing there. Many soldiers who didn't believe in the war did what they had to do to stay alive, did what was required of them and no more. Their main concern was staying out of a body bag, dogtags jammed between their teeth.
Alive, misunderstood, and feeling unwelcome in America, Danny couldn't sleep nights. "I've been sleeping a hell of alot better since I got back here. It took twenty-two years to get back here, but today I fill my days in Vietnam constructively instead of destructively." He is a member of the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project, the first American organization to build anything in Vietnam since the war. The first project built the 'Friendship Clinic' in the seaside village of Vung Tau, and there are plans for an eighth in Khe Sanh, a place whose name is seared into America's war memory along with My Lai, Ia Drang, and Hamburger Hill.
I'd had the opportunity to witness first-hand how badly Vietnam needs hospitals like the ones the VVRP helps build. My group had stopped in a village in Hoa Binh Province in northern Vietnam. The village doctor was delighted at our interest in her work and she donned her whites to bring us to her hospital. The doctor threw open the louvred doors of a dilapidated building. Inside, settling flies went unchased. Rusty iron beds with only finger thin straw mattresses for comfort decorated the otherwise bare room at random. Silent, barely curious patients regarded us dully as their families tried to get them to eat the rice they'd brought. There were no kitchens at the hospital, but that was the least of the essen- tials they lacked. The doctor drew down the sheet from a woman upon whom she'd recently performed abdominal surgery, justly proud of her work. I had dozens of bandaids in my first aid kit, bottles of prescription medication. I was prepared for blisters and intestinal distress, they were prepared for little and faced with everything.
Danny Cunningham feels a personal responsibility to Vietnam. "I was sick of the embargo and all the hate. I came to Vietnam to be more than a tourist, to do something with the people and for the people. I wanted to get something more out of coming here." He is a specialist on solar power and strongly encourages in Vietnam a dependence on that cheap, non-polluting energy rather than oil, a catalyst for war. The Vietnamese on the My Lai project put their trust in his knowledge and approved the strange, alternative energy. A photo in the VVRP's January 1994 newsletter shows Danny and his team-mates grinning proudly, sitting beside the huge batteries that would power the My Lai clinic. Such work is healing, both spiritually and tangibly.
The Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project seems to have been a godsend for Danny, as perhaps it has been for the fifty-four others who have participated in their projects. It has helped bring peace to those veterans who still held the war inside decades later. Going back to where it all happened, to where their lives changed forever. Their work is simple, yet highly meaningful for those involved. Americans work side by side with their former alies and enemies. The Vietnamese who had become dehumanized to American soldiers during the war become human once more. Danny and many other veterans he's worked with on projects have experienced a certain transformation as a result.
Those who apply to the VVRP are screened by staff and psychologists befoe embarking on the journey back to Vietnam. They must be considered capable of handling the emotional impact of return and those who abuse drugs or alcohol will not be accepted. In addition, they take part in a training program beforehand to ensure that the group will bond as a unit. During the war, soldiers embarked on a lone journey through the war. They were not trained or rotated as a unit. Cohesion was difficult to achieve as experienced soldiers left after their one year tour of dury and inexperienced ones replaced them. The VVRP will not repeat the mistakes of the military. This time no one faces Vietnam alone and no one goes home alone.
A return to Vietnam on a project of healing allows the veterans to accept and come to terms with the part they played in the war, or at least begin to address that difficult issue. It is a tough mission. Surrounded by those on the same mission, they can confront their buried emotions, pain, and loss with understanding and support. And perhaps they can allow themselves the forgiveness they've denied themselves all these years. Maybe the war can finally end in a far more positive way. They wouldn't be back if it had truly ended for them before.
Danny feels pride in the work he carries out in Vietnam today and believes passionately in his mission. He spends all the time he can in Vietnam, giving everything he has. Twenty-two years of pain can take a long time to heal and the healing can open up a new life. Danny's life is full. He's filling the emptiness.