Is Anyone Haunted by The Something They Almost Did?

It was April 1969.  I just turned 19 and was in Vietnam for about two weeks.  I grabbed my rifle for a mission. The plan was to set up an ambush site on some rice paddy a few miles from downtown Saigon.  We would set up and wait until dark - then maybe move again to outsmart the local Viet Cong.  The smells and sights were amazing and dramatic in this rural nation which had seen much warfare and tragedy throughout history. Adversaries  like France and Kubla Khan had not fared well.  I was no Kubla Khan, just a teen aged GI still learning how to shave. After High School I volunteered for the draft. That is what brought me to “The Nam." Uncle Sam got "in a terrible jam way down yonder in Vietnam” as Country Joe McDonald sung to adoring crowds.

We came upon a village as evening approached.  The pungent, memorable odor of Viet Fish Sauce, known as Nuc Mom, was wafting through the air with women making soup as dinner was being prepared.  The conical hats and sandals of the men and women were almost comical to me.  This was my first patrol.  Suddenly a wagon driven by a water buffalo approached. Two boys were gently keeping the beasts on the dirt road by tapping them with wooden sticks.  Was this a VC Attack with bombs in the wagon?  I ran up to them with my M16 and pointed the rifle at the one of the boys. I put a bullet in the chamber, took the safety off and placed the rifle a few inches from his head.  The boy looked scared.  Then he broke a smile.  I saw a crucifix around his neck.  My mind went blank.  “Jesus, I could have killed a ten year old Catholic kid. Would I survive the guilt?  Why did I chamber a round?"  I put the safety back on my rifle and looked in the wagon. There were some bricks and clods of earth.  I waved him on, “You are free to go."  I felt like an idiot.  No one was harmed, but the memory of nearly blowing this kids head off never left me.  

I finished my tour and never did anything like that again. I was seriously wounded and decorated for gallantry in a year that was unpleasant, but fairly tame, mostly dropping 81MM  Motor Rounds down a tube at targets a half mile away.  But as years went on I never quite forgot that kid and my stupidity at pointing  a loaded rifle at his head.  

Thirty years later I was back in Vietnam.  It was year 2000, the 25th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.  I was CEO of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.   I brought to Vietnam some wealthy and successful Vietnam Veterans who were part of the "Corporate Council”.  We were VIPs in Vietnam and began our trip with meeting the nation’s political leadership. I brought Jim Kimsey with me who started America Online and Christos Cotsakos, CEO of Etrade. The American and world wide media followed us everywhere. There were tearful events and great emotion.  We met up with Senator McCain in Saigon. The Viets were Uber Pissed at him.  McCain told the media that “The Wrong Side Won."  Most veterans agreed with him.  Historians and others will re litigate the Vietnam War until hell freezes over with the ghost of John McCain!  

The Vietnamese had considerable interest in trade relations.  Multinational corporations like NIKE,  North Face, Ford and others moved in.   It was nice to see the rather modest destiny of Vietnam unfolding in Asia. They have good ports and an energetic work force.   Allow me to note the excellent beaches, hotels and golf courses.  I was looking to find a way to do something good in Vietnam.  

I scouted around with some traveling companions and we went to Quang Tri near the old Ai Tu airbase.  Quang Tri is rural and a tad handicapped by relentless air strikes and huge tank battles in 1973 which leveled most of Quang Tri's towns and cities.  We were enjoying the day when a kid about 12 years old was sitting along the highway.  Our interpreter did the talking. “Mr Scruggs (the boy says) there are beaucoup (many) bombs very close to our car."  He said he would show us. Holy shit, about 30 rounds from Mortars were stacked.  Most were US, which were dangerous since they met NATO Standards which kept the primer dry in plastic. There was some worthless Chinese ammo with dead primers. The real prize was a French Mortar round.  I halfway thought the Vietnamese set the kid up to lure us in with American money to spend.  Who knows.   They obviously needed help to solve a big problem with unexploded ordnance.  

"I keep finding the ammunition and I put it our back yard since the other kids want to play with it" he said to our interpreter.  I was starting to get a flash back to Saigon.  The Quang Tri kid was wearing a USA hat. That night I had a very bad dream.  The kid was flying through the air in an explosion. I saw the cap twirling.  A dream in Vietnam began an decade long odyssey.  Founder of The Wall, Jan Scruggs, was gonna remove bombs and ordnance from Quang Tri.  As with the Wall, I was on another mission from God.  I feel a higher power sometimes leads me.  But don’t quote me on that.  

When I got back to the USA I made an appointment with the easy going Christos Cotsakos, then CEO of Etrade.  He knew what I wanted.  “I am here ask you for $250,000 dollars. I have a team who can start removing and marking the explosives which are killing innocent people who live in Quang Tri, the economic Mississippi of Vietnam." I know how to raise money and can read a face.  Christos replied, “you need this money to save lives and make friends for America.  I will Fed Ex the money and you will have it on Friday.”

For the next decade I made numerous trips to Nam, generally bringing along high net worth Americans.  We even brought Major League Baseball to Vietnam for an exhibition game. There were others working in Quang Tri including including the Norwegian Peoples Aid group and a group known as Peace Trees.   In 2010, it was time to move on.  I phased out Project Renew, but still take great pride in saving lives and making friends for the USA.  Plenty of dangerous ordnance exists in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan which is a huge problem to solve.

My team did well in Quang Tri  With the local Peoples Committee as our partner, we established a “Landmine Reporting Center”  which would mark the ordnance with a reed sign until our deminers could disable or blow up the ordnance.  We brought wooden replicas to schools with Vietnamese teachers helping.   We set up injured victims with small Mushroom farms.  We took Bhuddist and Catholic Priests into schools with wounded victims and brought fatalities and injuries literally to zero in 2020.   Behavior Modification works.  

So it was this kid near Saigon, who I was ready to shoot,  who planted the seed in me.  I needed to restore my Karma by doing good works. And that is how I ended up in Quang Tri.

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