The government of Vietnam, which expelled religious relief agencies such as World Vision in 1975, has invited the California-based organization back into the Communist country.
World Vision’s acceptance does not come without irony and mixed emotions.
President Robert Seiple, whose office is at the evangelical Christian organization’s headquarters in Monrovia, flew 300 combat missions over North Vietnam in the 1960s as a much-decorated U.S. Marine Corps pilot.
Need for Artificial Limbs
Back this week from making arrangements with Vietnamese officials, Seiple said the first step will be to seek 25 tons of resins for use in making artificial limbs and other aids to the handicapped. Seiple estimated that possibly 60,000 people in Vietnam are missing limbs, most of the injuries war-related.
“I do not feel driven to do this because I was a part of it,” Seiple said. “My first priority is to do what we as a corporation need to do. This is a time for healing, for reconciliation.”
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Vietnam, but in January the U.S. State Department encouraged private agencies to give much-needed charitable support to the country. Between 1965 and 1975, World Vision channeled more than $1 million annually in relief supplies through humanitarian groups in Vietnam.
“Very few agencies have attempted to go back in, and we are at the forefront of those trying to resume work,” Seiple said.
The Vietnam War left “an open wound that hasn’t healed,” he said. “There are still a great deal of psychological hurts and unresolved issues"--a factor that Seiple said will have to be taken into account when World Vision, already doing work in 80 countries, seeks to garner donor support in this country.
“I have my own personal emotional tugs,” Seiple admitted. “I’ve got a lot of friends missing in action. Periodically some remains are sent back (by the Vietnamese government). Over 2,000 people are missing in action. There’s a high probability that some are still alive. That’s a fairly devastating thought.”
Seiple said he believes that if World Vision can contribute to reconciliation and relief in Vietnam, then perhaps “it will bring other issues, including the MIA matter, to completion.”
World Vision plans to send a survey team to Vietnam within six months to assess needs in Da Nang province and elsewhere.
“We want to obtain a long-term presence in Vietnam and as soon as possible,” Seiple said. Only in that way, he said, could the relief agency be accountable to its donors on how materials and money are used and spent.
“We are on the verge of in-country presence,” he said. “For the time being, we can be there only six weeks at a time for two or three times a year.”
He speculated that Vietnam--already beset by sanitation problems, bad roads, power outages and alarming shortages of medicine--may experience even worse conditions before government officials there will ask for more help.
“It is a country that won the war but in many respects lost the peace,” he said. “They are a people who have been patient with suffering and who are tough negotiators.”
During a 6-day trip through Vietnam this month, Seiple visited the former site of World Vision’s New Life Baby Home, once one of the world’s largest orphanages when it provided care for as many as 30,000 children. The agency had established a child sponsorship program in South Vietnam in 1960.
In the late 1970s, World Vision channeled funds to aid Vietnamese refugees in Thailand and ran Operation Seasweep in the South China Sea to rescue so-called “boat people” refugees. In more recent years--still remaining out of the country--the agency has contributed flood relief, medical supplies and artificial limbs for amputees.
“If the country does not receive massive assistance, once-beautiful cities will be transformed into slums,” Seiple said.
“It is particularly tragic to look into the expectant eyes of an Amerasian street kid reduced to total poverty yet hoping some day her father will return to take her home to the U.S.,” he said.
As a Christian organization, he said, World Vision “wants to bring healing to people in this country. I’m delighted that we are there.”
He added that he may have “personal hopes” about resolving the missing-in-action issue but that the relief agenda of the organization is what determines its mission there.