BY MARC LEEPSON
The members of Rockland County, New York, Chapter 333, in the Hudson River Valley north of New York City, are justifiably proud of the wide array of community projects they are involved in. Among other endeavors, the chapter has provided crucial support for the local County Veterans Clinic; was the driving force behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Orangeburg, New York; and created the Memorial Day Watchfire program to honor POW/MIAs, versions of which are now held throughout the nation.
Since 2005, the chapter also has been involved in an extensive humanitarian mission far from the shores of the Hudson River. That year, eight chapter members, including President Ed Frank and Board member Howard Goldin, joined a group of other veterans and members of the local Rotary club on a trip to Vietnam. The group designed the trip to stop at each place where each veteran had served, and also included a stop in the Vietnamese capital where the group visited the Hanoi Hilton. The group also met with U.S. Ambassador Mike Marine, who gave them a briefing on POW/MIA recovery efforts.
“We toured the country,” Goldin said in a recent interview. “Our guide was the son of an ARVN. We just happened to connect with him and there was closure—not for everybody, but there was closure. It was an amazing journey.” The journey also led to a Chapter 333 commitment to help the people of Vietnam, a commitment that was born after the veterans met and interacted with many Vietnamese civilians, including children.
“We saw the effects of Agent Orange,” Goldin said. “It was a very touching thing. That tweaked our interest into going back in 2006.”
The 2006 return trip came at the invitation of Son Michael Pham, who had escaped his homeland when the communists took over in April 1975. “He invited us to go back to see his Vietnam, where he had been going back to do humanitarian work since 1994 when he created an organization called Kids Without Borders and built schools there,” Goldin said.
That 2006 trip began Chapter 333’s formal involvement in its own people-to-people humanitarian work in Vietnam. “Several of us decided that, as a chapter, we were going to try to help the Montagnards,” Goldin said. “We raised money. We connected with the Dominican Sisters, and we built a school in Dalat. We created a foundation made up of veterans and Rotarians. It’s called STEP—Schools To End Poverty. Every year we go back once or twice to do humanitarian work. We always start in Hanoi, and we always end down in the Delta.” Since 2006, the STEP program has donated one hundred wheelchairs to Vietnamese hospitals, fifty-eight brain shunts for hydrocephalus patients, a large number of computers to a school for the deaf, and has supported homeless, orphaned children. “Our chapter has given five thousand dollars towards the schools,” Goldin, a retired police chief who served as an infantryman with the 5th Infantry Division in 1967-68, said. “There’s a lot of veteran and VVA involvement.”
That involvement also includes Life Member Bernie “Doc” Duff, an artist who was on the first return trip to Vietnam in 2005 and “was so moved by the experience,” Goldin said, “that in 2006 he moved to Vietnam.” Duff lived in Saigon, then moved to Nha Trang where today he teaches art to disabled children. “We hook up with him every time we go back,” Goldin said.
Another thing that Chapter 333 members do when they are in Vietnam is honor the forty-six men from Rockland County who perished in the war. “Wherever we go on our trips, we try to design them so that we go back to the places where we support projects,” Goldin said. “But also we add new places and hold memorial services along the way.”
At one of those stops, the New York veterans came upon a group of former enemy soldiers having a reunion of their own. “It was local guerrilla unit celebrating the thirty years that they kicked us out of their country,” Goldin said. “We wound up sitting for two and a half hours across the table from each other discussing war and peace.” ?IThose discussions did not involve politics. That is one of the hallmarks of the Chapter 333 program in Vietnam: there is nothing political about it. “We’ve never had any political interference in any of the humanitarian work we have done,” Goldin said.
Veterans of every American war, Goldin pointed out, “have always done humanitarian things. And we continue to do humanitarian things. Our chapter has been very proactive with that and is fully behind it.”