Chuck Searcy might one day return to Athens to stay.
But as he nears 70, Searcy says he still has unfinished business after 19 years in Vietnam — specifically, continuing his work with Project Renew, a group which works to reduce the toll of the unexploded bombs still killing and maiming Vietnamese children and farmers.
“We dropped 15 million tons of bombs over Vietnam, more than all of the bombs in World War II,” said Searcy, a University of Georgia graduate and one of the founders of the Athens Observer, a newspaper that flourished during the 1970s and 1980s.
Searcy’s anti-bomb work is focused in the Vietnamese province of Quang Tri.
Vietnamese veterans such as Searcy had a different name for the area — the DMZ or “demilitarized zone, the region between North and South Vietnam during the war, which ended in 1975.
“The DMZ is the most heavily bombed area in the history of the world,” Searcy said. A great many of the unexploded bombs in Quang Tri are result of cluster bombs, big bombs that open in the area to distribute bomblets, just the right size for a curious child to pick up years later.
Project Renew works in a sort of two-step way to protect people against the bombs, which disproportionately hurt children and rural people, Searcy explained on a visit to Athens last month.
One is education, teaching people what unexploded bombs look like, where they’re likely to be and what to do when they find one. Then, bomb removal teams can safely remove the explosive devices once spotted.
The job will really never be over, Searcy said. People dug up about 5,000 unexploded World War II bombs in Germany — last year, he said.
Official estimates put the number of casualties from unexploded bombs in Vietnam at around 100,000, including 34,000 killed. The true numbers are considerably higher, Searcy said.
But thanks partly to Project Renew, the casualty rate today is far below what it was two decades ago, he said. Project Renew is run by Vietnamese, but gets help from organizations American and other international non-government organizations.
The tragic legacy of Agent Orange is also receding, he said. In about 10 years, the United States poured out an estimated 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants on to Vietnamese forests and fields, defoliating an estimated 20 percent of the country’s farmland and millions of acres of farmland. Humanitarian groups and the Vietnamese have done a lot to help lessen the lingering effects — now with some help from the U.S. government, Searcy said in an interview on a visit to Athens last month.
“There’s reason for optimism now that we can bring real closure to these legacies of the war, which are really America’s responsibility,” Searcy said.
Searcy got his first education about Vietnam and the Vietnamese War in the 1960s, working in military intelligence. He was in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, when some of the war’s heaviest fighting raged on the battlefields.
“I learned that the war was a tragic mistake,” Searcy said.
Searcy worked with classified information, and soon came to understand the intelligence reports were routinely rewritten to reflect whatever policies were in force at the time, rather than reality, he said.
Searcy’s first humanitarian work in Vietnam was more about braces than bombs.
In the early 1990s he found himself with a choice of jobs. One was to return to Washington, D.C. working for the Veterans Administration at $140,000 a year; years before, Searcy was an administrator with the Small Business Administration during the Carter presidency. At another phase in his career, he was executive director of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.
But instead he took another job at one-third the pay with an anti-war veterans group, helping to provide devices such as braces for children and others permanently injured by bombs.
Once or so a year, Searcy returns to Athens to reconnect with old friends and raise money for Project Renew.
As Athens musician Kate Morrissey played in the front yard one Saturday last month, dozens of Searcy’s friends and supporters, many of them veterans, came by the house Searcy still owns in Five Points to talk and chip in with checks for Project Renew. On the sidewalk nearby, fans in red and black made their way toward Sanford Stadium for UGA’s first football game of the year.
The day afterward, Searcy couldn’t say when or even if he might return to Athens to stay.
“I’ve always assumed I’ll come back. It’s just taken longer than I expected. My porch at Five Points is very inviting,” he said.