In Vietnam, 40 years after ...
Hope springs from the ashes of My Lai
By Norm Stockwell
March 16th marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous My Lai massacre. In four hours on
that morning in 1968, 504 civilians were killed by members of the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The
revelations and subsequent trial of Lt. William Calley changed the way many Americans viewed
the war. For the Vietnamese, it was a symbol of U.S. brutality.
Today, 40 years later, there is a new spirit of reconciliation between our two countries, in part
fostered by a group of Madison residents. The Madison Quakers Projects in Vietnam began 15
years ago, and now they have sponsored over three thousand microcredit loans to women in
Quang Ngai province – the area surrounding My Lai. They have also funded a primary school
and the building of a Peace Park .
Project director Mike Boehm served in Vietnam in 1968-69. After he left the Army, he worked
a variety of jobs around the Madison area, eventually becoming a self-employed carpenter. It was
his carpentry skills that led him back to Vietnam. In 1991, he joined a project with other
carpenters to help build a school in Vieques, Puerto Rico. After returning to Madison, he thought
to himself, why not do this in Vietnam as well? Boehm was opposed to the interventionist policies
of the Reagan and Bush regimes, and felt that we, as a country, still owed a debt to the people of
Vietnam for the devastation our country had caused there, so he sought out projects of
rebuilding. Boehm found a group of veterans that were returning to Vietnam in 1992 to help build
a hospital and he signed up.
Boehm had thought he was unaffected by his tour of duty in Vietnam, after all, he had not
served in any heavy combat situations during the war. But on returning to that country, he found
that he had been deeply impacted, and that he wanted to dedicate himself to helping heal the
wounds of war. When he returned to Madison, Boehm got together with several others, including
UW Professor Joe Elder, a member of the Madison Friends Meeting (Quakers) who had traveled to
Hanoi with medical supplies in 1969. Together, they formed the Madison Quakers, Inc. and in
January 1994 sent their first $3,000 in microcredit loans funds to the Women's Union of Quang
Today, the Madison Quakers are highly regarded in Vietnam for their unceasing work. A tree is
planted in their honor outside the My Lai Memorial Museum (along with another in honor of
Boehm alone). This year's official commemoration ceremonies at the site of the My Lai massacre
included numerous mentions of the work of Madison Quakers, and a chance for Boehm, Elder
and others to place a wreath at the base of the Memorial sculpture. Boehm also played his violin
in the ceremony, replicating a scene in an award-winning Vietnamese film by director Tran Van
Thuy in which Mike Boehm's violin offering to the spirits of the dead on both sides became a
symbol of the building of peace and reconciliation.
This year's ceremonies featured another component as well. A group of “Hibakusha” —
survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki attended the ceremonies and
planted trees at the Peace Park and the Primary School. According to Boehm, this brought the
projects to a new level: “...expanding the scope and the impact that the My Lai Peace Park has
had on more and more people around the world; because people around the world are in
despair, not only just us Americans, and they’re looking for hope wherever they can find it, and
they are finding it in the My Lai Peace Park.” The group is led by Japanese professor Hiroshi
Fujimoto of Nanzan University. Fujimoto said “…their goal here is to bring the message of peace,
the importance of peace. The Hibakusha have the idea, the message, that the same thing
[deaths of innocent civilians] should not be repeated again.” I had a chance to tour some of the
Madison Quakers projects while in Quang Ngai this past March. The primary school is definitely a
thriving hub of activity with young children sitting in orderly, albeit fidgety rows during the ground
breaking ceremony, but then bursting into song with Japanese folksinger Kumiko Yokoi as she led
them in a rousing chorus of a Vietnamese ode to “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh 1890-1969 - the father,
or perhaps now the grandfather, of Vietnamese independence).
But some of the happiest faces I saw were those of the loan recipients.
We visited several homes of women who had been able to bring their lives, and their family's
lives, out of the most abject poverty through the acquisition of a cow or water buffalo. As Ms.
Pham Thi Mu a member of the Hre ethnic minority told me in one village (by way of a translator)
“Thanks to the Madison Quakers loan fund, she has money to buy the buffaloes, and thanks to the
buffaloes she can sell them or use them for plowing to improve her family's conditions ... they are
Another area of work, that I heard about, but did not visit, is an expanding program by the
Madison Quakers to fund what are called “compassion houses” for the victims of Agent Orange.
Agent Orange (together with the danger of unexploded landmines) represents the most bitter and
persistent legacy of the war. The toxins in this chemical defoliant remain in the soil for years, and
have left a legacy of cancers and birth defects in those exposed or their offspring. Chuck Searcy,
a Vietnam veteran now doing humanitarian work in Quang Tri province told me “...[the link to
Agent Orange] may not be proven, but let’s provide them with humanitarian assistance so that
they can improve their lives and get beyond the crippling disabilities that have been such a huge
burden on them for so many years since the end of the war.”
The work of the Madison Quakers is held in high regard in Quang Ngai. They are the only
group permitted to work with the ethnic minority communities in this region. This is certainly in
part due to the tireless efforts of Mike Boehm. Mr. Phan Van Do is the in-country coordinator for
the projects. Do himself is a typical victim of the violence caused by decades of French and then
U.S. military interventions (he lost his grandfather, mother, father and brother to these wars).
Today, he is committed to the idea of building peace and reconciliation.
He told me why the Madison Quakers were so different: “…they kept coming back, because
other foreigners, they just come and go...[but] Mike and his friends; their effort here is to try to
build understanding and remove hatred....”.
Celebrating 15 years of projects in Vietnam, the Madison Quakers can point to a lot of
successes. For Boehm, those successes are not measured merely in numbers of loans given out,
or in rooms added to the primary school – although these have certainly made a tangible
difference in the lives of the people of the community of Tinhke and the province of Quang Ngai.
Boehm observes: “...what we have done in My Lai is something we can offer the world. What
we have shown is that if former enemies can sit down together with humility and a willingness to
listen and learn from each other, anything is possible – because if hope can arise from the ashes
of My Lai, hope can arise anywhere in the world.”
Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist and Operations Coordinator at WORT-FM in
Madison, Wis. In March 2008, he traveled to Vietnam to cover the 40th anniversary of the My Lai
(Top to bottom) Mike Boehm, coordinator of
the Madison Quakers Projects in Vietnam,
plays the violin during ceremonies at the
base of the My Lai memorial sculpture.
Boehm's fiddle playing was used to
represent the spirit of peace and
reconciliation in the award-winning
Vietnamese film "The Sound of the Violin at
• The site of the My Lai massacre now holds
a museum and a reconstruction of the
village. The site of each foundation where a
home once stood contains a sign listing the
names of family members killed there.
• Marjorie Nelson volunteered as a Quaker
doctor in Quang Ngai in 1967-68. In 1968,
she was captured by the Vietcong and spent
two months in the mountains. Forty years
later, she returned to the province to offer
prayers for the spirits of the dead on both
sides of the war.