EX­PAT CORNER US veteran finds peace­ful home

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Al­though nearly half a cen­tury has passed, the Amer­i­can war’s ca­su­al­ties and vic­tims con­tinue to suf­fer.

Many Amer­i­can vet­er­ans have re­turned to Vieät Nam to sup­port them. Matthew Keenan, 68, is among those who re­turned to help ease the pain.

Keenan joined the war in Vieät Nam by the end of 1971 as an ad­min­is­tra­tive spe­cial­ist, trav­el­ling to Cam Ranh Bay, Chu Lai and Ñaø Naüng.

Re­turn­ing to New York in May 1972, he con­tin­ued his col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. Then he did le­gal work in New York pris­ons, taught para­le­gal cour­ses in col­leges, be­came a lawyer and man­aged com­pa­nies and prop­er­ties in Philadel­phia and New York. He got mar­ried, hav­ing two daugh­ters and four grand­chil­dren.

Over the years, he was aware of the use of Agent Or­ange dur­ing the war in Vieät Nam. All three places he had been sta­tioned are listed as Agent Or­ange “hot spots”.

Keenan was di­ag­nosed with prostate cancer, which his doc­tors sus­pected was re­lated to his ex­po­sure to Agent Or­ange. He re­searched the sub­ject and re­alised that mil­lions of Viet­namese peo­ple were af­fected and the US gov­ern­ment was not do­ing much to help. While they pro­vided funds for de­con­tam­i­na­tion, there was not much help for vic­tims.

“I felt a per­sonal obli­ga­tion and de­sire to help the chil­dren at the Agent Or­ange day care cen­tres,” he told Vieät Nam News. “It’s my per­sonal way to work to­gether for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, ref­or­ma­tion and a bet­ter fu­ture.”

He has vis­ited Vieät Nam nine times since 2015, each visit last­ing around eight to 12 weeks. Most of his time is ded­i­cated to do­ing vol­un­teer work for day care cen­tres of the Ñaø Naüng As­so­ci­a­tion for Vic­tims of Agent Or­ange (DAVA).

One can find him work­ing with the staff, mak­ing in­cense sticks for sale, gar­den­ing, trim­ming the sewing prod­ucts or do­ing some re­pairs with a few min­utes of singing, danc­ing and play­ing foot­ball and bas­ket­ball.

He some­times re­ceives stu­dents from Aus­tralia, South Korea, Ja­pan and Thai­land, who visit the cen­tres to help spread aware­ness about prob­lems caused by Agent Or­ange and its ef­fects on Viet­namese adults and chil­dren.

“My main pur­pose with the chil­dren af­fected by Agent Or­ange is to help them have fun, to give them some friendly at­ten­tion, to help them smile and laugh and to be a voice to com­mu­ni­cate aware­ness to help ob­tain sup­port in the form of money, food or ser­vices,” he said. “I also have the op­por­tu­nity to be in­volved with the staff and chil­dren at fundrais­ing events. We at­tend marathons and bike races and sell some of the prod­ucts to the com­mu­nity.”

Keenan said some of the chil­dren have se­ri­ous phys­i­cal chal­lenges while oth­ers have in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenges.

“I treat ev­ery­one equally,” he said. “I try to give at­ten­tion to each per­son whether it is do­ing an ac­tiv­ity such as writ­ing, colour­ing or play­ing sports. What­ever the ac­tiv­ity, I al­ways try to bring a happy spirit.”

Some­times he sees a par­tic­u­lar need at the cen­tre. At one cen­tre, he brought a flat screen TV set. For an­other cen­tre, he bought a new sound sys­tem. Last year, with the as­sis­tance of some other vet­er­ans, he pur­chased three gar­den swings for the chil­dren to re­lax out­doors.

A larger pro­ject is to ob­tain a safe bus. The cen­tre has one van, mean­ing 30 chil­dren are packed into a van made for 12. Keenan is rais­ing funds to buy a larger and safer bus.

“He has been en­thu­si­as­tic about the cen­tre’s work,” said Toâ Naêm, DAVA di­rec­tor. “Be­sides help­ing us care for the chil­dren, he also helps us con­tact spon­sors for the cen­tre. He has paid a lot of money to make a bas­ket­ball court and buy toys for the cen­tre.”

Many peo­ple asked why he kept com­ing back. He re­sponded by show­ing them his photos with the chil­dren.

“Friends and fam­ily tell me that I look so happy,” he said. “All I can say is that I feel joy in my heart. There is a bond I share; we are all vic­tims of the Agent Or­ange chem­i­cal used dur­ing the war.”

“I feel a sense of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and friend­ship with the Viet­namese peo­ple where there was once de­struc­tion and chaos,” he said. “While I al­ways try to present a happy face, there are times that in pri­vate re­flec­tive mo­ments, I feel sad.”

Dur­ing the Lu­nar New Year fes­ti­val ear­lier this year, one of the boys at the cen­tre who was al­ways in a wheel­chair and suf­fered res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems died.

Keenan’s close friend Jimmy Thomp­son, who had been ex­posed to Agent Or­ange in Ñaø Naüng in 1972, also died on July 23, 2018 of spinal cancer.

Keenan said he had se­ri­ously con­sid­ered how to solve the prob­lem of go­ing back and forth be­tween New York and Ñaø Naüng.

“The prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion is to live in Ñaø Naüng and stay there with the DAVA chil­dren, and then I can visit my other home in New York,” he said. “I con­sider Ñaø Naüng and the DAVA day care cen­tres to be my sec­ond home.”

Over the years, Keenan has met many peo­ple in Ñaø Naüng and has made many friends. They of­ten go on small trips to Hoäi An and other sites near Ñaø Naüng.

He has also en­joyed trav­el­ling to Haø Noäi and has some friends there. At Hoaøn Kieám Lake, he spoke with stu­dents who asked to prac­tise speak­ing English.

“I en­joy walk­ing along the beach and run­ning by the water,” he said. “I have some favourite Viet­namese and western style restau­rants. I like phôû, chicken or beef with noo­dles and fish. How­ever, I like to cook and pre­pare many meals by my­self.”

He even gets around on mo­tor­bike.

Keenan said he had no cul­ture shock in Vieät Nam.

“I lived in New York my whole life,” he said. “All cul­tures through­out the world live in New York and I am used to be­ing with many dif­fer­ent peo­ple with dif­fer­ent cul­tures.”

Keenan no­ticed that Viet­namese peo­ple do things spon­ta­neously.

“I of­ten re­ceive a call from some­one to ask me if I would like to do some­thing im­me­di­ately,” he said.

“I love Vieät Nam and will con­tinue to come back and ded­i­cate my time to vic­tims of Agent Or­ange.

I feel a strong de­sire to live the words of my mother’s wel­come home mes­sage on the door [when I re­turned from war in 1972]: ‘ Wel­come home. Love, peace and hap­pi­ness.’” — VNS

Ex­pat Corner is a space where ex­pats can share their ex­pe­ri­ences of Vieät Nam or events for the cal­en­dar and reach out to one an­other in the thriv­ing ex­pat com­mu­nity, so please email your sto­ries or list­ings to [email protected]­mail.com

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