Schools Spring Up in Vietnam

One Marine's Dream Fulfilled

By: Patrick J. McGarvey

Tribute to a "Fortunate Son"

The origins of the Vietnam Veterans Home Page on the Internet stem from a desire to provide a continuing history of the significant efforts of Marine Corps officer Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Lew was able to move on and put the war behind him by extending himself to meet the needs of others. This is his story that lives on as an inspiration to us all and as a living memorial to him.

The Lewis B. Puller Elementary School at Dong Ha, Quang Tri Province opened its doors to Vietnamese children on April 24, 1995.

A second school will break ground this Spring at Son La, in Son La Province, Vietnam.

A third school is planned to begin construction as soon as possible in the Mekong Delta at Thanh Phu in Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam.

These schools were erected by the "movers and shakers" of the Vietnamese Memorial Association (VMA), who are dedicated to remembering the families and children of Vietnam lost during the Vietnam War - a dream of Lewis B. Puller, Jr.

VMA Emerges

The VMA is a non-profit corporation Co-founded in 1994 by Lewis B. Puller, Jr., who earned two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography, "Fortunate Son," a reference to his famous Marine Corps father, "Chesty" Puller. He conceived the idea of helping educate Vietnamese children on a 1994 return trip to Vietnam.

The other VMA Co-founder is John Wheeler, who served as chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. This organization funded the dream of Jan Scruggs and enabled the building of "The Wall" in Washington. He is a West Point graduate and received his law degree from Yale and his business degree from Harvard.

The plaque dedicating the Lewis B. Puller Elementary School reads: "This school was built by the donations of hundreds of Americans as a living memorial to the two million Vietnamese men, women and children who lost their lives in this country's recent wars and as a gesture of reconciliation and healing between the peoples of Vietnam and America. The building of this school was the dream of Lewis B. Puller, Jr. who was grievously wounded here and who died May 11, 1994."

With his untimely death, VMA decided to name the school after Puller who served in Quang Tri Province, where 84,000 Vietnamese died during the war. The Puller School is situated on the boundary (DMZ) between former north and south Vietnam - one of the war's most poignant symbols.

Quang Tri Province

All schools in Quang Tri Province were destroyed during the war. The province is financially unable to improve or construct schools for its burgeoning population of 520,000 that will reach 650,000 by the year 2000.

In the past, Vietnam boasted of an extraordinarily high literacy rate of 90%, but because of the damage to and destruction of schools during the war and the population growth, the literacy rate is rapidly declining. Today, there are 12,000 school age children not attending school in Quang Tri. There are also 14,000 illiterate children there between the ages of 6 and 14. Among ages 15 to 35, there are 12,000 who are illiterate.

Vietnamese families and friends make regular pilgrimages to Quang Tri, and many Americans who served in I-Corps travel there. In time, a monument will be built.

Cooperative Effort

VMA developed this project in conjunction with the Vietnamese government, individual, and corporate donors to build 40 schools in 40 provinces throughout Vietnam between 1996 and 2000 at a total cost of $2.6 million.

Le Van Bang, Vietnam's Ambassador to the United Nations said in a letter to John Wheeler that "the project has moved the hearts of the many officials and citizens in Vietnam who have come in contact with the Association."

He continued, "I believe that this is because the project not only meets urgent needs of our country but also because the project is so powerful as a symbol. In Vietnam it is the symbol of the concern and friendship of the people of America - though the project is not massive in terms of cost, it is very large and nationally known in the message of friendship that it conveys."

Ambassador Le Van Bang said, "In my heart, I say `How can I not help them?' They are willing to help our children."

The Ambassador closed his letter by saying, "The men and women steering the Association have stature in the United States but are also well-known and respected in Vietnam. I am pleased to work with them as Ambassador and as an informal advisor."

The "Movers and Shakers" of VMA

Honorary Directors of VMA are the Honorable John W. Warner, United States Senator from Virginia ( R ) and the Honorable Charles S. Robb, United States Senator from Virginia ( D ).

The Board of Directors are Co-chaired by Kieu Chin, born in north Vietnam and raised in south Vietnam, she settled in California after the war. She is an award-winning actress and most recently starred in the film "The Joy Luck Club."

Over $218,000 is already pledged to this project by VMA, Coca Cola Corporation, MCI, and private donors. Fund raising efforts continue today, headed by Terry Anderson, Co-Chair of VMA, former Marine veteran of Vietnam and Associated Press Bureau Chief in Beirut when he was taken hostage and remained a captive for seven years.

The Board also includes Joy Carol, who has been in the forefront of unity and reconciliation issues regarding Vietnam and the United States for the past five years. She is Director of Child and Family Services for the Christian Children's Fund and the Convenor of the United States Forum on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Edward Timperlake, another Board Member, is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and holds an MBA from Cornell. He flew F-4 Phantoms with the U.S. Marines in Southeast Asia and is a former Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President Bush.

Board Member William B. Richards is Senior Vice president of Nat West Securities, a subsidiary of National Westminster Bank in New York. He served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 and has long been active in charitable works.

Patricia Derian, another Board Member committed to working for human rights, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be the first Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.

VMA Looks to the Future

VMA plans the typical school to have 12 classrooms and house 585 students in a three-shift day. Each province will raise a portion of the costs of its school. Completed schools are given to the province by the VMA to the Vietnamese, who staff and equip the school.

The total per school cost to VMA is expected to average $85,000. The Puller School was completed on time and on budget with excellent construction based on inspection by an engineer retained by VMA. The prototype was built with $75,000 from VMA and $50,000 raised by the province of Quang Tri.

The mission of VMA is to create a "living memorial" in the form of these schools to help close the past and look to the future by educating the children of Vietnam.

This program is an opportunity to contribute to a proven, efficient project with long-term impact in Vietnam in elementary education where help is sorely needed and will not be met without substantial private sector involvement.

Almost all of Vietnam's elementary school buildings are decades old, damaged from wars, and in need of replacement and repair. With a population soaring past 70 million, Vietnam will need substantial private sector help in meeting their educational crisis.

Contributions to the Vietnamese Memorial Association's school building project may be sent to:

Update 20 October 2003

This project is now called the Vietnam Children's Fund (VCF)

They have a website at

Please access their website for current information and points of contact

Vietnamese Memorial Association

Vietnam Children's Fund

Box 150, Unionville, Virginia 22567

For more information call (202) 347-2422

Patrick J. McGarvey is a contributor to the Vietnam Veterans Home Page and an active member of VVA Chapter 228 of New Jersey, who served in Vietnam with the CIA.