The Humanitarian Impulse: Not “God’s Work” for this Veteran

“It’s hard for Americans to be humble,” Mike Boehm reflects, while talking with me on the phone about his humanitarian work. Boehm is being realistic, not critical, about the typical privileges and comforts Americans enjoy. He has forgone such niceties, however, and for seventeen years has devoted all his energy to projects for peace and reconciliation in Vietnam. These have included the construction of a peace park at the village of My Lai where, on March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers abused and massacred up to 504 unarmed women, children, and elderly men.

Boehm’s efforts are those of a nontheistic humanitarian, one who bristles at the mention that he is doing God’s work. “That notion offends me,” he comments, describing how he grew up a Catholic but learned to question the extreme measures used by clergy in order to curb the behavior of children. His younger sister, for instance, was slammed into a blackboard by a nun, merely for wearing her hair long. “What is the meaning of this kind of violence?” Boehm asks. “What kind of mindset would allow people to act this way?”

The My Lai Peace Park, dedicated in 2001 on the thirty-third anniversary of the massacre, is a place of shady trees, lily ponds, and calm. “It is something to offer the world, a place to put aside hatred,” says Boehm, himself a veteran of Vietnam, having served from 1968-69 in Cu Chi with the 25th Infantry Division and six months in Vung Tau.

Throughout its ongoing development, the peace park has been tended and landscaped by local Vietnamese, along with American anti-war activists, and by international groups, such as Japanese students from Nanzan University. The Wisconsin-based Madison Quakers, Inc. aided with construction and financing for various projects in Vietnam, to which Boehm has lent his expertise and time. The helicopter pilots Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn, who saved ten villagers from the 1968 massacre and who were awarded the Soldier’s Medal in 1998 for their heroism, planted trees at the dedication of the My Lai park.

Despite his own labors, Boehm says he’s not as strong as the Vietnamese people he’s met. In fact, it was English teacher Phan Van Do, who Boehm calls an inspiration and a friend, who initially suggested the My Lai project after Boehm described a joint Vietnamese-American peace park in progress at Ha Noi. Mr. Do also served as a translator and projects coordinator for the Madison Quakers. Funding for the My Lai Peace Park came from the same pool of donors who funded, among other projects, the My Lai Loan Fund, which was established in 1993 by the Madison Indochina Support Group and the Women’s Union of Quang Ngai Province. “The Vietnamese still harbor intense hatred toward Americans,” Boehm says, “but they want to put away their anger, just as I do, about the war.”

After his tour of military duty, Boehm returned home to Mauston, Wisconsin, believing he was healthy in body and mind, as he had not been assigned to a combat role, but to office work. By 1977, however, while attending college on the G.I. Bill, his perspective on the war began to change, affecting his emotional wellbeing. “I went to Vietnam as many others did, believing in my country and my parents,” Boehm comments. “But we were so young–eighteen, nineteen years old.” As the utter tragedy of the U.S. involvement “jelled” in his mind, he threw away his uniform and medals, and then told his veterans’ representative that he couldn’t accept “blood money” to further his education.

Continuing his studies while working full time, Boehm concluded that Vietnam was “not an aberration” in U.S. foreign and military policy, and he began to retreat from a society that he increasingly loathed–rooted, he believed, in crass consumerism. Boehm lived for seven years in a shack in rural Wisconsin, without electricity or any plumbing, and worked as a carpenter while also caring for orphaned wild animals. “My experience of living in the shack showed me what I really valued,” Boehm says, “because I never had any attraction to money.”

It was during this time, at the age of forty, that Boehm found a violin lying in a pile of trash and decided to fix it up and learn how to play. He was at a time in his life when he was learning to trust his intuition, and much to his own surprise he did learn to play it.

“I recorded music at barn dances, and learned traditional fiddle songs from the tapes I made,” Boehm recalls. “Later, I wondered what possessed me to think I could play that violin. I don’t see any deep meaning in my learning, but it is an example of acting on impulse with unexpected results.” Some might see the experience of finding and learning to play the violin as somehow spiritual, but Boehm prefers to call it intuitive: “Because to me, ‘spirituality’ is a balance between all my hope for humanity and everything I want for myself.”

In 1991 Boehm joined with other carpenters in an effort to rebuild homes on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, that were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. During his months on the island, he became aware of the harm done by the U.S. military’s use of Vieques as a shelling site. “The chemicals from the weapons used for shelling created health issues for at least a third of the population,” Boehm says. “There were all sorts of problems, especially with cancer.”

On his return from Puerto Rico, Boehm began to wonder if he could apply his carpentry skills to some project in Vietnam, though he wasn’t aware of any outreach by U.S. organizations. “I couldn’t articulate why I wanted to return to Vietnam” he says, “but after Vieques, I knew I wanted to help.”

Boehm realized his desire was unusual for a Vietnam veteran, pointing out that most members of the group Veterans for Peace couldn’t fathom going “back there,” likely for various emotional reasons. He speculates that many vets and Americans, whether they were for or against the Vietnam War, are “caught in a closed loop of recrimination.” He adds: “For me, it became a matter of promoting peace. I had to do it.”

In 1992, along with eleven other vets, Boehm became active in the Veterans’ Vietnam Restoration Project, which developed cooperative strategies with the Vietnamese people to rebuild medical clinics. In returning to Vietnam after more than twenty years, he found himself “overwhelmed to stand on that soil where I had once fought against the people who I now wanted to help.”

Struggling to come to grips with his own emotions, Boehm listened to his fellow vets tell of their addictions, cycles of depression, and even suicide attempts. And he saw firsthand the impact of the war on the Vietnamese, meeting one man whose family was “vaporized” in a bombing raid.

The outpouring of grief and suffering affected Boehm so intensely that while on a trip to Ha Noi with his fellow vets, he asked to stop at My Lai, where he found a group of statues done in what he calls “the stiff Stalinist style.” “For instance, one depicted a man with his fist upraised, another a woman holding her dead baby,” he recalls. Hands shaking, Boehm played “Taps” on his violin. “I played as a response to all the pain and suffering of all those affected by the massacre and the war in general.” In 1998 Boehm recreated this scene in the award-winning documentary The Sound of the Violin at My Lai by director Tran Van Thuy.

Since 1992 Boehm has devoted himself to improving the lives of the Vietnamese, allying himself with the Madison Quakers’ charitable organization, which does outreach to seventeen communities in Vietnam. Among its projects, the organization provides loans to poor women, sets up new primary school buildings, and constructs “compassion houses,” some of which are for families caring for deformed children who are victims of the herbicide Agent Orange, which was used by the U.S. military to defoliate Vietnam’s thick tropical growth. The genetic damage caused by Agent Orange and other herbicides has been denied by the U.S. government and the corporations that manufactured it.

Remembering these afflicted children, Boehm’s voice intensifies from sadness to fury. “You can’t imagine how much these kids suffer, because their birth defects are so severe. One girl has no real mind–no sentience.” He recalls that the girl reacted only to light and sound. Craving fluids, she drank the water her grandmother boiled, and then urinated constantly. She and her maternal caretakers lived in a mud house with a thatch roof.

With help provided by the compassion house project, women, children, and men have enjoyed some relief from the suffering and poverty to which they were reduced because of the war. The girl horribly impaired by Agent Orange is now in a home of brick, cement, and tin, along with her mother and grandmother.

The Quakers have supported Boehm, while never proselytizing to him. On the whole Boehm formed what he calls a “working relationship” with them, and says their involvement as a group who everyone felt they could trust was invaluable in the early years. Projects like the My Lai Peace Park were possible because of the Quakers’ moral and financial support. Even so, he also had to seek independent funding. Contributions grew slowly, but Boehm estimates that nearly $1 million was raised over seventeen years.

Nearly two decades of labor, mostly as an unpaid volunteer, have proved immensely rewarding but also exhausting for Boehm. While committing himself to the cause of social justice, he lost the woman he once hoped to marry. Recently, he finally received a salary, but he is still without health care. “Believe me,” he says, “I’m not a martyr. If I were a martyr I’d be having the time of my life,” to which I add, “And you’d probably still be a Catholic.”

Boehm laughs, but then admits he is weary and sometimes has to consciously put one foot in front of another to get through the day. He finds solace and peace of mind in taking nature photographs, particularly of birds.

“I don’t know what to think about the future,” he comments. “I can’t go through another seventeen years living as I have. But I can’t give up on Vietnam. I refuse to give up on Vietnam.”

As we go to print, Mike Boehm is headed oversees to continue his humanitarian work in Vietnam.