Omega Institute retreat

From Warriors to Peaceful Warriors

Veterans Lighting the Way

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis in Conversation

Brother Phap Uyen (Brother Michael) served in the military during Desert Storm, Desert Shield. He was ordained as a monastic by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 26, 2002, with the Nimba Family. Paul Davis served in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968. In 1966, he was in Vietnam when Thich Nhat Hanh started the Order of Interbeing. He took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the mid-1990s and was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and facilitates the Being Peace Sangha.

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis are part of a group planning a Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery this November. To share with the Sangha their experiences and insights as veterans within the Sangha, they met by phone for a Dharma discussion on February 25, 2014.

Roots of Personal Suffering: Family, Military, and War

Brother Phap Uyen: You and I have had numerous conversations because we were both in the military—you during the Vietnam War and me during Desert Storm, Desert Shield.

Paul Davis: I went into the Marine Corps three weeks after I graduated from high school. I grew up in a rural part of northeastern Ohio. I went into the Marine Corps not out of patriotism, but because I didn’t have anything better to do at the time, and two of my friends were going into the Marine Corps. I turned eighteen when I was in boot camp at Paris Island in 1964. About a year later, I got orders to go to Vietnam. By then I was nineteen. I didn’t really know much about life, and I knew nothing about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people. I was a field radio operator, which meant I carried a radio and I kept communications with headquarters. When I went to Vietnam I had no opinions, I was just there. It was probably different for people who went later, when they knew more about the war and formed opinions about whether it was good or bad. But I grew up in the fifties and early sixties with John Wayne and America being right, so those were the filters that I took to Vietnam with me.

I had been in Vietnam for about ten months when I was wounded and evacuated. I spent three months in the hospital. And still I had not really thought about my experience in Vietnam. That came about a year later, in 1967. The brother of a friend of mine asked me to participate in a presentation at Ohio State University. It was about the cultural aspects of Vietnam, not about the war. A speech teacher was coordinating the event, and he asked the three of us if we felt that the people of Vietnam wanted us in Vietnam. I volunteered to answer the question, and I gave a long answer. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question.” I just sat there. I was numb, almost. I still get emotional thinking about that moment in my life, because it changed me in so many fundamental ways. I’m grateful for that question because it started my process of rebuilding who I was.

I came across Thay and his teachings much later, sometime around 1991 or ’92. I had just experienced a deep loss—it was a period of reflection and questioning. I left Vietnam in 1966 just two or three months after Thay left. I know you left Vietnam when you were two. Is that right?

Brother Phap Uyen: Yes. I was born in June 1973, in Saigon. In 1975, my family left Vietnam. We were in the last plane to leave Tan Son Nhut Airport before the communist government took it over. Our plane was up in the air already when the soldiers stormed the airport. My aunt had married a person that worked for Air America, the CIA’s covert flying group. He was able to help us get out of Vietnam. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about two weeks, and then we ended up in Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California. After that, we went to Arizona to live with my aunt and uncle who had sponsored us. I was in the US by ’75. For my parents it was a huge adjustment. In 1979-80, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles started coming over from Vietnam.

My dad had served in the South Vietnamese military. He had traumatic experiences from the war, as well as being a heavy drinker, so it was quite challenging for the family. He and my mom separated when I was nine and a half. They divorced and I lived with my mom for a while. Then there was the battle between my mom and my dad. I was pushed back and forth between my parents, and they were kind of using me against each other.

Paul: I do know that the journey that took me to the Marine Corps was because of issues growing up. When I was in the service, I wasn’t angry. I was more mentally unconscious. When I got out of the service, I enrolled in college at Kent State University and began classes in 1968. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, the National Guard came on campus and killed four students and shot more. I got involved in the anti-war movement, not a peace movement. I was a lot angrier as a war protestor than I was as a Marine. I had a lot of energy as an angry person. I know that part of your story is issues of anger as well.

Brother Phap Uyen: My mom remarried, and I didn’t feel a sense of security in that relationship either. I hung out with the wrong elements and joined a gang. We got into a lot of trouble. After high school, I didn’t have plans to go to college, so I joined the military. I wanted to try a challenge, so I tried out for the Navy SEALS. I went through the training program but I didn’t graduate from the program. Later on, I was an executive bodyguard for a four-star admiral.

Practicing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After coming out of the military, I ended up with what we now call PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even though I had known Thay since 1989 and I had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him, I didn’t really practice because I was still very young. I didn’t know how to handle the anger and frustration. I had nightmares at night. I didn’t want to be alone, so I was married when I was twenty-three. My ex-wife and I divorced about a year and a half into our marriage because I couldn’t handle my anger and my emotions. That also led to a disconnection between my daughter and me for a while. My daughter is now eighteen years old.

There were moments when I was in a really dark place, thinking about killing myself because I was hurting the people I loved and cared about. My mom was quite scared for me because of the lifestyle that I was living—in and out of relationships, not being able to focus and go to school or handle a job. I didn’t like conflict. I would just up and leave my job and move to a different job if I didn’t feel the workplace was harmonious enough. I couldn’t really be around a lot of people at that time. Both of my marriages ended within a year and a half because I couldn’t communicate. There was always a part of me that was trying to hide the things inside of me, not being able to share openly or intimately. A lot of times, my anger would do the talking. After leaving the military, there was a time where within three months I moved six times. That’s partly because I couldn’t accept myself and I didn’t know how to be my own best friend. I wasn’t happy with myself. You can run away from a lot of things, but the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself. Around 2001-2002, my mom suggested for me to go to Plum Village and possibly take a break, because I hadn’t had a break since I left the military.

Connecting with Thay and the Plum Village Tradition

Paul: I ultimately found Thay and his teachings in the early nineties, after my youngest son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident. The two things that led me to Thay’s teachings were the war in Vietnam and Nathan’s death. I always looked at spirituality or religion from more of an intellectual standpoint, but at that point I had to face some very serious issues of life and death. I first found an article that this Vietnamese monk had written, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name! And then I read Peace Is Every Step. I found out Thay actually did retreats here in the United States.

I went on my first retreat about 1995, at Omega Institute in New York. Being in Thay’s presence was supportive. I hesitate to use the word “healing,” but it was very supportive. When I got there, I found a veterans’ discussion group within the retreat. It was a combination of war protestors and veterans who had been to war, and their families. It was a good opportunity for families to come together and sit and heal. I kept going to Thay’s retreats every two years, and I kept sitting with the veterans’ group and getting to know other veterans and their stories.

The people who came to those groups weren’t always veterans. The woman who became known as the Central Park jogger, who was assaulted in Central Park and had been in a coma, came to one of Thay’s retreats and joined the veterans’ group because she felt it was one place where people could understand the trauma that she had gone through. So the veterans’ group was, in many ways, a safe place for others who had gone through serious trauma.

The initial group I attended at Thay’s retreat was co-facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, who was one of the early vets that got connected to Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s since left our tradition, and he was ordained in the Zen Peacemaker Order. The other was Roberta Wall, an OI member from New York. The two of them, the peace activist and the war veteran, co-facilitated that group, which I think made everybody feel welcome. A lot of people lost their youth to the war even though they weren’t there because they got so angry about it.

Brother Phap Uyen: In 2002, I was getting ready to come back to the US from Plum Village. I had already completed 1500 hours of massage therapy, and then I was going to go to school for Oriental medicine. I went in to see Thay and pay my respects. Thay said, “So, I hear you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor.”

“Yes, Thay.”

Thay asked, “So, why do you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor?”

“So I can help people heal, because the military has trained me to do things and use my skills to hurt other people, and I want to change that energy inside of me.”

But Thay said something to me that really made me stop and think: “If you want to help them heal, the only way you can do that is by helping them go to the root of their problem. And the root of their problem is in their mind. But in order for you to do that, you need training. So you need to become a monk.”

I thought, “I’m not sure if I want to commit to being a monk yet.” In the Asian culture, when you become a monk, it is for the rest of your life. I decided to do it anyway, because I saw the effect that being around the Sangha had on me.

Healing Power of Sangha

The more I practiced with the Sangha, the more I could slowly start opening up. I slowly started being more gentle, friendly, happy. I smiled a lot more! My mom shared that seeing me grow within the Sangha has been a really great thing for her, because she saw me during the worst of my time, when I didn’t really smile.

Now that I look back at it, I see that when I was in the military, with my friends on the base, all those things that we have as part of PTSD were normal to us because everyone else around us was doing the exact same thing. They were drinking; they were not being faithful to their partners. There was anger, violence, hostility. While we’re in that environment, everything seems normal until we transition out of the military; then you realize you can’t just solve that problem by shooting that person. You can’t just blow up at that person anymore. You have to find a more civilized way. Fortunately for me, I came in contact with the Sangha.

When I was in Plum Village in 2002, the US was going to war with Iraq; later on, I got news that seven of the friends I had served with had died. Thay was in Italy at the time, and when he came back I was working in the registration office. Thay came in and asked me how I was doing. Thay said, “I’m sorry to hear that one of your friends passed away.”

“Dear Thay, it wasn’t one. It was seven of them. Right now, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, because I just received the news.”

Thay asked, “How are you going to practice for them? What are you going to do for them?”

I was looking at Thay and said, “They’re already dead. There’s not much I can do for them.”

“No,” Thay said. “They’re dead, but how are you going to practice so that you can help your other brothers and sisters that are not dead yet, or that are going to come back from the war zones?”

That really got me thinking about what I needed to do to practice—doing walking meditation and bringing the images of the soldiers up with me while I’m walking, or the images of my friends that are now dead and don’t have an opportunity to walk anymore, and to take those mindful steps for them.

But at that time I was still very young and fragile in the practice. It’s taken twelve years for me to work on my practice, to hopefully offer something to our brothers and sisters in the military. Granted, all my symptoms from PTSD are not completely gone, because they’ll never go away. But I can handle them in a more appropriate way instead of letting those emotions control me like they used to.

Paul: What stands out for me in listening to you is the importance of the Sangha, not only the monastic Sangha but the lay Sangha as well. For me, I could not do this without the fourfold Sangha. I know that if I wander off the path, once a week I have a gentle reminder with my local Sangha to return to the path. It’s the same when I’m able to spend time with the monks and nuns. It’s like meditation—when our mind wanders away from our breath, we return—and returning to the practice and the Sangha helps me maintain my practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: The way I’ve been practicing is using mindfulness like a bullet-proof vest. During your time, you had flak jackets; now they use Kevlar. Without the mindfulness practice, it’s like walking into battle without a flak jacket or a Kevlar vest on. I’m not about to walk into battle without my Kevlar vest on!

Helping Other Veterans Heal

Paul: I’m glad to be one of the threads in that jacket. You remind me of the importance of what can happen after the Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in November. I know that the veterans who have benefitted most from Thay’s retreats are the ones who found the Sangha and stayed with it. Maybe that’s one of the areas where local Sanghas could really help out—to reach out to the veterans who come to the retreat, to make sure that they’re welcome without judgment into Sanghas that continue to support them in the practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: I think it’s really important, because the veterans often feel a disconnection between themselves and the rest of society. If we can get the local Sanghas to help with that, as well as having veterans’ Sanghas in different geographical locations, and possibly get together once a year, or have a big veterans’ retreat—something that they can pencil in every year on their calendar.

In Sister Chan Khong and Thay’s Love and Understanding program, when I sponsored a child for a school year, I would receive a thank-you letter and the child would share a little bit about what’s going on with their life and how school is going. We can connect veterans and local Sanghas by asking local Sanghas to sponsor a veteran for the Veterans Retreat. If we do that, the veterans will see that people do love them and care about them. It allows the veteran to send a thank-you letter, and the Sangha sees concretely that this is a person that they’re supporting.

When I was living in Plum Village recently, Thay was talking about wanting Sanghas to have service projects—not just practicing and gathering at one person’s house, that’s good, but also to reach out to different aspects of our community to help. This is a way that we can do both things. A lot of the veterans have trouble finding jobs because people won’t hire somebody from the military, especially if they have PTS or PTSD on their record. There are financial difficulties for a lot of the veterans. That’s why we’re trying to do anything we can to get them to the retreat.

Paul: I was very upset when we decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the people speaking at a public gathering against going to war. I was also doing volunteer work with the VA [Veterans’Administration], meeting with families whose children had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was torn between the idea of providing support for the families and honoring their loss, and at the same time speaking out against the war.

Veterans all react differently. There are veterans like me, who quickly realized that what they had been participating in was not right. There are other veterans who strongly feel they were doing the right thing, but they’re still experiencing strong emotion from those actions, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, or depression, or other things that can come from war.

Brother Phap Uyen: I understand where you’re coming from. Some people have come up to me and said, “Being a Buddhist monastic, how can you support the war?” I don’t support the war. I don’t want to ever support any act of killing or hurting people. But I support the healing of the individual. Everybody understands a human being needs to be able to heal. We see the strong power of the Sangha in being able to help us heal. The war has already happened. There’s nothing we can do about that right now. But what we can do is help them heal.

Paul: I’ve always liked Thay’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” I am the marine who went to war and I am the veteran who protested the war. Those are all part of who I am.

Brother Phap Uyen: Yeah, I see that in myself too. A big part of it is the environment. I think because we’ve been through the war, we want to stand up and not have our future generations go through what we went through.

Edited by Janelle Combelic, Brother Phap Uyen, and Paul Davis

Reversing the Legacy of War

A Veteran’s Story

By Jeff Nielsen

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I first went to Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old Marine in late 1965. It was a big adventure. I was greeted by many children, lush green countryside, and happy people harvesting rice and fishing. It seemed the people always had smiles upon their faces and a playful curious attitude toward us Marines. It was fun to engage with the children and villagers as we conducted morning patrols outside the barbed wire of our artillery post in Da Nang. I had no real fears on these patrols. On one occasion, I used a blasting cap from a disassembled hand grenade to assist children with their fishing. The blasting cap stunned the fish, and the children eagerly collected them up. They were amazed. I was amazed.

Many positive seeds were nourished during my first trip to Vietnam, as I interacted with a new culture. The hard-core stories of the war were on the edges. But, what began as an adventure in a strange, foreign land would later transform my life.

I volunteered to go back to Vietnam in the summer of 1967. That was the Summer of Love in the United States, but in Vietnam there was no Summer of Love. The war had escalated. I was assigned as a field radio operator with a Marine Infantry unit on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), much further north than where I had previously been stationed. The war was real here. There was a tremendous amount of suffering, pain, and fear.

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Our unit was under siege from the communist North at Con Tien, or “hill of angels.” I was witness to a brutal and vicious war. In the two weeks prior to and after my arrival, our unit suffered one thousand casualties and seventy dead at Con Tien. The DMZ was a battle of artillery duels, and the Marines were sitting targets inside their wire perimeter. Communist 122-millimeter rockets arrived regularly with howling screeches, creating mass scrambles for cover in red clay trenches. I was scared. There were no more smiling children. This was no longer an adventure. It was war with victims. Suffering and death were everywhere.

Marines lived in primitive, often muddy, unsanitary conditions. We bathed in rivers contaminated with the dioxin Agent Orange. Agent Orange was used to defoliate the jungle and deny the communists cover. The jungle countryside was also hostile. At night, we stood guard duty inside our wire, and rock apes, or monkeys, roamed outside the wire in the jungle. These monkeys can weigh over one hundred pounds, and at night they can resemble a person. Occasionally they, too, would throw rocks at our defensive perimeter. Everyone outside the wire was a potential enemy. Whatever moved was a potential rifle target. We were prisoners within our own barbed wire.

My job as a trained field radio operator was to maintain communications among the small units within our battalion, the individual line companies, and the battalion headquarters. This meant I had to go into the field or bush on a regular basis with fighting units. It was my duty to carry a twenty-five-pound field radio on my back, along with my own equipment: food (Crations), a shovel for digging in at night, two canteens, a pistol, and an M-16 assault rifle with 175 rounds of ammunition. Many Marines got heat exhaustion walking all day in the one-hundred-degree tropical jungle.

One of my assignments was to work as a relay operator on a prominent hilltop outpost called the Rockpile. There were ten of us up there. The Rockpile was accessible from the ground only by helicopter. It was the highest peak along the DMZ. There I provided clearance for aircraft and ground resupply convoys. I could observe and listen to most major military action from my nine-hundred-foot perch on a crag of rock.

From the Rockpile I was able to witness our weapons of mass destruction: the B-52 bombers with their two-thousand-pound bombs. These bombs would relentlessly pound the earth into submission. Fires erupted on the horizon, and the ground shook with enormous rumblings. Other aircraft also attacked the earth with Agent Orange. Agent Orange not only destroyed the jungle, but it also produced many major agricultural problems for the local farm people who lived off the bounty of the Earth. It also destroyed the farmers’ health. It was an evil tool of war that continues to create a lot of suffering.

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One time I was giving radio clearance for a CH-46 cargo helicopter to pass over the Rockpile. I gave the signal. I looked up a second later and there was only a wisp of smoke where the helicopter had been in the sky. A communist gunner had fired a fifty-caliber machine gun accurately. The CH-46 had been flying low because of visibility and low ceiling in the early morning humidity. Eighteen marines perished. I was on the recovery team. We found one survivor, barely alive, and it looked as if all the bones in his body were broken.

I volunteered toward the end of my tour to accompany a resupply convoy to Khe Sanh. I was standing in the lead vehicle. On this occasion the communists must have been only a few feet away, hiding in the thick elephant grass that lined the narrow one-track highway, when I passed. Minutes later we heard their distinctive AK fire, four or five vehicles back. They had waited to open fire until they had more numerous targets. Sixteen Marines died on flatbed trucks that day. The next day we revisited the area. The dead lay where they had been killed.

My friend Arthur and I drew straws after that attack to see who would accompany the new lieutenant. I won the draw and accompanied the more experienced captain. Arthur was killed accompanying the less experienced lieutenant, with a few days left in his tour of duty. I visited with the captain not long ago, in 2006. He was dying of Agent Orange-related cancer. I attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetary.

I was unhappy in Vietnam. There was so much suffering all around, daily. The only escape was booze during the intermittent R&Rs.* I wanted to go home to the USA. I wanted to begin a new life. But I now know that home is where you are; it is up to us to create the conditions for our own happiness.

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A Difficult Journey

I survived Vietnam. I was lucky. But it was a difficult journey home. There was guilt leaving Vietnam, as our brothers were still there facing the suffering. In Okinawa, my friend Norm and I received word that our medic had been killed. Norm and I drank beer to excess every night during our transition back to the United States. We always ordered three beers––one for Norm, one for me, and one for the doc who was killed.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, I was admitted to the Oakland Naval Hospital. My “jungle rot” skin disease was severely infected from cuts and constant humidity. I was bandaged in gauze, like a mummy. I could not get discharged from the Marines in my condition, but my friend Norm was okay to go. It was a difficult farewell. I felt alone. I had lost the doc and now Norm.

In July 1968, I was discharged and left for home in Connecticut. There were many hurdles to face. I had to finish where I’d left off in high school. There were very few job prospects, as I had little training other than with a field radio and an M-16 rifle. Additionally, I had drinking and emotional problems: anger, resentment of my peers that didn’t go to war, and poor family relationships. The American culture was in a political turmoil. I felt the troops coming home were blamed for this war. This made me even angrier and more resentful.

My wife and I experienced many of the residual effects of the Vietnam War, and our marriage ended after eighteen years. In my thirties, I had a heart attack and two types of cancer, all related to Agent Orange. My wife had five miscarriages, also related to Agent Orange. My doctor advised us to stop trying to conceive a child. Later, we were denied adoption due to my past heart condition and limited family support.

In 1982, I went with a friend to the opening ceremony of “the Wall” in Washington, D.C. Of the fifty-eight-thousand-plus names on the Wall of American Soldiers Killed in Vietnam, most were in their early twenties––all with so much more to live. On the other side of the world, in Vietnam, many, many more were killed in this senseless war. Some Vietnamese people have told me that the hills in northwest Quang Tri Province cry at night with the hungry ghosts of the war.

Many Conditions for Happiness

My story gets better. Although there are many seeds of suffering in me, there are more than enough conditions for happiness.

I was first introduced to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh at a Veterans Retreat at Omega Institute in New York in the 1990s. I attended on scholarship. During this retreat, the seeds were planted; I began to look more deeply into the roots of my own trauma and guilt. I began to rethink my Vietnam experience.

I struggled with my education, hindered by my drinking. However, I completed college and earned three masters’ degrees, in counseling, educational psychology, and clinical social work. I began the course of study in social work, with a focus on international issues, in the late nineties after taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The seeds for my aspiration for the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings were planted. I feel fortunate to have had such wonderful teachers as Lyn Fine, Helen Hunt-Perry, and Roberta Wall on my path.

My studies took me to Vietnam. Since 1999, I have been to Vietnam six, soon to be seven times:

1999: I did an independent study on post-war issues as a graduate social work student. I fell in love with the country and people again, as I had in 1965 with the children of Da Nang. I learned to sing songs.

2000: I completed an internship with Asian Family Services in Hartford, Connecticut. I returned to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with a group of ex-refugee Southeast Asian staff to explore orphan issues.

2003: I returned to Vietnam with the non-governmental organization PeaceTrees Vietnam.** Its mission is to reverse the legacy of war by clearing unexploded war bombs and planting trees in their place. I was told last year that eighty-two percent of Quang Tri Province is contaminated by these unexploded bombs. Children and farmers continue to die.

2005: I returned with Thay and friends and became acquainted with the root temple in Hue. My practice deepened. I took a small group to visit PeaceTrees Vietnam. On my return, I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing by Thay in Massachusetts. I received the name True Pure Peace.

2008: I attended Vesak in Hanoi with Thay and the Sangha.

2013: Now retired from work, I took a course, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I went to Vietnam for three months with my wife, June, and taught English part time as a volunteer. I taught young children in a primary school in Hue. We sang many songs. Following that, I went on the Roots of Buddhism in Vietnam Retreat with Trish Thompson.

2014: I leave in a few weeks for our second mindfulness retreat in Vietnam with Ms. Thompson. Following this retreat, I will tour Vietnam with Veterans of Peace. We plan to raise money and create awareness about issues of unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.

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I am now remarried and have three wonderful stepchildren. I retired after twelve years as a psychiatric social worker on a mental health unit within a maximum-security prison, and five years as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapist, counseling returning war veterans with the Veterans Administration.

I am writing this in Southeast Asia, where the warm breeze flows, the air is fresh, the sun is out, birds chirp, local fruit is succulent, orchids are in blossom, and there is an absence of war. I look around at many smiling faces and say to myself, “Thank you.” I have gratitude for my many conditions for happiness.

Our practice continues to transform my life. I take my refuge with the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings continue to be my liberation from suffering. I write this for all my friends on the path of understanding. May I be free from suffering. May you be free from suffering. May I be happy and well. May you also be happy and well.

*“R&R” is military slang for rest and recuperation, rest and relaxation, or rest and

** For information or to support PeaceTrees Vietnam, visit www.peacetreesvietnam.org. To support efforts to restore the environment and neutralize the effects of the war, visit www.landmines.org.vn.

Jeff Nielsen, True Pure Peace, practices with the Heart of the Valley Mindfulness Practice Center in Norwich, Vermont. He lives with his wife, June, and Jack Russell terrier, Mr. Watson. He is willing to accept any donations towards resolution of the issues of unexploded bombs and Agent Orange in the name of Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Chapter. He can be reached at jeffreyrnielsen@msn.com.

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Basket by Basket

By Ron Landsel mb66-Basket1

It has been said that bomb craters in post-American-War Vietnam were not always filled in by gathering earth from outside the craters, but by the painstaking work of loosening up the densely compacted soil from within the crater itself, basket by basket. Heard years ago, this story has been a light for my path.

I attended my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1997, at Omega Institute in upstate New York, in a veterans group gathered in a little building called Cabin by the Field––a safe haven apart from the several hundred general retreatants. In tears and joy, our group was gently supported by Lyn Fine and Roberta Wall, and for the first time since my combat experiences in Vietnam, I sat and shared with several Vietnamese monastics, including Sister Chan Khong––veterans of our same war. Their sharing offered first-time glimpses of interbeing and deep listening. Doors to my heart were opened to understand my own suffering as only a part of the suffering of many. For the first time, I felt the courage within me to share openly with soldiers, spouses, children, and protesters suffering from the American War in Vietnam. Now, some seventeen years after our wonderful new beginning together, my volition continues to transform my suffering enough––basket by basket––in order to try to help others who suffer the wounds of war.

Thay heartens veterans to understand that we are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. He encourages us to achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, to be able to break our silent suffering and share with all of society the roots and the legacies of war. May veterans, youth, parents, educators, and governments join in breaking this long silence of wars and lend voice to our prayerful chant, “May there be no place at war.”

Ron Landsel, True West Garden, served in Vietnam in 1968-69 as a radio operator with 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. He lives and practices in Oceanside, California, with his wife, Margaret, and the sisters and brothers of the Rising Tide Sangha.

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