By Kathleen S. Carr '96
Light One Candle: R.J. Del Vecchio ’64
“People talk in similes and metaphors about having their hearts torn. That is no longer just an expression for me. I watched a brave, long-suffering, proud old man turn away from me on a scarred and shattered lower torso. It was too much. Much too much. I wept then, and I weep now as I see it again in my mind. He wants a wheelchair. The kind they make here from bicycle parts. They cost $100. He will have one on Monday. He doesn't know it is coming, but it will be there on Monday so help me God.”
In the person of R.J. Del Vecchio ’64, God is helping.
Del has spent the past 18 months working with, and reporting on, the disabled Vietnamese veterans still living in South Vietnam. He was haunted by a recent visit he made in early 2006—a visit that, he says, his wife wishes he never took. Because it still affects him.
After his first return visit to Vietnam, Del started a charity for disabled veterans. There are a large number of badly disabled South Vietnamese vets still living in Vietnam, and, according to Del, the Vietnamese government has an official policy of discrimination against them: Their children have higher school fees. They do not have pensions. And all are subjected to a system of oppression and punishment that extends to their children and their grandchildren. Those who are healthy can manage adequately, but the poor are locked into a cycle of poverty and desperation.
To help, Del has rallied the local Vietnamese community in Raleigh, N.C., that numbers around 5,000 people. He has also met with a dozen veterans who spent time in the “re-education” camps—and many still have friends and relatives in Vietnam they are concerned about.
They came to Del for help, and he has been assisting them ever since.
“I told them they’d need to organize a charity,” he says. “To do that, you need data. You need interviews and pictures. They are all afraid to go back. They were in those camps. They said, ‘Del, you can go over there and be a tourist, and no one will notice you.’ So, that’s what I did. It was a tough journey, one that still affects me to this day.”
Del travels to Vietnam on his own expense, bringing money raised from friends and family in the United States—which includes several generous Holy Cross alumni. And when he held a fund-raiser recently in Raleigh, 200 Vietnamese showed up—clearly, the word is spreading. But the need continues. Del receives dozens of letters and documents from disabled veterans asking for help. He has to authenticate these requests through discharge papers and military awards. “I hate being restrictive,” he says, “but we have to be. It’s not hard to find disabled veterans—there are as many as 50,000 still alive.”
He knows there is more work to be done. “Our assistance is just a drop in the bucket,” Del explains, “but we’re doing what we can. Our work is conducted on an informal basis; the Vietnamese government would stop us if they knew, so we work carefully. We have a network of charity workers and Vietnamese living there who help us authenticate that the money we send gets to where it needs to go.”
Del is heading back to Vietnam in December with a video camera and a recording device to generate data, and to make the plight of the disabled veterans more real to more people. “If you're going to ask people for money,” he says, “you need to demonstrate what the need is.”
So what does he hope to accomplish? “I have a fantasy of uniting the Vietnamese in this country,” he says, “but that’s not realistic—if we can help 30 vets, we will. It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness, don’t you think?”
If you would like to help Del in his work with disabled veterans, contact him at: email@example.com or visit his Web site at: http://thevhf.org/
Kathleen S. Carr is a freelance writer based in Melrose, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.