DEADLY VIET HUNT. War veteran helps locate explosives (VIETNAM)

LONG HUNG VILLAGE, Vietnam, The Vietnam War has been over for more than 30 years, but everywhere U.S. veteran Chuck Searcy goes, there is danger under foot.


The lanky Georgian has made it his mission to reap the millions of land
mines and explosives that were sown across the countryside by American
forces bent on rousting the Viet Cong from their jungle hideouts.

On a recent visit to this small village, Searcy squinted in the humid
afternoon sun as he watched his efforts bear fruit. Perched on the bamboo
fence around his house, an impish boy named Van Ngoc Hung tells him that
just days before, he spotted something no child should recognize: a round
from an M-79 grenade launcher, brown and camouflaged in the woods across the
muddy road where Searcy is standing. Old explosives like these, the barefoot
10-year-old says, "can kill people."

"He had a keen eye," Searcy said. "It's not easy to spot."

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese have found that out - to devastating effect.
Since the war ended in 1975, 38,000 people have been killed by leftover
ordnance and another 65,000 injured, according to the Vietnamese Ministry of
Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs.

The problem remains a searing reminder for veterans and a few, like Searcy,
are doing something about it.

Long Island vets Jim Larocca, Stephen Hayduk and former Assemblyman John
Behan (R-Montauk), who lost both legs when he stepped into a minefield in
Quang Tri Province as a Marine 40 years ago, are flying to Vietnam today to
deliver $20,000 to the Mines Advisory Group, which clears explosives near
the site of Behan's accident. The money is left over from a fund-raising
drive the men conducted to build the Suffolk Vietnam Memorial at Bald Hill
in 1991.

"A theme of the memorial was reconciliation, and as long as this problem is
affecting people's lives, we don't feel that the process of reconciliation
is over," said Larocca, 62, who was a Naval officer in the Mekong River
delta in 1967 and 1968.

The problem is most persistent in Quang Tri Province, the former
demilitarized zone, where a weather cycle of droughts and floods keeps
unearthing decades-old bombs, grenades, mortar rounds and artillery shells.

Explosives have killed or wounded 6,946 people in this poor farming province
in the last 30 years, according to Project RENEW, the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial Fund program that Searcy represents. Last year, 12 were killed and
29 hurt. Nearly a third of the casualties were children.

"Most Americans, when they first hear it, they can't believe it: 'Is that
true? How can that be?'" said Searcy, 61.

Searcy, who relocated to the Vietnamese capital Hanoi 11 years ago, feels
responsible for helping the country recover from the war. He started with
the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, spending five years building a
program that now provides braces and artificial limbs for patients at two
Hanoi hospitals.

But Searcy was becoming increasingly troubled by the weekly reports of death
and injury from the war's leftover explosives. Searcy saw his chance to get
involved in 2000 when Quang Tri officials teamed up with VVMF to eliminate
the area's explosives.

Since then, accidents in the two districts where RENEW is working have
fallen from 21 to eight last year. Residents' reports to a special toll-free
hotline have allowed them to destroy 4,685 pieces of ordinance, says Hoang
Nam, RENEW's project coordinator.

More than 2,000 red signs with chilling skull-and-crossbones images have
been posted, warning people not to touch explosives. Children like Hung are
learning to tell the difference between the "bombies" (cluster bombs) and
other artillery scattered through rice paddies and gardens.

About 45% of Quang Tri still needs to be cleared of explosives, according to
provincial officials. Searcy hopes a recent $3 million appropriation from
Congress will help that happen by expanding RENEW's activities to eight
additional districts.

For now, he takes quiet satisfaction in children like Hung, who have become
their communities' heroes rather than victims. "He could identify what it
was and he did the right thing: He reported it to his parents," Searcy said.
"Step by step, the program is having some impact."

Von: 5 February 2006 (New York Daily News)-- By JORDAN LITE, C 2006 Daily News, New York. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning.

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