The Friends of Danang: Making good on their mission to help the Vietnamese people
Full circle: Pupils at the Hoa Son school in Danang, Vietnam, this year. The school receives support from Friends of Danang, a Pittsburgh-based group launched by Vietnam War veterans
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Dan Pultz doesn't want this column to be about him, and it won't be, but more than 400 people are sitting down this morning for a Veterans Day breakfast to support Friends of Danang, and the story must begin somewhere.
We'll start with my neighbor.
Mr. Pultz graduated from Lehigh University in 1966, enlisted in the Marines, became an officer after training in Quantico, Va., and had a 13-month tour of combat duty in Vietnam that lasted from late 1966 into early 1968.
He married Holly, his wife, on a rest-and-recreation pass to Hawaii in August 1967 and remembers leaving her in that hotel bed, "so beautiful,'' and being back in the jungle of Vietnam less than 24 hours later, thinking, "This is crazy.''
He was in some of the bloodier battles of the war. He fought in Khe Sanh not long before he returned home.
For Dan and many more Americans at home, the fierce fighting of 1968 wiped away any previous notions that the war might end soon. With the Tet Offensive, the enemy "didn't win any single battles but they clearly demonstrated they could wage a war for a long time,'' he said.
Mr. Pultz came home. He and Holly had children. He became a successful businessman. He and Holly became grandparents.
Saigon fell to the communists in April 1975, but some American veterans never forgot their mission to help the Vietnamese people. Lewis B. Puller Jr., a Marine officer who lost both legs and most use of his hands to a land mine in 1968, founded the Vietnam Children's Fund in 1993.
By then Mr. Puller had won the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography "Fortunate Son,'' but he would take his own life in 1994, the same year the first school, in Quang Tri province, was dedicated in his name.
For Tony Accamando Jr., 64, an Army lieutenant in Vietnam and now a resident of Eighty Four, the mission is what it was 40 years ago: "helping the Vietnamese people.'' He and his old friend George D'Angelo, an Air Force captain and pilot in Vietnam, joined with others to form the Friends of Danang after they visited Vietnam together in 1997.
They partnered with the Vietnam Children's Fund and, 10 years ago today, began a drive to raise $50,000 to build a school in Danang. There weren't three dozen people at that first Veterans Day breakfast but within a year they'd raised $50,000. They returned to Vietnam to dedicate the school in 1999. "That's all George and I wanted to do.'' But others on the trip -- Shirley Hruby, Deb Tulak and T.J. McGarvey among them -- were so moved they asked, "What can we do next?"
"That's why we formed Friends of Danang,'' Mr. Accamando said.
They've since built a medical clinic and helped more than 1,000 disabled children. Dan Pultz told me over coffee in his kitchen that he'd been hesitant to bring up his work with this group to his fellow Marines at the biennial reunions of his unit, India Company, 3rd Battalion, Ninth Marines, the "I-Three-Niners.'' Men who served in this unit in various wars and generations convene because "those risk-and-trust relationships formed intensely in battle'' aren't everywhere to be found.
This past August, Dan Pultz brought Mr. Accamando to his reunion in Northern Virginia and they showed a video of the school-building trip to Vietnam. Mr. Pultz told his fellow Marines that the Vietnam Children's Fund in Washington and Friends of Danang would cover two-thirds of a new school's $150,000 cost, and wondered if his old unit might cover the last $50,000.
Lon Getlin, who lost his brother in Vietnam, stood up and said, "If my brother Mike was here, he would want us to do this.'' A former corpsman, Dr. Jerry Behrens, made a contribution in the names of five corpsmen who lost their lives.
"This is about kids'' was the prevailing sentiment. Before he left, Mr. Pultz said, he knew "we're going to build a school.''
If he returns to Vietnam next year when the school is dedicated, Mr. Pultz doesn't care to retrace his steps in battle, but he'd love to see Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, because he never got there the first time. He wants "to be a tourist.''
The late Mr. Puller's dream was to build to educate enough Vietnamese children to account for the more than 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam. There are now 43 schools, each with as many as 600 children, Mr. Pultz said, "so we're getting close.''
The money has been raised through spaghetti dinners, jewelry and hoagie sales and breakfasts, but donations in the form of checks to the Vietnam Children's Fund may be sent to Friends of Danang, 4017 Washington Road, No. 152, McMurray, PA 15317-2520. Or visit friendsofdanang.org to see more about their work.
First Published November 11, 2008 12:00 am