Tiep thi & Gia dinh Magazine (Page 1 of article)
American veteran battles poverty with a paintbrush
By Thu Huong
For people collecting plastic from garbage heaps on the outskirts of Tra Vinh Town, an elderly American veteran has become a welcome part of their community.
Bernie Duff doesn't judge these poor souls who make a living wading among the flies and the maggots in the search of recyclables.
Instead, the elderly, white-bearded man is regarded as a friend because of his dedication to helping those suffering from poverty or disabilities in Tra Vinh Province.
Bernie served in Phu Tai and Quy Nhon as combat medic from 1969 to 1970, and, like many Viet Nam veterans, came here as a young boy and returned an old man.
The war left a deep hole inside him and it stayed that way until he was asked to paint a piece for the Sharon Ann Lane Medical Clinic in Quang Nam Province, named after the only American woman killed in the war that ended in 1975.
The emotionally scarred medic was asked to present his painting in person to the clinic's board of directors, despite the fact it had been 35 years since he set foot in the country.
Bernie said he remembers how difficult the decision to visit Viet Nam was at the time.
"I had always said that I would never be able to return to the country that gave birth to all of the nightmares and horrible thoughts that seemed to always stay with me," he said.
But return he did. Stepping off the plane into the heat of Ha Noi in March 2005, Bernie said the wave of emotion he felt wasn't revulsion or disgust.
It was quite the opposite, actually.
Quietly observing people walking along the streets, with arms joined, laughing and happy, just celebrating life, told me much about the Viet Nam I had forgotten. As our bus went further and further into the heartland of the nation, I could feel the warmth and love in this country, said Bernie.
From that moment on, Bernie became determined to use his artistic skills to build bridges between Viet Nam and the US.
The winner of the 2002 Veteran of the Year Award, now retired from his work with disabled soldiers in Michigan, decided his efforts would be put to better use helping Vietnamese in need.
Bernie raises money by selling his artwork, which includes more than 40 paintings, on his website www.geocities.com/bernie_doc/Viet Nam.html.
The painter cum philanthropist said people ask him why he has made VieÃ¤t Nam his home and said there is no easy answer.
"Some ask why it is that I came to work here among poor, orphaned or handicapped," said Bernie. "If there was a simple answer to this question, I suppose that I would reply to these people in one simple sentence, however, it's something that exits within my soul.
Maybe it's because I feel partly responsible for creating so many orphans in this country, though my weapons were battle dressings and gauze, not guns," he said.
Since moving to his new home in HCM City, Bernie has accompanied Bui Thi Bao Anh, his Vietnamese partner, on trips to bring a little joy to poor children across the country.
Last Christmas, Bernie, with help from Vietnamese friends, planned celebrations featuring Santa Claus and elves for several groups in HCM City and Tra Vinh.
For the kids
Bernie brought the spirit of giving to the children at the Centre for Teaching Disabled Children and Cay Bang School in District 4 by handing out toys and gifts these kids couldn't afford on their own.
All were grateful for his kind words and playful nature.
"As I saw Bernie playing with the kids, it was clear the children loved him and that he seemed happier. At that moment, I understood why he always thinks about the children first," said Hoang Oanh, a teacher at the Cay Bang Primary School.
"It's his big heart that makes the children like him so much," she added.
Bernie's newest project is raising money for a new 1,000-student school in the Cu Long (Mekong) Delta region.
The veteran is using his membership in the Rotary Club, a world-wide organisation of business and professional leaders that provides humanitarian aid to charitable projects, to collect donations and raise awareness of the students plight.
"Our goal is to build a school, stock it with the necessary tools to allow the teachers to educate the youth and then turn it over to the village. We will go back each year to see the school's progress to ensure we have given the community enough resources to educate the young," said project head Howard Goldin.
"The veteran's dedication to the school doesn't end there.
Bernie has taken it a step further and has committed to staying in the country to teach art to the children," said Howard.
This new initiative is on top of Bernie's other charitable programmes.
The painter has made a name for himself by offering multi-year scholarships to kids forced to salvage garbage for a living in Tra Vinh. The funds, worth US$40 a month, provide food, clothing and basic school supplies for each child in the programme.
"Although it's wonderful and kind to build schools in Viet Nam, it would mean very little to the poor kids we are targeting most if they had to work all day in piles of garbage in order to eat a meal before going to bed. Choosing between an education and starving is no real choice and they will always opt for going bed with a full stomach," said Bernie.
"That's why we decided to put our energy into finding donors to make sure the kids have food, clothing and basic school supplies to give them a chance at success in class," said his girlfriend Anh.
Through his art, Bernie said he has realised a few things about life and the importance of finding common ground.
"In the end, we're all brothers and sisters and we can turn our eyes to the smallest among us to know that we are all born loving and that hate is something we learn. It's my desire to live among the people of Viet Nam as a brother, not as a visitor," he said. -VNS