The United States dropped more than seven million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia between 1957 and 1975, more than twice what it dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II. That's a lot of ordnance. This doesn't take into account the rockets, mortars, tank rounds, etc. used by American and allied infantrymen on the ground in Vietnam. An estimated ten percent or more of that tonnage didn't explode – which means it's still there.
It also means someone, now nearly 50 years later, is going to find it – a mother, father, or child. That's where Chuck Searcy, a U.S. Army veteran, comes in. He's on a mission to clear those UXOs.
Chuck Searcy is a Georgia-based Army vet on a new mission.
Searcy co-founded Project RENEW in 2001, a $24 million effort to clear unexploded weapons from the former war zone while teaching children about the bombs and helping those affected by them.
Since the war's official end in 1975 – when North Vietnam invaded and forcibly unified the South – more than 100,000 Vietnamese civilians have been killed by unexploded ordnance in the country. Some of them were farmers or other kinds of laborers, clearing paths through fields as they've done time and time again. Others injured by the bombs were metal scrappers, gathering what they could to make extra money.
Ten percent is a lot of explosive still sitting around.
In 2017, Searcy and Project RENEW cleared some 17,000 munitions found in the middle of Vietnam. Over the project's lifetime, the group has cleared more than a million. Searcy first returned to Vietnam in 1995, the year after the United States formally normalized relations with the still-Communist country. Back then, he was helping kids find orthopedic devices for missing limbs, but he kept reading about the problems with explosives in the countryside.
"We kept reading about kids and farmers getting blown up by unexploded ordnance," Searcy told Georgia's Ledger-Enquirer. "Why aren't we helping?"
Now they do. When someone finds a bomb and reports it, the group will send out a team to dispose of it as they always have. But in the last 20 years, they've become more proactive, more methodical. They not only interview villagers asking about bomb sightings, they examine U.S. Air Force databases, reviewing every single bombing run of the war.
Chuck Searcy now and in his Vietnam-era years.
While often times, the difference can be difficult to measure, there is one important number to follow, and that is how many people were killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in a given area. In Quang Tri, a province that saw some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War, the number killed or wounded in 2001 (when project RENEW began its education program) was 89. In 2017, the number dwindled to two.
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