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On this Veterans Day, I struggle to find the right words to express my appreciation to the men and women who have served in uniform. How do we properly recognize those who fought for a cause and returned to their loved ones, and honor the sacrifices of those who did not come home?

There is no single answer to either of these questions, but there are people dealing with grief in ways that should inspire us to rethink the meaning of this day.

As many readers know, I grew up in a community deeply traumatized by the Vietnam War. I won’t judge my refugee elders — many of them former service members in South Vietnam’s armed forces — for their lingering bitterness toward communist enemies who rule their homeland today. They have experienced a kind of excruciating persecution and loss that I will never truly understand as a person born free on American soil.

In our Vietnamese community, forgiveness and reconciliation with old foes is a difficult concept for many to grasp. They have suffered too much. The physical and psychological wounds run too deep to be forgotten within a single generation.

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But for Americans, it’s a very different story. An uplifting one that I hope aggrieved groups might eventually learn from.

Though initially U.S. veterans were shunned upon their return from Vietnam, many Americans eventually came around. Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro once described Americans after the war as a forgiving people. I saw this firsthand on Tuesday while listening to Jerilyn Brusseau of Seattle and former Washington Gov. Dan Evans (himself a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War) speak at PeaceTrees Vietnam‘s 20th anniversary luncheon at the Four Seasons in downtown Seattle.

Brusseau, the mastermind behind the original Cinnabon recipe, lost her only brother Daniel Cheney in 1969 when his plane was shot down in the Vietnam War. He died at the age of 21 trying to save another pilot.

A photo montage of the late Lt. Daniel Cheney before he died during the Vietnam War. (Courtesy Jerilyn Brusseau)
A photo montage of the late Lt. Daniel Cheney before he died during the Vietnam War. (Courtesy Jerilyn Brusseau)

“In my own life, the moment that I learned my brother had been shot down and killed in Vietnam, it was the most incomprehensible, bitter news of my life,” she recalled. “All I could think about was my parents who had given so much of themselves to really groom my brother into the incredible citizens he was. He had this really bright, dynamic spark of life. And then I realized my parents were not alone. They were joining Vietnamese parents, wives and children who were losing their family members.”

Bernard and Rae Cheney receive the Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S. Department of the Army on Memorial Day in 1969. (Courtesy Jerilyn Brusseau and Rae Cheney)
Bernard and Rae Cheney receive the Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S. Department of the Army on Memorial Day in 1969. (Courtesy Jerilyn Brusseau and Rae Cheney)

When U.S. and Vietnam relations normalized in 1995, Brusseau saw an opportunity to “reach out to the Vietnamese people … to really respect and acknowledge the tremendous losses to all the families on all sides, and to begin to see a way toward building a bridge and creating trust and understanding.”

Over the last 20 years, PeaceTrees Vietnam has cleared more than 89,000 unexploded ordnance items from more than 800 acres, built more than 100 homes and libraries, educated more than 86,000 people on the risks of land mines and planted more than 43,000 trees.

Rae Cheney, second from left, stands with Ho Thi Moan, center, at the dedication ceremony for the Mothers’ Peace Library on September 10, 2010 in Khe Da Village, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. Her daughter, Jerilyn Brusseau, is standing second from right. (Courtesy Jerilyn Brusseau)
Rae Cheney, second from left, stands with Ho Thi Moan, center, at the dedication ceremony for the Mothers’ Peace Library on September 10, 2010 in Khe Da Village, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. Her daughter, Jerilyn Brusseau, is standing second from right. (Courtesy Jerilyn Brusseau)

It’s her family’s way of honoring all those who have suffered in war.

“My mother calls it transforming sorrow into service,” Brusseau says.

Then there’s Evans, who served as the event’s keynote speaker. Evans holds a special place in the hearts of Vietnamese refugees who flocked to Washington after the fall of Saigon to communist forces on April 30, 1975. Evans was the first governor in the nation to welcome South Vietnamese citizens to resettle in the state after they had been evacuated from their homeland. He recruited thousands of Washingtonians to the cause of befriending, housing and employing the refugees. (See our editorial on this chapter in Washington state history.)

To hear this revered figure speak of reconciliation and volunteerism made me think this is a powerful message to be spread to the broader community, so here’s an excerpted transcript of his remarks:

“Today, Washington State has the third largest Vietnamese population of any state in the nation, exceeded only by Texas and…California. But many people could not flee and attempted to rebuild their lives in a land littered by the residue of a bitter war. In the United States, thousands of families grieved over the loss of family members. I lost a young infantry officer cousin, and raged over the uselessness of what appeared to be an endless war. Rae Cheney lost a son and her daughter Jerilyn Brusseau lost a brother. But they decided to do something about it. To honor his memory with a mission of peace and reconciliation.

“Now, reconciliation after a bitter conflict is extraordinarily rare, but you know the word reconciliation comes from the word ‘reconcilen’ which means to make good again, or to repair. And that’s what this remarkable pair set out to do. Jerilyn reached out to the Vietnamese people to honor those who fought on both sides, and thus began the astronomical task of removing unexploded ordnances from the Vietnamese landscape and replacing deadly weapons with new trees and the emergence of PeaceTrees Vietnam. Their work has now expanded to building schools and libraries and new homes.

“And you know, our two nations have very different governing systems. But you know, mothers of both are embracing each other as they rebuild their land. What an example this would be for the rest of the world. If only we could somehow infect the rest of the world with this essential goodness, which too often is hidden. One of the great lessons I think we can learn from the success of PeaceTrees Vietnam is that volunteers of vision can initiate outstanding programs, but it is the continuity of volunteer leadership that makes real success and I don’t know of an organization that has that continuity of leadership and dedication than PeaceTrees Vietnam. 

“One of the most rewarding elements of being governor was to see the results of the dedication of the ‘third force’ in our society. We too often talk about the public sector and the private sector and how often they’re in combat with each other. But it is the volunteer sector of our society; it is the people of our country that distinguish this nation. Their dedication and effectiveness ultimately are what will bring success not only to this nation, but to the world.

“My enthusiastic congratulations goes out to all of you who initiated this remarkable task 20 years ago and those who are now continuing and expanding on that remarkable original idea. Those who lost their lives in this tragic conflict on both sides would cheer if they could see the results of reconciliation and the hope that it brings to a new generation.”