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Ca Van Tran's Last Battle

For the Thousands of Victims crippled by war, this man's crusade is their only hope.

READER'S DIGEST. FEBRUARY 1997
BY JOSEPH A. REAVES

 

CA VAN TRAN peered through his camera lens into Ben Thanh market, in Ho Chi Minh City to record yet another image of Vietnam.

Years ago, before he'd fled the city then known as Saigon, the sprawling warren of shops had been a favorite haunt. Crowded with American soldiers, the market was a daily street festival where vendors hawked everything from snake meat to bootleg cassettes.

It seemed different now. Everything is so gloomy, Tran thought. No one even smiles. Tran noticed two men about his age, both with legs amputated above the knee. With only cardboard to protect their truncated limbs from the rough pavement, they were using their arms to scoot along the dirty street.

They're probably former South Vietnamese soldiers, Tran thought, knowing those who fought alongside the Americans were offered little help by the new government. When one of the men made eye contact, Tran walked across the street and began to talk to them. Sure enough, they had fought in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and both had lost their legs to land mines.

These men fought for and believed in the same things I did, a shaken Tran thought. Now they are crawling around the filthy streets of Saigon, and I'm living in a mansion in America.

Tran had worked for the Americans during the war, and when he left in April 1975, he vowed that he would never return as long as the Communist Party controlled his country. But in 1990 his father's health was failing. Tran, by that time a wealthy 38-year- old businessman living in Great Falls, Virginia made the journey. When he reached his native village of Thang An. Tran was overjoyed to see his father, now on the mend, and his 17 -year-old son, who had never been allowed to leave Vietnam. But Thang An was still without electricity, its people impoverished.

Tran's blue jeans, shirt and sneakers, and confident manner immediately identified him as a Viet Kieu, an overseas Vietnamese, and officials seemed unsettled by his presence. Those who spoke with Tran were questioned by the police. For the sake of his family and friends, he bid them farewell and headed south to see the rest of the country. But the harsh reality of poverty and repression had ruined his homecoming. Just 11 days after his arrival, emotionally drained, Tran headed for home. On the long flight, Tran's anger turned to sadness. By the time he landed back in the United States, he was convinced he had to help.

WAR ENGULFED VIETNAM before Tran's birth in 1952, and it remained a relentless backdrop for most of his life. His oldest brother was killed fighting with Ho Chi Minh's troops against the French in 1953. But as the youngest of nine children, Tran was too little to know or care. By 1968, however, Tran's studies were disrupted by the communist Tet offensive. The young man, who spoke English, went to work as a translator for the U.S. Marines. He married Kim Hoa and moved to Saigon in 1972. Although awed by the might of the American military, he didn't understand the politics. Even when the Americans started pulling out, turning the bulk of the fighting over to ARVN troops, Tran still believe the South invincible.

On the morning of April 30, 1975, Tran was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a courier when the Americans evacuated their embassy. By early afternoon, the streets were mobbed. Amid the panic, TRan drove to the maternity hospital where his wife was working. Along with the remmants of the other families who begged to pushed their way into his car, Tran and Kim drove to the port. A 24-hour citywide curfew had been in effect, and the couple hadn't seen each other in three days. Their baby was staying with Tran's sister.

Waving his U.S. government indentity card, TRan boarded a barge that shuttled him and Kim to a Navy ship carrying 3000 refugees. Tran and Kim expected to return to their son in a few days when the fighting ended, but Saigon fell to the Communists. Stricken, they realized they wouldn't be going back any time soon.

NINE DAYS after the fall of Saigon, Tran and Kim were in suburban Washing- ton, wandering through Springfield Mall. Tran got a job sweeping the place for $2 an hour. When the mall closed, Tran and Kim sneaked into a narrow freight corridor and slept on the concrete floor. They lived in the mall for several nights until they found lodging in a townhouse with co-workers. Tran walked three miles to work while Kim learned English and brought in money as a baby sitter. The menial work helped Tran for- get the child he had left behind.

Tran became a cook's helper in a Mexican fast-food restaurant, and quickly rose to manager. All the while, he worked at two or three other jobs. From these humble beginnings Tran moved up the ladder and started putting money away. After a few years, he had saved enough to open a small Mexican fast-food restaurant, Taco Amigo; then a second and a third. By 1989 he owned five Taco Amigo restaurants and had an eight- bedroom, million-dollar house on five acres of woodland.

Tran's wealth was the harvest of more than a decade of single-minded dedication-all driven by guilt and tragedy. He and Kim knew that their son was safe and living with a relative. But Vietnamese authorities refused to issue the boy the necessary travel documents. Kim sent him letters and gifts, but the mail was a poor substitute for hugs. So Tran threw himself into his work-until his body was so tired he couldn't think of his native land.

THE EMOTIONS roiled up by Tran's trip were not easily soothed. Haunted by images of the broken men he had seen in Vietnam, Tran wrote to the country's prime minister and the secretary- general of the Communist Party. Then he met Vietnam's ambassador to the United Nations. "I don't care about politics," Tran told him. "I care about my people. They need help. The government has failed the people."

Realizing there was little hope of timely official action, Tran founded Viet Nam Assistance for the Handi- capped (VNAH). This non-profit, non-partisan humanitarian relief organization would provide artificial limbs, wheelchairs and vocational training for amputees in Vietnam. Tran knew nothing about medical relief or fund-raising, but he didn't care. His organization's charter pledged to provide assistance to the handicapped "on an equal-access basis without regard to social or political status." Officials in Vietnam estimate that the country has over 200,000 amputees.

AS THE DILAPIDATED BUS bumped along Highway 1 toward Da Nang in January 1992, Tran went over numbers in his head. Even with the discounts offered by one of America's leading prosthetics companies, the $800 cost of artificial limbs was prohibitively high. If Tran could not make prosthetics at a fraction of that cost, his effort to help amputees couldn't survive.

As he stepped off the bus, Tran nearly tripped over an amputee in a baseball cap. Nguyen Cong Phuong used his massive arms to propel him- self along the pavement, as two planks of wood like skateboards without wheels-scraped along the ground and protected what was left of his legs. At the sight of Phuong, all Tran's thoughts of money and organizational woes faded away. This is why I'm here, Tran told himself. As they talked, Tran learned Phuong's history: He had been a strapping 32-year-old para- trooper in 1974 when, in the heat of combat, he tripped a land mine. Now, with a wife and two children to sup- port, Phuong begged for food. Tran listened intently, jotted down a few notes and snapped a picture. One day a van showed up and the driver unloaded a wheelchair, compliments of VNAH. Nineteen years after losing his legs, Phuong had re- gained his mobility. To reduce manufacturing costs, Tran set up two centers in Vietnam, producing some 200 prostheses a month for less than $50 apiece. Since 1992, Tran has supplied 18,QOO artificial limbs and 1000 wheelchairs to amputees. A sister organization, Volunteers for Health and Education, now helps displaced children in Vietnam. Outside Hanoi, he established the Ba Vi Vocational Training Center to teach job skills to the handicapped. Dealing with the Vietnamese bureaucracy has been a trial-while many officials supported his work others were suspicious. On one trip, Tran was arrested and questioned for four days.

Tran has the support of individuals such as former U.S. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy. Tran 's old employer. USAID, has provided $2.65 million to support his work, but government funding is never certain, and Tran has had to dip into his own pockets

As Tran's charitable work flourished, his restaurant business suffered. He has sold all but one of his restaurants, which Kim manages while he is on the road. But at least he has been able to take his son to America.

WITH HELP given to thousands of his native countrymen, Tran can't track the progress of everyone he has touched. But he maintains a special bond with Phuong, the young soldier who lost his legs to a land mine. When Phuong was fined the equivalent of $20 because he had failed to register his wheelchair, word quickly reached Tran. A few telephone calls made sure the harassment stopped.

Today, the 54-year-old Phuong is employed as a night watchman at an ice factory. During the day he sells lottery tickets at the market where he once begged. His wife and children are eating regularly, and more importantly, hope has been restored.

That's what it's all about, Tran now says. "We not only need to heal the physical wounds, but deal with the emotional scars as well. And restore hope where there was none."

READER'S DIGEST. FEBRUARY 1997

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