Power of healing
Vietnamese, veterans benefit from philanthropic efforts to ease the scars of war
BY ALISON O’LEARY
Travel changes people by opening their eyes to new cultures and ways of life. But Fred Grimm, who was just a year out of high school in April 1969, did not choose to visit the distant and exotic country of Vietnam. Yet after being drafted to serve in the Army during the undeclared war there, he remembers being pleasantly surprised for the first day or two by the country’s lush greenery and friendly people. That first impression might be what changed his life — and the lives of many others — for the better.
The honeymoon phase of his deployment with the 39th Combat Engineer Battalion American Division (where his unit constructed a bridge and guarded a landing zone) was brief as he was wounded by shrapnel just four months later. After recovering in a Japanese hospital he returned home to Minster, Ohio, and into the arms of his childhood sweetheart, Jill. They were married within months, but he says he thought of Vietnam thousands of times in the years that followed as the couple raised their family in Ohio and joined the Harbour Ridge community in Palm City in 1990. Both retired (she from her interior design business) in 2016.
“I remember he actually wrote to me about how beautiful the country was and how nice the people in little towns were,” Jill remembers of her GI’s much-anticipated letters home. “He said that he thought it would be a great vacation spot some day.”
This year the couple returned to Vietnam with seven of their Harbour Ridge neighbors, but not for a luxury vacation. After raising $51,000, the group, which included 23 donors, dedicated a three-room daycare center in a poor village of rice farmers and fishermen.
It was not the Grimmses first trip to Vietnam. In fact, it was Fred’s 20th in 20 years, and the daycare center, named for his Harbour Ridge community, was the 53rd building he has helped donate to communities in Vietnam. Jill has accompanied him on 16 of those trips. Both are board members of the Development of Vietnam Endeavors (D.O.V.E.) Fund. Fred is also vice president of the Vietnam Project, which is devoted to aiding the country’s needy and building schools.
LOANS, LATRINES, LANTERNS
The organization also provides microloans to female entrepreneurs, hand-pedaled tricycle-carts for the disabled, solar lanterns, sanitary latrines, enhancements to vocational opportunities for mentally challenged individuals and educational scholarships. With every return trip, they meet young adults who attended D.O.V.E. schools, gained vocational training with microloans, or were touched by the efforts of the couple, whose retirement is dedicated to soothing the country’s battle scars.
“In 2000, I was at a Toledo Rotary Club meeting where a Vietnam veteran spoke,” Fred remembers. “He had built a school in Vietnam and was asking for $20,000 to build another. Afterward I approached him and told him I was interested.”
Things clearly snowballed from there, and he was soon heading up a core group of about 12 veterans and Rotarians to construct schools and aid residents with basic necessities.
“I still remember looking out the airplane window on my first trip back to Vietnam, thinking, ‘What am I doing this for?’ and ‘How will these people treat me?’ ’’ he recalls. “But everything turned out just great. The country is extremely young. To them, the Vietnam War is history.” He says he left the country wondering how we ever waged war against the hardworking people he met.
When Fred volunteered to lend a hand after the initial Rotary Club meeting, he only had an inkling of what he committed to. The organization he co-founded, the D.O.V.E. Fund, is dedicated to helping people in some of Vietnam’s most war-ravaged areas, like Quang Tri Province. Quang Tri is at the northern tip of what was the Republic of Vietnam, so it was overrun many times by Communists from the north and Americans to the south trying to hold them back. It was ground zero for the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the ensuing six-month battle of Khe Sanh. The group has also worked in Thua Thien-Hue provinces and Quang Ngai, where Fred and another D.O.V.E. member were deployed.
EFFORTS ARE TWOFOLD
Just as the effects of the war may linger in Vietnam, they also continue to plague a generation of Americans sent to fight there as young men. While some of the veterans who have contributed to D.O.V.E. Fund initiatives have visited to see the fulfillment of their pledges, others still can’t bring themselves to return to the country even decades later, Fred says.
“One veteran wrote us a check for $15,000 but he has never been back with us and doesn’t want to go,” he says. Another vet contributed to D.O.V.E. and wrote a thin memoir about it called Ghost Closet, which Jill says aptly describes the way many veterans locked away their feelings about Vietnam and never revisited them.
Fred is pleased that he took the plunge and feels rewarded many times over for his efforts.
“The biggest thing for us is not that we went one time,” he says. “We live it and have for 20 years. We’re very proud of it.”
The organization does all of its work through volunteer efforts and annual fundraising events like a golf tourney at Harbour Ridge each spring and an auction each summer in Toledo, although this year’s auction had to be canceled due to COVID-19. It has one paid employee in Vietnam. Visit www.dovefund.org for more information.
Alison O’Leary is an author and speaker. www.alisonoleary.com.