Education and Service Projects in Vietnam

The wounds of war do not go away when the fighting stops. Both the physical and emotional wounds persist for the lifetime of those caught up in a war and sometimes far beyond that. Here are some reflections on this subject, based on my involvement in two different programs of Friends and education in Vietnam.

Quaker Service (AFSC)

In 1964, American Friends Service Committee sent David Stickney to Vietnam to explore possible service programs. Among the places he visited was Quang Ngai province, the site of intense fighting with consequent heavy civilian casualties and displacement of people into refugee camps. He recommended AFSC establish two projects in Quang Ngai: a daycare center for pre-school children from crowded refugee camps, and a rehabilitation center for warinjured civilians.

By 1967, when I arrived as the first physician with the AFSC team, both were in operation. The daycare center provided the necessary pre-school education for three- to six-year-old children to enter public school. To be admitted to first grade, a child needed to know how to write the alphabet and numbers. A poor refugee child of illiterate parents had no access to the private tutoring that would make this possible.

The rehabilitation center provided physical therapy and prosthetic limbs or braces for patients in the nearby provincial hospital who needed such treatment. David Stickney noted on his visit to the Quang Ngai hospital that, due to the absence of these services, patients had often been discharged from the hospital "in worse shape than they were when admitted." From the outset, the rehabilitation center was a place to train local Vietnamese in the skills needed to provide these services.

Joe Clark, our first prosthetist, was an Englishman who had worked in Hong Kong for several years. His interview with young men seeking positions as trainees involved having them demonstrate how to use a hammer, a ruler, and a saw, as well as basic literacy and math skills. Dot Weller, a physical therapist, and Katy Maendel, RN, who had arrived a couple of weeks before him, had already prepared some children for artificial legs. Within two weeks of his arrival, Joe and his eight apprentices began making the first two prostheses for children. He demonstrated to the trainees the skills they were required to learn: how to cast a stump, make a mold of the patient’s stump from that cast, shape over that mold the custom-made part of the prosthesis into which the patient’s stump would fit, and fashion from wood, plastic, and rubber the rest of the prosthetic leg.

This was the only rehabilitation center in South Vietnam for war-injured civilians; the others in development were for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers. Later, based on our records and the best census data available, I concluded that one out of every 250 persons living in Quang Ngai had suffered the loss of one or more limbs. Already in mid-1967 the backlog became overwhelming. Within two months of opening the center, we were treating 50-60 patients, most of them lower limb amputees and a third under the age of 16. Our apprentices had unlimited opportunities to learn their new profession.

By 1971, under the teaching and supervision of our second prosthetist, Roger Marshall, we had 21 prosthetic apprentices in various levels of training at the center. The apprentices were a tight-knit group of friends as well as fellow workers. Some of them would come in and work extra hours, eager to learn how to improve the service given to amputees. Mr. Quy, later the supervisor of the group, began to search for local dyes that could be incorporated into the plastic finish of the prostheses to give them a natural skin color. He also worked on developing an alternative "foot" for the prosthetic legs. A "SACH foot" (solid ankle, cushioned heel and toe) imported from the United States cost about $75 per foot at that time. Our shop began to fashion SACH feet from local wood and rubber for a few dollars. From a rehabilitation conference I had attended, I brought back plans for a simple wheelchair and the idea of "rice paddy prostheses"—ones with smaller, solid wood feet that could be used in water-filled fields. Patients returning to farming in rice paddies could receive two legs: one with a SACH foot for ordinary wear and the other for the rice paddies. Soon we were making wheelchairs from metal chairs and bicycle wheels that were much more practical for the countryside’s unpaved paths, and they could be repaired at a local bicycle shop.

Meanwhile, under the able direction of Mrs. Xuan Lan, the daycare center was providing kindergarten instruction, snacks, and a midday meal to 20-40 children from refugee camps in and around Quang Ngai city. I held a weekly sick call at the center for any children who needed care. One of my first and frequent remedies was treatment for intestinal worms. One of the incessant drills at the center was to teach the children the importance of washing their hands as well as washing raw food before eating. Before graduation each August, Xuan Lan made the rounds to primary schools in the area to ensure that each graduating child received admission to first grade.

We identified some children at our rehabilitation center who we knew needed education if they were to have any chance at an independent life. One example was Le Trinh, who came to us when she was about three years old. Her injury had necessitated the complete amputation of her right leg, so she was fitted with a "bucket prosthesis." Essentially, she sat in her prosthetic leg on the right side. She was the first rehabilitation center patient to be admitted to our daycare center. She graduated, went on to school, and we lost track of her after the war ended—until one day some 30 years later. Roger Marshall, now living in the United States, received a letter from her asking if she could get a new prosthesis now that she was grown up. She was currently working in a bank in Quang Ngai city. Roger had kept in touch with the men we had trained, most of whom were now working at the regional rehabilitation center in Qui Nhon. He had brought Mr. Quy over to the United States for several short courses in prosthetics and orthotics (bracemaking) over the years, and Quy is now a certified prosthetist and orthotist. Roger contacted Quy, and soon they were able to fit Le Trinh with a modern endoskeletal prosthesis (that is, one built more like a human skeleton with support components on the inside and a cosmetic cover on the outside). Roger reported, "When we came to fit it on her, she leaned her crutches up against the wall and just took off walking without even a cane."

Mr. Tien, another prosthetist we trained, and Mr. Quy have now retired from the Qui Nhon Center and returned to Quang Ngai, where they staff a satellite clinic of the Danang rehabilitation center along with a young man they are training. When I visited them during the past three years, they told me that they see many of our former patients who remember and ask about the Quakers who worked with them. The wounds of that war still exist, and the education we provided still helps to minister to those affected.

Madison Quakers, Inc. in My Lai

In 2008, I returned to Quang Ngai to visit the work of Madison Quakers, Inc. (MQI), which I had been supporting for several years. In over a decade of activity, through the dedicated efforts of Executive Director Mike Boehm and his Vietnamese liaison, Phan Van Do (pronounced "doe"), MQI built a Peace Park in My Lai, schools, and homes for poor families. It also gave micro-credit loans to especially needy women in several Quang Ngai villages. Mike, a Vietnam veteran, had been moved during a visit to Vietnam in the ’90s to visit My Lai, a place far removed from where he had been during the war. Deeply touched by the tragedy of the My Lai massacre and by the many needs he saw in that area, he undertook to work for peace, justice, and reconciliation in this corner of Vietnam.

MQI invited a large delegation of supporters to come in 2008, the 40th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. After we had attended the memorial service at the site of the massacre, we adjourned to the My Lai Peace Park, a short way down the road, where we planted trees. Next we went to the center of Tinh Khe, the town of which My Lai is a hamlet, to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the third building of the Tinh Khe Primary School Number 1, a school built by MQI funds. While there, I set out to see a typical classroom in the two buildings already in use.

One of the teachers asked me in English, "May I help you?"

"I’d like to see one of the classrooms, please." I said.

"I’ll show you mine," she replied. "My name is Mrs. Luu. I am the teacher of English here."

Her room was a clean, painted space furnished with a teacher’s desk, a blackboard, and student desks. There was nothing else; not even the usually ubiquitous picture of Uncle Ho Chi Minh. A few curious students had followed us. I began to show Mrs. Luu a few postcards I had brought, pictures of sea turtles and dolphins. The students were so excited, commenting on how beautiful the pictures were. After a few minutes of conversation in both English and Vietnamese, we returned to the ceremony in progress outside.

That evening over dinner, I asked Mr. Do, Madison Quakers’ liaison, "Do you think I might come back next year for a couple of weeks and help Mrs. Luu teach in her English classes?"

"Could you stay longer?" was his immediate response. Trained as an English teacher himself, he explained that one of the major problems in learning English as a second language in Vietnam is the almost complete absence of exposure to native English speakers for both teachers and students. Thus while they may be able to read and write, they have difficulty speaking or understanding spoken English.

In February 2009, after thought, prayer, and discussion, another member of my local Friends meeting, Patricia Dewees, and I spent just over two weeks in Tinh Khe to launch a pilot project that would provide teacher-aides to English teachers. We began with Mrs. Luu in Tinh Khe Primary School Number One. If this was well received by the Vietnamese, we would propose to expand to the Tinh Khe Middle School the following year. We were warmly welcomed to the school by both administrators and teachers. At our initial formal meeting with the headmaster, Mr. Khuong, members of his administrative staff, representatives of the Son Tinh District Education office, and teachers, we learned that the final approval of our program had just arrived that morning from the provincial authorities. The bureaucracy had moved slowly, but we were now ready to proceed.

Pat and I had brought numerous items for possible use. Mr. Khoung directed Mr. Trung, the assistant headmaster for curricular matters, and Mrs. Luu to meet with us to review these materials and decide how they could best be used. Over tea in the hotel room, Mrs. Tinh, our translator, and I showed them the books, puppets, and other learning materials we had brought— from both the United States and the National Department of Education bookstore in Hanoi. They were excited about these resources. Mr. Trung indiseccated which books should go to the school library and which should stay with us and, ultimately, with Mrs. Luu.

Due to limited resources, students in Vietnam attend only a half-day of school: during either the morning or afternoon. All teachers use the nationally mandated textbooks for English instruction, developed with the advice of the British Council in Vietnam. These textbooks provide solid, appropriate lessons to build basic vocabulary for reading and everyday activities. We expressed clearly that our unique contribution would be to augment these lessons with exposure to us as native speakers of English.

On our first Monday, we plunged into classes with Mrs. Luu. It was an exhausting schedule for all of us; Mrs. Luu was teaching over 200 students singlehandedly in third through fifth grades at Tinh Khe primary school. We would read new vocabulary words and have students repeat them. We read dialogues from the day’s lesson and developed brief role-playing dialogues based on the previous and current lessons. After doing a role-play in front of the class, we would invite volunteer students to participate with us. We taught simple songs in English, as it had been shown that singing utilizes an additional part of the brain and helps students remember words. We used puppets for some of our role-play dialogues, inviting students to ask the puppets questions based on their lesson. By the third day, Mrs. Luu left us to teach a whole class by ourselves while she coached a school team for an upcoming district English competition. On the fourth day, we took a fifth grade class into an adjacent empty classroom where we divided the class into three circles so Pat, Tinh, and I could monitor each and every student as they practiced simple question and answer dialogues with each other.

The students responded enthusiastically. On our daily walks to and from school, students bicycling to school would call out, "Hello Teacher Pat, Teacher Mai (my Vietnamese name)." Some of the bolder ones would stop and assay a longer conversation. After a few days, a group of girls turned up at our hotel. Since they go to school only halfdays, they came in mid-afternoon. "Would you teach us more English, please?" We spent a couple of hours with them, and this encouraged them to repeat the process. It cut into our rest and planning time for the next day’s classes, but we found it very hard to turn them away. Even in the short time we were there, we could see improvement in their English speaking and comprehension.

Some other English teachers observed one of our classes in the second week. We attracted media interest as well, including a visit from a national television crew. On our return to Hanoi, a number of people said that they saw us on TV.

In 2010, I returned with Margaret Roberts, another Friend trained in teaching English as a second language. No English was being taught in the primary school because Mrs. Luu was on maternity leave, so we worked this time only with the six English teachers at the Tinh Khe Middle School for sixth through ninth grades. We had been advised that middle school teachers were under much more pressure to "teach to the tests," a problem we also face here in the United States. The testing process relies solely on reading and writing, so spoken English gets little emphasis. Nonetheless, within those constraints, the teachers had us read lesson dialogues and essays as well as work with students on pronunciation of vocabulary. This was the first time any of these six teachers had ever had the opportunity to converse with native English speakers, and they were most eager to practice with us. At each class, most or all of them were usually present to listen to our contributions, and after class we would gather in the break room where they would pepper us with questions about lesson content as well as the English language. Midway through our time, we were able to offer an in-service to them on improving pronunciation and noticed real gains in subsequent classes.

We also gained a greater understanding of the organization of education and the demands on teachers. Teachers in middle school were teaching six days a week, and some had extra lessons on Sunday—both remedial classes and those for advanced students. They carry deep concern for their students, most of whom come from poor families earning their livelihood by fishing or farming.

Since returning home, we have heard that ten students from Tinh Khe Middle School entered the District English competition this spring. Seven students won prizes, including a "best student" and a third prize. The headmaster said this was the first time the school had done so well in English. The teachers’ dedication has been rewarded, and we hope that we have contributed in some small measure to this success.

We plan to continue work with both the primary school and middle school teachers next year.
For further information about these projects, visit the websites of the Prosthetics & Orthotics Center ( and Madison Quakers, Inc. ( [Note: the use of honorifics (Mr., Mrs.) in this article, normally not used in Quaker parlance, follows the Vietnamese custom for politeness.—Eds.]

Marjorie E. Nelson

Marjorie E. Nelson, a member of Athens (Ohio) Meeting, retired at the end of June 2009 after 32 years of teaching medical students at Ohio University. For the past three years she has traveled to Quang Ngai province in Vietnam where she volunteers with Madison Quakers, Inc.