IT NOW HAS BEEN 52 years since that sad day, but Jerilyn Brusseau remembers every painful detail. She was up before light with two sick children in their Vancouver, Washington, home and had the radio on. The newscaster came on with a somber report: Two American helicopter pilots were killed today when they were shot down 15 miles northwest of Saigon. “I got this chill that ran through me,” Brusseau recalls. “It was, ‘Oh, no.’ I just had a feeling.”
The premonition proved true: Her brother, U.S. Army helicopter pilot Lt. Dan Cheney, was one of those killed in action.
The tragedy, and similar ones experienced by nearly 60,000 American families who lost relatives in the Vietnam War, would lead Brusseau on a decades-long journey in search of meaning and healing, not only for herself and her family, but for countless Vietnam veterans and their families. It would lead to a nonprofit organization that started with the modest idea of Americans and Vietnamese planting trees together in battlefields where they formerly fought.
Today, that vision has helped clear 1,500 acres of land of unexploded bombs and land mines; it also has built schools, libraries, homes and community centers, and helped farmers return to once-fertile lands. Perhaps most notable, it has brought healing and forged friendships once utterly unimaginable.
DAN CHENEY WAS the all-American kid, a little brother to big sisters Jerilyn and Sharlyn. They grew up on a Snohomish dairy farm, then moved to Vancouver. Dan played Little League baseball, coached by his dad, Bun. Jerilyn, now 77, remembers the excitement of the boys winning their local title and flying to California for the Pacific Coast finals. Photos now in her Bainbridge Island home show her brother in his baggy baseball uniform, with a large “Alcoa” — the huge aluminum company and team sponsor — across the front.
“Dan was so full of energy and mischief,” Brusseau reminisces. “He was everyone’s friend … smiling, laughing, happy all the time. And he had this really big heart.”
After attending Clark College for a short stint, Cheney jumped to the Army, took basic training at Fort Lewis and eventually went to Texas and Alabama to learn how to fly helicopters. It was just weeks into his tour when he was killed.
The official Army report gives this account: Cheney and his co-pilot were performing reconnaissance near the Cambodian border when a second helicopter in their party came under intense fire from ground forces and was shot down. Cheney moved his aircraft to divert the enemy fire, spraying the area with gunfire and enabling the two other U.S. soldiers to safely escape. But Cheney’s helicopter was hit and crashed, killing him and the second airman instantly. For his voluntary actions above and beyond the call of duty, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The news that day — Jan. 6, 1969 — brought a family’s worst fears. “It was the most incomprehensible news I’d ever heard,” Brusseau says. “Of course, I was shocked, and it was very painful, but the pain was also for my parents. He was just this bright, shining leader. And suddenly all of that was gone in an instant.”
Yet within that shock, she also had a sense of a future path that she describes as profoundly clear. “I had this mental image of a sphere of the universe,” she says. “To my left, half was American families in very deep grief. And in the other half were Vietnamese families losing their loved ones. Words came to me that someday, somehow, ordinary American families like mine must find a way to reach out to the Vietnamese people to begin to honor their losses, as well as our own.”
THE ROAD TO THAT someday would not be predictable or planned and, curiously, would first go through the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, Brusseau had found local acclaim as a baker at her eponymous Edmonds bakery/cafe. (Her cinnamon rolls, based on her grandmother’s recipe, were so good that a local restaurateur, Rich Komen, hired her to head development of the leading item for his new mall-shop concept: Cinnabon.) In 1986, a small group of Soviet citizens visited Seattle as part of an early post-Cold War diplomacy group. A friend asked Brusseau whether she would host them at her cafe.
Typical of anybody who grew up in the Cold War era, she was both terrified and thrilled, she recalls. “Terrified of all the images of the Iron Curtain, the evil empire — you know, bombs, guns, missiles into Seattle. And at the same time, thrilled to meet the Soviet people.”
The breakfast was a huge success. The Soviets were charming, warm. “I was amazed at how this simple meal could bring strangers together,” Brusseau says. She contacted several friends in the food business with an idea to start a nonprofit that would host similar sessions in the USSR. They named it PeaceTable, and they eventually made dozens of trips to Moscow and other cities to bring people together over shared meals.
The doors to Vietnam opened on July 11, 1995. Twenty years after the war ended, the U.S. announced the establishment of full diplomatic relationships with Vietnam. Brusseau knew she could shift her focus to Vietnam, but really had no idea where to start. Her husband, Danaan Parry, had been the founder of an organization called EarthStewards Network, an international nonprofit that organized “PeaceTrees” projects to bring together foes in conflict-ridden areas through a variety of activities, including the symbolic planting of trees. What if they could start something similar in Vietnam, centered on clearing battlefields of unexploded bombs?
IT CAME TOGETHER through a series of chance encounters, helpful figures who emerged at the perfect time and good luck. A friend connected them with a Vietnam veteran who was active in reconciliation efforts and had traveled to postwar Vietnam several times. That led to another introduction and another, and eventually to an expanding network of sympathetic figures who shared their interest in following the newly restored diplomatic relationship and the possibilities it offered.
They summoned friends from PeaceTable for support and ideas. “I said, ‘If you could come to a Sunday breakfast, I will make Cinnabon French toast for you,’ ” Brusseau says. “And they all came.” They named the new nonprofit PeaceTrees Vietnam (peacetreesvietnam.org).
A big break came when they heard about a small, private reception with Vietnamese leaders in Washington, D.C., to discuss postwar bridge-building ideas with Americans. On a whim, Parry took a cross-country red-eye in hopes of making contacts, and indeed happened to meet the future Vietnamese ambassador in a hallway. Apologizing for not having an official invitation, Parry quickly pitched the PeaceTrees idea. Thrilled by the plan, the official offered his complete support, including arranging a trip to Hanoi for discussions on actual projects.
In early 1996, Brusseau and Parry flew to Vietnam — landing in Hanoi on the 27th anniversary of Dan Cheney’s death. Among the first Americans in Vietnam since the restoration of diplomatic relations, they were warmly welcomed by Vietnamese government officials. “We had ceremonial tea, and they said they had been waiting for the American people for a very long time,” Brusseau says. They shared their vision of clearing land, then bringing groups of Americans to Vietnam to work with the Vietnamese as a way to heal.
Their hosts immediately embraced the PeaceTrees plan, saying the biggest need was in Quang Tri province, in the middle of the country. Much of the land there, in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), had been starkly uninhabitable since the war because of unexploded bombs and land mines. Brusseau and Parry found themselves on an overnight train to Quang Tri, seeing miles of treeless devastation and bomb craters as they approached Da Hong in the early light. Escorted by local officials, the group toured sites to find a base for PeaceTrees’ operations.
“We met a little boy who had lost his hand, his eye and his little brother when a bomb exploded in their garden,” Brusseau says. “We knew we had been invited to the right place.”
The initial project was to sponsor the clearing of 18 acres of deadly unexploded ordnance (called UXO) and then have Americans and Vietnamese plant trees in a new peace garden. When they returned to the states, the PeaceTrees team announced plans for this first citizen diplomacy trip, eventually signing up 41 people from the United States and countries around the world. The date was set for November 1996.
One other tragedy would occur before that inaugural trip. Just three days before the group’s scheduled departure, Parry suffered a fatal heart attack. Brusseau and the others delayed the trip by a few days, but still went.
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE the utter destruction in Quang Tri province. As South Vietnam’s northernmost province in the DMZ, it was the scene of some of the fiercest ground fighting of the war, with bloody campaigns such as the battles of Khe Sanh and Dong Ha. During the course of the Vietnam War, U.S. warplanes dropped at least three times more bombs than in World War II, and 15 times more than in Korea — with the heaviest bombing in Quang Tri province. Slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island, Quang Tri was basically flattened — according to one report, only 11 of the province’s 3,500 villages were left unbombed; many were completely destroyed.
Both sides used an incredible array of explosives, ranging from the 15,000-pound “Daisy Cutter” dropped by U.S. bombers to blast out helicopter landing zones to shells and projectiles fired from artillery, helicopters and ground troops. The failure rate for explosion was significant. For example, with cluster bombs — packages of 40 to 600 bomblets packed in a shell that opens at about 500 feet high, distributing its destructive load over a wide area — possibly 30% of the bomblets did not explode on impact, leaving a deadly legacy. Overall, the Vietnamese government estimates that 800,000 tons of bombs were left behind in the country.
The unexploded bombs, grenades, land mines and mortars have kept killing in the 45-plus years since the war ended. Across Vietnam, there have been some 100,000 casualties, including 40,000 deaths from people stepping on land mines or setting off UXO as they farm, build new homes, dig in their gardens — even play. In Quang Tri province, the number of killed or wounded is estimated at 8,500 people. For children, it’s been especially dangerous. They mistake cluster bombs for toys or balls, and 1 out of 5 land mine victims is a child. Many of these tragedies have occurred in rural areas where children, traditionally charged with caring for the family’s water buffalo, are injured or killed when the animal steps on UXO in a rice paddy.
There hasn’t been a fatality in Quang Tri since 2017, but that’s not the case in other provinces.
THIS WAS THE SETTING that faced PeaceTrees when it started its work in 1995. After the success of the first citizen diplomacy trip, Brusseau and PeaceTrees moved ahead with raising money and recruiting volunteers. The initial focus was on supporting Vietnamese land-mine-clearing teams, which included sponsoring U.S. munitions experts to train the first local squads. Equally important, neighborhood educational programs were started to teach families how to avoid dangerous UXO and stem the ongoing injuries. A milestone came in 1998, with the opening of the Danaan Parry Landmine Education Center for Children in Dong Ha.
As the land was cleared of UXO (fortunately, to this day, without a single casualty among the demining teams), PeaceTrees expanded its scope. The mantra was “safe land, successful communities.” It started with 100 homes on the former Dong Ha combat base, including the organization’s first kindergarten, built in 2002. Since then, 19 kindergartens, 12 libraries and two community centers have been built, all on cleared land. Another program awards scholarships to needy students; in many families, some members can’t work because they’ve been injured by UXO.
PeaceTrees also has branched out to remote farming areas, where poverty has been especially acute, because UXO have left once-productive lands unsafe. In an area near the Laotian border, PeaceTrees is helping finance demining teams to clear the land, then partnering with corporations to teach local farmers how to grow black pepper (Vietnam is the world’s largest exporter of pepper).
Today, at 25 years, PeaceTrees has a board of 15 directors, staff in Seattle and Vietnam, and a $3.4 million budget funded by U.S. government grants and contributions.
And the first PeaceTrees program — the citizen diplomacy trips — continues each year, with nearly 800 participants to date traveling to Vietnam. The trips have offered profoundly personal experiences for Vietnam veterans and their families who travel to the country and meet the Vietnamese people — including former soldiers and families of fallen soldiers. They visit PeaceTrees schools, libraries and demining efforts. Symbolically, they plant trees — bringing life to blood- and bomb-soaked land. Under the first tree planted in 1996 lies Dan Cheney’s Purple Heart medal, placed there by his sister.
Though much has been accomplished in Quang Tri province, it’s estimated that only 20% of the land has been cleared of UXO, and so many unseen challenges remain: After horrendous floods late last year from torrential rain in Quang Tri, for example, PeaceTrees responded to the discovery of seven huge, 500-pound unexploded bombs exposed by landslides. PeaceTrees, along with several other major international aid groups also sponsoring demining efforts, is working toward a government goal of reaching a “manageable level of contamination” in Quang Tri by 2025. Sophisticated new technology that can pinpoint UXO is helping. But to completely clear the land of UXO in Vietnam could take decades, if not centuries.
DAN CHENEY’S MOTHER, Rae Cheney, contributed to PeaceTrees over the years with thousands of personal thank-you notes written in beautiful cursive to supporters and donors. Though invited to attend the citizen diplomacy trips, she vowed never to go to Vietnam. That changed in 2010, when, at age 90, she attended the dedication of the Dan Cheney Kindergarten and the Mothers’ Peace Library near Khe Sanh. Brusseau was at her mother’s side as she was welcomed by local residents and officials. The crowd brought forward another elderly woman who had lost two sons in the war, and the two held each other. “This was a moment that 40 years ago seemed impossible,” Brusseau says. Rae Cheney passed away at age 97 in 2017.
As for Brusseau, her own sense of peace has come not only from the work of PeaceTrees, but also from journeys to the site where her brother died. The Army papers gave the location of where he was shot down. She first went there with the help of a Vietnamese woman she had befriended who drove her to a remote village outside of Ho Chi Minh City. There, they were able to talk with a man who had remembered the battle and showed them where the helicopter was shot down.
Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Dan Cheney’s death, Brusseau and a small group of friends returned to the site and held a memorial ceremony. The group included Gail Garcelon, who was Dan Cheney’s fiancée when he was killed. There, they burned incense. A traditional Vietnamese belief holds that prayers are carried on the smoke to their ancestors in another world.