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Fitting a Child Soldier with Artificial Limbs

Published on: September 6, 2017

Filed Under: Connections to Today, Featured, Legacies: Unexploded Ordnance, Veterans & Families

Views: 244

This article originally appeared at CivilianPublicService.org.

-by Roger Marshall, Prosthetist, Quaker Rehabilitation Center, Vietnam, 1969

Anyone  who  spends,  say,  more  than  a  year in  Vietnam runs  into  the  danger of becoming  immune  to  shock.  One’s first  few months  here  are  often  a  series  of stomach-turning  revelations.  Then,  after  a  while,  particularly  if you  work  in the  medical  field  your  senses  become  dulled.  You  can  look  at  a gaping  wound, a  crippled  body  a  legless  child,  and  no  extra  adrenalin  pumps  into  your  veins and no  anger  rises  up.  A  new case  comes  in,  a  shattered  body  or a  numbed  and paralyzed  mind,  and  you  take  on  the  job  of  repairing  it  with  hardly  a  flinch. After  all,  it’s just  another  case  like  you  have  seen  a  hundred  or  a  thousand times  before.  Then,  one  day,  a  patient  turns  up  and  you  notice  something  different,  and  that old  feeling  which  you  thought  was  either  dead  or  dying  suddenly wells  up  inside  you.

Today I had  that  feeling.  It was  a  mixture  of  anger,  frustration, compassion,  call  it what  you  will,  and  it was  caused  by  the  appearance  at  our  Rehabilitation  Centre  of  a  thirteen  year-old  boy  named  Vo-Han.

I  was  sitting  at  my  desk  trying  to  evaluate  the  work we  had  turned  out  over the  past  month,  when  Vo–Han  was  brought  in  on  a  wheelchair.  I realized  I  would not  get  that  part  of  my  work  completed  that  morning.  Vo-Han was brought in by a U.S. Army captain,  a  U.S.  soldier,  and  a  Vietnamese  ARVN  sergeant.  There was nothing  unusual  about  that  nor  about  the  fact  that  Vo-Han  had  both  legs  amputated below  the  knees.

What I did notice was that he was wearing a U.S. Army uniform, complete with name  tag and  flashes  on  his  shoulders,  again  not  too  unusual,  as  the  Vietnamese often  wear  a  confusing  variety  of  clothes  and  uniforms.  In  this  case, though,  Vo-Han  was  obviously  a  child  of  no  more  than  fourteen  years  old.  I suddenly got the feeling that this was an unusual patient.  The  Army  captain  seemed to  be  uneasy,  and  I instinctively  felt  a  strange  sensation  of  aggression towards  him  and  the  other  two soldiers.

The captain introduced himself and told me Vo-Han, who was in fact thirteen years old, was employed by the U.S. Army as an interpreter.  He had been out on patrol with a U.S. unit some five months ago and had detonated a VC mine. It was  at  this  point  that  I  realized  what  the  setup was.  I had heard about such children being employed by U.S.  patrols but  I  had  never  before  met one.

I  think  that  the  conversation  between  the  captain  and  myself  should  not  be repeated.  I will  admit  that  I  got  very  angry,  and  when  I  questioned him  or  the morality  of  taking  a  thirteen  year-old  child out  on  a  combat  patrol  he  countered by  saying  that  it was  no  less  immoral  to  be  blown  up  by  a  mine,  that  he  also  had two  other  children  of  eleven  years  old  doing  the  same  work,  and  that  they  were all  volunteers  earning  $40.00  a  month,  their  salary  being  paid  out  of  the  pockets of  the  Gl s  in  the  platoon  at  a  cost  of  no  more  than  $2.00 for  each  man  per  month…

Vo-Han  lives  in  the  village  of  Son-Quang  in  the  district  of  Son-Tinh,  a few  miles  north  of  Quang  Ngai.  He  has  a  sixty-two  year  old  father  a  forty-two year  old  mother,  three  brothers,  nine,  six,  and  four  years  old,  and  a  seven year-old  sister.  After  going  to  school ,for  a  few  years  and  learning  to  speak  some  English, he  got  a  job  early  in  1969  as  an  interpreter  with a  group  of  ten  marines who made  up  a  C.A.P.  team in  his  village.  Lots  of  Vietnamese  children  attach  themselves  to  such  teams  and  are  often  well  treated  and  affectionately  looked  after by  the  soldiers.  When  he  had  been  working  with  them  for  9  months,  he  was  asked by  a  U.S.  captain  from  the  19Bth  Charlie  Company,  stationed  near  Chu Lai,  if he would like  to work  for  them.  His pay would be $40.00 per month, paid in MPCs out of the pockets of the U.S. soldiers,  plus his food and clothes.  At the black  market  rate  of  exchange  for  MPC,  plus  his  food  and  clothes,  Vo-Han  was  as well  off,  if not  better,  than  some  of  our  highest  paid  limb-makers,  and  could enjoy  a  reasonable  standard  of  living.

His  job  was  to  accompany  the  198th  when  they went  out  on  search  and  destroy  missions  to  areas  or  villages  that were  well  known  VC  strongholds  or  sympathetic  to  the NLF.  In  almost  every  case,  the  NLF  had  abandoned  the  village before  the  U. S and  ARVN  soldiers  got  there,  leaving  behind  only  old  people, women,  and  children,  sometimes  not  even  those.  Vo-Han’s  job  was  to  interrogate these  people,  ask  them  where  the  NLF  soldiers  had  gone,  where  their  supplies were, where  the  booby  traps  and  mines  were  laid,  etc.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One  day,  last  October,  Vo-Han  went  with  Charlie  Company  into  the  hamlet of  Son Hoa  (Son-tinh district,  between  National Route 1 and Son My).  They entered from three different directions.  Vo-Han  was  with  the  first  platoon,  and when  he  got  into  the  hamlet,  he  turned  off  to  one  side  to  check  out  an  area  for booby  traps  and  mines.  He found one all right an M14 mine, and it blew both his legs off. He was  taken  by  helicopter  to  Chu Lai  military  hospital,  and  operated  on.  His  right  stump  has  not  yet  healed,  and  the knee  joint  is  still  in  a mess. Keith and   I  began  to  ask  him  for  a  few  more  details  of  his  work:

Q.  What  sort  of  clothes  do  you  wear  when  you  go  out  on  patrol?

A.  I  wear these man, U.S. Army uniform.

Q.  Do you  have a  steel  helmet?

A.  Yes,  but  it’s  too  heavy,  so  I  just  wear  a  hat.

Q.  When  you  question  the  villagers  about  the  VC,  do  they  talk?

A.,  Sometimes.

Q.  If they  don’t  what  do  you  do?

A.,  You  know  boxing?  Well  I  do  beaucoup  boxing.  I kick their ass, man.  They talk.

Vietnamese  people  number (expletive) ten.

Q.  But  some  people  never  talk;  What  do  you  do  then?

A. You  know  monkey? Well we  make  monkey  of  them,  and  we  kick  their  ass  good.

Keith  and  I  were  confused  at  this  point;  we  didn’t know what  “monkey”  meant,

but Vo-Han  explained.  A person who is stubborn in answering questions is hung

up  by  the  arms  from  a  convenient  tree  and  beaten  until  he  or  she  talks.

Q.  Do you ever kill anyone like this?

A.  No, we don’t kill anyone.

Q. When you were wounded, what would have happened if the VC had got to you before the Americans? (This was a loaded question. I wanted to find out what  sort  of  protection  was  given  to  these  children  under  such  circumstances.  But the  answer we got was another surprise.

A.  I  kill  the (expletive) VC,  man,  I  got  beaucoup  weapons.

Q.  What sort of weapons?

A. I got M-16 (U.S.  Army issue automatic rifle),  twenty-one  magazines, and  three grenades.

Q. You can shoot  the  M-16?

A. Sure, man,  ‘course  I  can  shoot  the  M-16.  I can  shoot (expletive)

Q. What will you do when you get your new legs?

A. I’ll go back to Charlie Company.

Q. What will you do if the Americans leave Vietnam?

At  this  point  Vo-Han  looked  at  me  as  if I  had  lost  my  reason.

A.  The  Americans  no  leave  Vietnam, man,  they  got  beaucoup  aircraft,  bomb,  napalm,

M-49; they not go until they kill every  (expletive) VC.  VC number ten

Q. But  many  American soldiers  are  leaving  already,  don  t  you  know  that?

A. The Americans no leave Vietnam until every (expletive) VC  dead

At  this  point  Vo-Han  seemed  to  get  fed  up with  talking  to  us.  I got the impression he though  we  were  very  naive.  He had none of the quiet good manners of  a  normal  Vietnamese  child  his  age,  and  he  left  us  propelling  himself  away in his wheelchair.

Vo-Han has been fairly well looked after by the U.S. soldiers since he lost his legs.  They  have  visited  him  regularly,  given  him  money for  cigarettes and  extra  food,  etc.  However he will get no  compensation  or  pension  from  either the  Vietnamese  Government  or  the  U.S.  Government.  He  was  a mercenary,  and  must accept  the consequences.  He  is  crippled  for  life,  has  no  trade  or  profession,  and must  rely  upon  the  handouts  given  to  him  by  U. S.  soldiers.  The  soldiers  of Charlie  Company  no  doubt  will  be  quite  generous  to  him  whilst  they   are  here.  But  one  day  Vo-Han  will  be  on  his  own. The soldiers he places so much trust in will go home and.  he  will  become  a  subject  of  conversation  only  when  a  few veterans  get  together  over  a beer,  and  swap  stories  about  the Nam War.

VO-HAN  GIVES  THE  IMPRESSION  OF  BEING  TOUGH,  STURDY,  AND  SELF-RELIANT, BUT  IF YOU  OBSERVE  HIM  FOR  A  WHILE,  YOU  REALIZE  THAT  HE  IS—A  CHILD,  FRIGHTENED, UNSURE  OF  HIS  FUTURE,  REFUSING TO THINK WHAT LIFE WOULD BE LIKE WITHOUT CHARLIE COMPANY.

I know of two other children with Charlie Company, one is eleven, and the other twelve. I don’t know their stories, but I have a good idea what may be waiting for them in the future. How many other children are there in Vietnam being employed by the U.S. Army? What will happen to them if they get their legs blown off, or blinded, or paralyzed, protecting the American soldiers for $40.00 a month? If they are killed, then this is very simple. They are buried, and in many minds, forgotten. If they live, they are an embarrassment. I realized this when I observed the reaction of the captain and the soldiers who brought Va-Han into, our centre. They felt ashamed, and so they should. I want the story of Vo-Han placed on the desk of not only the AFSC, but also on the desk of any newspaper editor who has the guts to print it, and the desks of Ambassador Bunker, President Nixon, and P .M. Wilson.

I cannot vouch for the validity of the details of Vo-Han’s story, I can only report it as it was told to me by him. What I can say, without fear of contradiction, is that children are being employed by the U.S. Army, that they are being taken out on active patrols, and that their role is to help protect the lives of Gl’s.

I have two sons; the elder has just entered his eleventh year of life, but then he is white, and has round eyes, and the GI’s out here would no more think of taking him out on patrol than they would their own children. We may not be able to stop the war out here, but I think if we move quickly we can put a stop to this disgusting practice and perhaps save the future and even the lives of a few children in Vietnam.

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