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The following story was written by Jody Morgan of Alamo Today & Danville Today News. The original article can be found here.

The Wheelchair Foundation recently completed a third distribution trip to Vietnam with several members of the Viet Nam Veterans of Diablo Valley (VNVDV) taking the opportunity to return for the first time to places where they served during the Vietnam War. The mission brought the gift of mobility to 500 individuals of all ages and renewed hope to their caregivers and families. The journey enabled veterans to deliver tangible measures of good to a country where they once were tasked with disseminating destruction.

Dennis Giacovelli served in the Mekong Delta region in 1970 on Navy gunboats called PBR and STABs. During a reunion with his boat group, he described his plans to go back to Vietnam with the Wheelchair Foundation. He reports, “Their reaction was of surprise, shock, and disbelief that I would even consider returning.” Their response dampened his enthusiasm, but prior to embarking he says, “Hopefully, I will see this as a wonderful vacation with a heavy dose of giving back to those in need. I am sure the idea that we were the ones who caused these ailments and that the wheelchairs are a ‘drop in the bucket’ will be ever-present.”

Gary Pforr served in the Northern I Corps 1969, 1970, and 1971. Before leaving on the Wheelchair Foundation trip, he comments, “Despite my apprehension about seeing old places, it’s kind of a compulsive desire. Veterans’ and civilians’ memories of those times and places and events are not healed or closed – they’re managed.”

Joe Calloway’s 2004 book Mekong First Light describes coming of age in the process of going from Private to Captain in three years and serving as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, Queens Cobra advisor to two Thai Infantry companies, and in the 5th Special Forces Base Camp Defense and Special Projects. Asked what motivated him to travel back with the Wheelchair Foundation, he writes, “Doing something constructive and helpful for a country where we did so much damage is why I’m going. Healing and closure is a myth… going there is not going to eliminate the horrible experiences and memories.”

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David Behring talks with Vietnamese orphanage teacher fluent in English.
She was disabled as a child. Photo courtesy of Wheelchair Foundation.

Enthusiastic accounts by VNVDV members who traveled on previous Wheelchair Foundation Vietnam tours encouraged members to overcome their misgivings. Jerry Yahiro, VNVDV Past-President, spoke in a 2015 the positive effect of going back twice on wheelchair distribution trips. “Prior to 2006 and 2012, about every day something would remind me of Vietnam. Now, I can go days without thinking about Vietnam, however, it is still there.” He noted, “The Vietnamese have accommodated better. To them, it was a war of independence. They differentiate individuals from politics.”

Wheelchair Foundation President David Behring orchestrated the trip to alternate wheelchair distributions with orphanage visits, provide time to revisit historic sites, and leave free time for relaxation. The itinerary included a dinner that brought veterans from opposing sides together in an evening of harmonious exchanges of times remembered and events graciously dismissed. Although some of the 500 wheelchairs went to remote locations, the impact of giving 160 wheelchairs a day to grateful recipients unable to afford the means of moving about independently proved to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the journey for returning veterans as well as others in the group who did not serve in Vietnam.

Jon Robbins, who served in Vietnam in the Northern II Corps from August 1968-August 1969, was interested in seeing the country’s development in the last 50 years. He remarks, “You never learn unless you get into the people and their lives today.” The trip gave him a chance to learn directly from the staff at the orphanages visited their tremendous dedication and witness the lifestyle of the children they serve. He was greatly moved by the genuine gratitude expressed by wheelchair recipients as well as residents and staff at the orphanages.

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Jon Robbins with orphans in Hue City. Photo courtesy of Jon Robbins.

Jon writes, “In the City of Hue, at the Chuong Trinh orphanage, wheelchairs were distributed. On arrival, I met some young children who greeted me with their wonderful smiles. They sang and danced in a simple performance that was so rewarding to me. Later their stories were told. These children have received a new direction in life, and they show their gratitude without saying a word.”

The orphanages visited are all privately funded with no government support. Gary explains, “The 30-50 children located at the Children’s Shelter in Hue receive training to enable them to achieve self-sufficiency. The shelter is supported by the Friends of Hue Foundation, based in San Jose. Approximately 30-40 abandoned children living in the Ha Cau Orphanage in Hanoi attend public schooling during the day and are nurtured by 74-year-old Mrs. Tran Thuc Ninh, who is assisted by four dedicated caregivers.”

To the query on what he found most rewarding about the journey, Pforr responds, “Seeing the positive changes in a country that was once devastated by war was most rewarding to me as a Vietnam vet. Where undernourished grim-faced peasants in black pajamas once tilled their fields with water buffalo, healthy and vibrant hard-working people dressed in western attire are now engaged in mechanized agriculture as well as in a variety of commercial and industrial livelihoods. Red soil moonscape areas near the DMZ that were once pock-marked with shell holes are now under heavy agriculture.”

Calloway sees Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, as “a vibrant dynamic society teeming with vigor and resourcefulness.” The people are youthful. Seventy percent of the country’s population was born after the war. Perhaps that accounts for their willingness to welcome the group of Americans. Joe explains, “It is incredible how these people have forgiven us for killing three million of its citizens, poisoning millions more, and then they just moved on with life. They seem to harbor no ill will or animosity whatsoever.” Joe, however, finds photographs of deformed infants with birth defects caused by the Agent Orange defoliant disbursed by American combatants an unforgettable reminder that damage done to the landscape continued to impact the people of Vietnam long after the war ended.

“It was a very sad and humbling experience. Many of these children are disabled they believe due to Agent Orange still left in the ground,” Calloway concludes concerning the first wheelchair distribution. Mothers brought children from remote locations. He estimates 500 people gathered to clap and cheer. The American contingent pushed each of the 160 wheelchair recipients individually out of the building. Pforr adds, “Despite Viet Nam’s widespread economic development and improved standard of living for most, it’s evident that many physically and mentally disabled persons, along with their parental caregivers, have been left behind and live in poverty.”

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Josh Routh (center) at Ha Cau Orphanage in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Gary Pforr.

Veteran Wheelchair Foundation travelers Don and Josh Routh had never been to Vietnam. Born with Cerebral Palsy, Josh enjoys demonstrating how empowering a wheelchair can be. His father Don encourages parents of differentially-abled children, recounting how his perseverance enabled Josh to become an independent, highly productive adult rather than the quadriplegic incapable of speech his doctors originally envisioned. Impressed by reactions of Vietnam veterans to their first wheelchair distributions and orphanage visits, Don especially enjoyed witnessing their encounter with former enemies in Hue where some of the bloodiest fighting occurred during the 1968 Tet Offensive. “The dinner with Viet Cong Veterans was a surreal experience. It didn’t take long for barriers to break down and veterans from both sides to embrace a common theme of peace and fellowship.”

Calloway admits boundless beer consumption helped cement “deep-seated camaraderie and mutual respect” as the evening progressed. “It was indeed an inspirational and truly bonding experience for guys who were some 50 years ago trying to kill one another. There were no harbored grievances, angst, or hostility.” He continues, “I watched, engulfed in an event of overwhelming goodwill. Who would have thought this would evolve into such a raucous gathering of former enemies?”

Summing up the benefits of the journey, Joe writes, “Returning to a place where I brought so much destruction, structural and human damage, and then being able to participate 50 plus years later in events so positive with a group of admirable people so deep in compassion and character was truly inspirational and emotionally rewarding. A true field soldier will never find closure as combat life is too brutally mean-spirited and tragic, but one can find some relief in this mission as I did.”

For information about the Wheelchair Foundation, visit www.wheelchairfoundation.org. To learn more about the Viet Nam Veterans of Diablo Valley, visit www.vnvdv.org.

David Behring, the President of Wheelchair Foundation, tells a brief story of how meeting a young wheelchair recipient in Vietnam has turned into a lifetime friendship.
Mr. David Behring with Tran Nghia in 2003

Tran Nghia was a 17 year old high school girl in Hanoi when I first met her.  She had been born with a neurological disorder that never allowed her to use her legs.  She was always carried by her parents, siblings and friends.  I was introduced to Nghia and her family at a wheelchair distribution in Hanoi in 2003.  I was immediately captivated by her smile and enthusiasm and, through a translator, found out that she wanted to study English and go to medical school to become a doctor.

She invited me to her home for tea on my next visit to Vietnam which actually occurred one year later.  At that meeting we learned much more about each other and stayed in touch through e-mail and Facebook during the next 8 years.  Nghia unfortunately could not become a doctor due to her disability but she did learn English and translates documents for a Vietnamese company.

In November of this year I returned to Vietnam with a dozen veterans and their spouses.  I arranged to meet Nghia and her mom at our Hanoi distribution.  It was definitely one of my trip highlights when I glanced over from the podium and saw the two them walking into the distribution.  Her smile was as radiant as I remembered it back in 2003. I immediately stopped my speech and introduced our personal story to the audience.  She met the veterans, was interviewed by a television station and made a short speech of her own about how the wheelchair had impacted her life.  It is always a joy to give someone a wheelchair and it is an even greater joy to personally watch and hear how that wheelchair improved their life.

Hanoi Wheelchair Distribution with Mr. David Behring and Tran Nghia
WCF, the VVDV, and EMW present wheelchairs to para athletes and others.

In November of 2012, Wheelchair Foundation, the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley, California and East Meets West Foundation partnered together to distribute 260 All Terrain Wheelchairs and 60 Basketball and Tennis Sports Wheelchairs throughout the country of Vietnam.

On November 9th, 2012, Wheelchair Foundation, the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley, and East Meets West presented 40 wheelchairs to para athletes and others at NHIP CAU Foundation in the An Khanh Ward, Ninh Kieu District,  Can Tho City, Vietnam. We spent time with swimmers, track and field participants and others, as well as members of the community simply in need of mobility.  Ms. Van Ly, Regional Communications and Development Manager, East Meets West, attended with staff. Mr. Hung, Head of Social Protection Division, Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (DOLISA).

November 10th, 2012:  We paid a visit to the Thien An Social Protection Institution in Can Tho, Vietnam, an orphanage which returning members of the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley had contributed to in 2006. We were greeted and entertained by incredibly beautiful children.

A visit to Can Tho Thien, a social protection institution. Hank Fanger and one of the girls.

November 12thWe distributed sports wheelchairs and All Terrain wheelchairs in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Jerry Yahiro John Reese David Behring Rich Lambert w sports chair

Seen here Jerry Yahiro, John Reese, Wheelchair Foundation President David Behring and Richard Lambert of the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley.

November 14th: In Quang Tri Province, we distributed sports and standard wheelchairs to athletes and others in conjunction with the monthly INSPIRE Sports Exchange event, where persons with disabilities throughout Quang Tri Province gather to participate and compete in various sports (badmitton, basketball, ping-pong, tug of war, etc.) in Ward 5 of Dong Ha City. This was also the event to officially announce the Inclusive Sports Clubs or the city’s Ward 5.

Following the wheelchair distribution we visited East Meets Wests’ clean water system in Cam Thuy Commune, Cam Lo District, about 30 minutes outside of Dong Ha City.  We were joined by Ms. Tam, Deputy Director for Water and Sanitation, and Mr. Mark Conroy, EMW Senior Advisor.

November 16thIn Hanoi we distributed 48 wheelchairs (18 sports wheelchair for the Hanoi  Disability Sports Club, and 30 to individuals) at the Hanoi Sports and Cultural Center .  Mr. Vu The Phiet, Vice Chairman and General Secretary of the Vietnam Paralympic Association,   Ms. Minh Thu, Program Development Director, East Meets West.

Wheelchairs for the Hanoi Distribution

VVDV asked that three wheelchairs be donated to representatives from the Ninh Binh Social Support Center , Nam Binh, Ninh Binh Province, which houses 37 orphan children ranging from younger than five years old to High School age children.

November 17th: Hai Phong, Vietnam.  20 wheelchairs (sport and standard) distributed to recipients at the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.  Six Sports Wheelchairs were donated to the Hai Phong Disability Sports Club, 10 Standard Wheelchairs were given to individual recipients.

Hai Phong Wheelchair Distribution Group.

Visit our Facebook page by clicking here and see more photos of this amazing distribution.

Vietnam is a country in constant motion. Without a good set of wheels, it’s easy to get left behind. That’s especially true for Vietnamese wheelchair riders like Quan Dien. He lost his legs in the war with Cambodia in the early 1980s.

“I fell once, because the ramp to the sidewalk was blocked,” he tells FRONTLINE/World reporter Marjorie McAfee. “I was going too fast, and the wheelchair hit and I flew forward.”

CLICK HERE TO WATCH VIDEO

Because the streets of his neighborhood aren’t wheelchair friendly, Quan mostly stays home in his small apartment. To make ends meet, he rents his back room workshop to another wheelchair rider, Thanh Giang, who contracted polio as a child.

“Vietnam still has a lot of shortcomings,” Thanh says. “They haven’t yet been able to find a way to improve things for disabled people. Usually, when they build things, they don’t think if it’s convenient for anyone. So, disabled people put up with a lot of difficulties.”

But a world away, there’s a new wheelchair, and it’s making an impact.

“I can hit it hard, and nothing happens,” says Ralf Hotchkiss, an engineering professor at San Francisco State who’s been thinking about wheelchair design for a long time.

“The wheel’s axels are very strong. You can come down a high curb, hit hard,” he demonstrates. “Nothing fails. This wheel – there’s no way I can break it.”

After becoming paralyzed in a motorcycle accident 30 years ago, Hotchkiss started out just trying to make a better wheelchair for his own use. But he ended up making a bigger breakthrough with something he calls the RoughRider.

“It was necessary to come up with the RoughRider because there was no other wheelchair that worked well enough in all of the difficult situations in developing countries,” he explains. “Everything you do you have to go long distances over rocky or sandy or muddy roads.”

Hotchkiss gathered design ideas from around the world. The front wheel comes from a shopping cart in Zimbabwe.

“Very flexible, very light. Made out of auto tire retread rubber,” he says.

After years of tinkering, Hotchkiss decided the RoughRider was ready for the rigors of the developing world. In 2006, he approached a factory owner named Toan Nguyen to talk about producing the wheelchairs in Vietnam.

“I saw that two people from the opposite sides of an ocean could meet to make this wheelchair,” Toan says.

Toan makes the RoughRider using locally available materials and inexpensive labor. It’s Hotchkiss’ visions that the RoughRider should be easy and cheap to make any place in the world. His associate, Marc Krizack, travels to Vietnam to check in with Toan whenever he can.

“It’s been how long, one year since I was here?” he says as he greets Toan.

He’s brought the latest innovation from San Francisco with him, a design modification that will allow for a smaller-sized wheelchair. As always, there’s no charge for design. Hotchkiss’ technologies are open source. And his Whirlwind Wheelchair Network also helps raise money from Western foundations to help the $175 cost of the chair.

“Wheelchair users don’t make the market – they can’t afford to buy their own wheelchairs,” says Krizack. “So what Whirlwind does is not only just transfer the technology to factories like Kien Tuong, but we also market the chairs. We try to raise the money so they can actually sell the chairs.

With Whirlwind’s help, Toan regularly donates his RoughRiders to those most in need. McAfee finds him at a disabled athletes tournament giving away chairs to the participants, including Thanh Giang, the man from Quan’s workshop.

“When it comes to competing, the wheelchair is very comfortable,” Thanh says. “It doesn’t block my arm movement.”

After the game, Thanh takes a ride through the neighborhood. He says it’s very sturdy and stable. Thanh’s landlord and friend, Quan, is more skeptical. He thinks his old chair suits him better.

“For me to get up in this chair, it’s very easy,” he says about his old chair. “Getting in and out of the RoughRider is impossible. I tried it. I’m not strong enough to push myself up from the ground with my hands.”

“The first rule of the wheelchair provision is ‘Do no harm,’” says Klizack. “You can give someone a wheelchair and it can be a very inappropriate wheelchair. It’d be like, you know, giving somebody a little sports car. Even if it’s the best Mercedes Benz sports car in the world, if the person lives in Alaska in the wintertime, they’re never going be able to use that.”

Klizack heard about Quan’s concerns, so he decides to pay him a visit, bringing Toan along as well. It out Quan got his first chair from Toan more than 20 years ago.

“Meeting again, it’s very emotional,” Toan says.

Quan explains that the RoughRider’s footrests are of no use to him, as he has lost his legs. Klizack says that the wheelchair is designed to be easily modified. Within minutes, they’ve raised the footrests to create a step. And they find another benefit – the footrests also can be used to carry groceries and the like. Quan decides to keep the chair after all.

For Hotchkiss, it’s been the same story all over the world. He’s brought the RoughRider to dozens of countries, including Mexico, Iraq and South Africa through partnerships with several factories abroad.

“I would like to see Whirlwind Wheelchair become unnecessary as soon as possible,” Hotchkiss says. “I would like to help to develop a self-sustaining competitive industry of wheelchair building all over the world. Once the marketplace is populated, hopefully by then there will be so many people working on and inventing wheelchairs, making wheelchairs better than ever, that maybe in 10, 20, 30 years we won’t even recognize today’s chairs. They’ll be history.”

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