The Vietnam experience: a springboard for compassion

Seventeen years ago in Duc Pho, a small Vietnamese village near the South China Sea, two Vietnamese children searched aimlessly through a pile of rubble, finding nothing. Frail, frightened, weather-beaten, and apparently alone in life, their hopelessness touched Sgt. John Wetterer deeply and fostered his own search for ways to help such children trapped by war. Mr. Wetterer is one of a number of Vietnam war veterans who have chosen to stand the bitterness of the war on its head. These veterans have transferred their war experience to the civilian workplace -- in effect, they are doing today what they did in Vietnam.

Estimates of the number of veterans using today the skills they learned in Vietnam are speculative. The Veterans Administration does not track such information. But the success of some veterans in building a foundation on the ashes of Southeast Asia is not surprising to Everett Alvarez Jr., deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, a former Navy pilot and the longest-held prisoner of war in North Vietnam -- 81/2 years. ``These veterans have been in difficult situations and made tough decisions,'' he says. ``They are proven and marketable resources.''

An Army draftee from Massapequa, N.Y., John Wetterer was a ``ground pounder'' who more than anything else wanted not to kill. However, much of his view of the war came from his stomach as he patrolled the jungles seeking Viet Cong, never knowing if a guerrilla soldier would suddenly appear beside him. He was wounded twice.

But despite the uncertainty and chaos surrounding him, Mr. Wetterer was not blinded to another, even sadder struggle -- that of thousands of Vietnamese children orphaned or left homeless.

``Children were the most vulnerable human beings in Vietnam and I found it hard to stand by and watch their suffering without offering some help,'' Mr. Wetterer recalls.

Like most wars, Vietnam spawned orphanages. A host of makeshift homes sprang up among the burned-out hamlets of the countryside, many managed by nuns. The orphanages were run down, the provisions meager at best.

Mr. Wetterer saw the dire need of both the children and nuns and volunteered to help supply them with medicine, food, clothing, and other supplies that he obtained from his unit.

``It was my way of helping to brighten a grim situation for the kids,'' he says. ``I was no hero. I was just trying to help the helpless.''

After leaving Vietnam, Mr. Wetterer felt a deeply grounded attachment to children caught in the midst of misery. He realized that life behind a desk would leave him empty.

``Vietnam made me comprehend the intense needs of others, particularly children trapped by circumstances they had no control of.''

Mr. Wetterer's civilian days caring for orphans began in 1975 when he returned to Vietnam and left several months later with 600 orphans, from infant to six years old. By the end of the year, all but three of the children were placed with families. The other three Mr. Wetterer himself adopted.

Today, Mr. Wetterer continues to work with orphaned children. He is legal guardian to 250 boys whose lives consisted of wandering the streets of Guatemala City. Mr. Wetterer lives with the youngsters in Mi Casa (My House), a former children's hospital converted into dormitories. Mi Casa contains an eight-grade school, playground, bilingual library, petting zoo, science laboratory, and swimming pool dug and tiled by the boys.

``If it wasn't for Vietnam, I couldn't conceive of myself doing what I'm doing today,'' Mr. Wetterer says. ``Nobody who was a soldier in Vietnam will ever forget those days. But it was a springboard for me to do something better, not a crutch for failure.''

For Mike Turner, Vietnam was a training ground for his job as an ambulance helicopter pilot for Skycare, an air rescue service dispatched out of Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky.

Mr. Turner served mainly in Laos and Thailand during the late stages of the war in 1971-72. A trained Marine helicopter pilot, he led a number of ``search and rescue'' missions for GIs wounded or shot down in ground and air skirmishes with the Viet Cong. His mission was to save the lives of soldiers; his mission today is to provide the same service for civilians.

``The idea (in Vietnam) was to pick 'em up and get them out and back to safety as fast as humanly possible,'' Mr. Turner says. ``No one ever died in my helicopter.''

When his hitch was over, Mr. Turner returned to Kentucky where he became a state trooper. But he yearned to fly again.

A few years later and by chance he met someone who was starting a helicopter ambulance service. He was hired, and the link between Vietnam and civilian life in Kentucky was forged.

Mr. Turner describes his stateside missions for Skycare as ``the usual number of car accidents, teen-age joy-rider victims, relatives fighting over land, men shooting each other over women,'' and the like.

``The speed of a helicopter makes it ideal to navigate the mountainous terrain in Kentucky and nearby states,'' Mr. Turner says.

Just like Vietnam.

``Vietnam gave me an occupation for the rest of my life,'' he explains. ``That country and the war will always be part of me. But with Skycare I'm making it a part of other people's lives as well. It's a way to make more sense of what went on over there, to know that the war produced something positive.''

Indeed, Vietnam was a varied training ground. Author Peter Drucker comments in his book, ``The Effective Executive'': ``In a guerrilla war, every man is an executive.''

Such sentiments click with Gene Gitelson. A platoon leader with the Army's First Infantry Division in 1966-67, Lieutenant Gitelson was stationed in Phuc Vin, a town 30 miles northwest of Saigon. At 21 years old, he led a rifle platoon and 35-man supply unit whose job was to make certain that ground forces under fire were well stocked with guns, ammunition, and other supplies.

Oftentimes, Mr. Gitelson would lead his unit into the teeth of artillery fire while bringing in supplies and working with air command to set up smoke screens to usher in troop reinforcements. Teamwork and organization were essential to accomplishing the task.

During the expeditions, Mr. Gitelson was thrust into classic management situations: dealing with uncertainty in a stressful environment, managing people, handling obstacles, and being responsible for results.

``Can you think of any better training for the real world?'' asks Mr. Gitelson, who today is the guiding force behind the New York-based Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, a nonprofit group which helps Vietnam veterans find work.

``If that type of job doesn't qualify a veteran for a management job in the business world, then I don't know what does.''

Yet, to Mr. Gitelson's dismay, many veterans choose to ignore and even deny that valuable experience, often lamenting they have nothing to offer a potential employer.

``You tell me about the pilot in Vietnam who is flying in Kentucky, the nurse who continued nursing after the war, or the MP who became a cop,'' Mr. Gitelson says. ``For them, the transition over to civilian life was easy to recognize. But for less-skilled veterans, the pure experience of being in Vietnam, working with others, leading men, is not clearly transferable to jobs for them. The transition is far more subtle.''

Personally, Mr. Gitelson understood the subtlety. When he returned from the war, he worked as a market researcher for Seagram & Sons; as a bank office analyst for Chase Manhattan Bank; as a community organizer on New York's Lower East Side; and as a consultant on negotiations strategy at the United Nations. For each job, his Vietnam experience served as underpinning.

``I was pushed to an edge in Vietnam that I never would have gotten to had I not been a soldier over there fighting a war,'' Mr. Gitelson explains. ``It made me strong and gave me the courage to take on all the things I have done since I returned.''

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