16 million acres of land in Vietnam are still contaminated with land mines and un-exploded ordinance. And Vietnam is not even in the top three of land mine contaminated countries. Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, according to UNICEF, account for 85% of the landmine contamination. Nevertheless, over 42,000 people have been killed in Vietnam in the decades since the Vietnamese-American war.
Military bases are concentrated areas for land mines but Vietnamese. American, and yes French ordinance (mortars, artillery shells, bombs. cluster bomblets, rockets and grenades) litter the area in 6 central Provinces both above ground and below ground according to a Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and the Vietnam Ministry of Defense.
Children are at risk as are farmers, scavengers and villagers. Even tourists are at risk as I discovered when I visited Vietnam in 1999. My wife of a few weeks (Lucy) and I hired a guide in Dong Ha who was known for his local lore and knowledge of the location of land mines in the area. I wanted to go back to Con Thien to somehow find fragments of myself that I seemingly misplaced in the brutal battles of that small base just south of the DMZ.
The guide swore that he knew where the land mines were. We took a car as far as we could, then walked. Lucy who is very intuitive and smart said she could go no further feeling the pain of the many souls that occupy Con Thien the so called Place of Angels. The guide and I walked on and I started sweating and getting a bad feeling. We ended up at a burnt concrete remnant of an old French fort which I did not recall. In September of 1967 I was deployed outside of the "wire" which was made up of concertina, with its deadly razors unrolled, and a mine field. We also made up the perimeter and were the first line of defense situated in open country near the mine field. After surviving Con Thien, back in the day, I was looking at the guide and he had a sick green look of deep visceral fear and I wanted to go- go anywhere. He was hesitant and look confused. I got very worried and the bile went into my mouth. I nervously said, "You don't know where you are going, do you?" He was silent and kept looking for the path out. I felt like I was in an elevator free falling. After all I had survived under impossible odds and now was about to get blown to bits in the same place from which I had escaped. The irony was palpable. I was beating myself up over my misguided adventure.
Suddenly when the guide was about to experiment with a new direction a single bell rang out. It was a cow bell. Over the rise came a very little angelic girl herding her one cow. She smiled the most angelic smile. The guide asked her how to get safely back to the path. She apparently said she would lead us back. We followed the little angel of Con Thien and each clang of the bell reminded me of the fallen, I was grateful to be given another chance to live. I now know another reason why it is called the Place of Angels. Later when the magic wore off I thought, "would she be OK in the future?".