R.I.P. Michael Cull: A Life Well-Lived

I received a very sad but not totally unexpected message last night from my friend, Chuck Searcy, informing me and many others that Mike had died at 8:50 EST (8:50 p.m. Viet Nam time) of pancreatic cancer, after slipping into a coma almost four hours earlier.  Here’s what Chuck wrote, which best sums up the kind of person Mike was and what many of us will remember about him:

Mike’s gentle spirit, his kindness that gave way to moments of indignation and anger when he saw injustices, and his good humor and contagious laugh will comfort us as warm memories of a good friend, a Vietnam veteran who gave much back to Viet Nam over the past two decades.


mike friendship village
Mike with a young friend at the Friendship Village in Ha Noi, where he worked as a volunteer for many years helping children and veterans who were dealing with medical and other problems believed to be caused by Agent Orange.

I remember meeting Mike for the first time on a beautiful sunny day in Nha Trang, where he lived and worked.  I was wearing a New York Yankees cap, not because I’m a fan but because I needed a hat.  A New England guy, Mike was a loyal fan of the Boston Red Sox, archrival and mortal enemy of the Yankees.  His first comment after “Hi, great to meet you!” was about my cap.  I assured him that it was only to protect my follicly-challenged head from the tropical sun, not a display of team loyalty.  🙂

I enjoyed hearing and reading, since most of our contact was via email and Facebook, his comments about important issues of the day and from the past.  One of the things we had in common was our love of and respect for Viet Nam.  Another one was what Chuck referred to as kindness giving way to moments of indignation and anger when we saw injustices.  Mike was a soulmate in that respect.  I will miss his passion and honest feedback.

It seems as if many of my US expat friends, few in number, are veterans of the American War in Viet Nam who have returned to Viet Nam to do penance, so to speak.  I counted Mike among them.  Below is a photo taken by Catherine Karnow at General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s state funeral in October 2013.  From left to right:  Mike Cull, Manus Campbell, MAA, and Chuck Searcy.
Photo by Catherine Karnow
Here is a story in English and Vietnamese entitled The Long Goodbye written by Manus, who spent nearly two months with Mike and his wife, Lan, from the day he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to the moment he passed away.  

I will miss his playfulness, the sparkle in his eye, and his smile.

Don’t say goodbye.  Say see you again, my brother

-Manus Campbell

Life goes on and people like Mike Cull inspire us to be grateful for each and every day and to keep our eyes on the prize of what’s truly important in this exceedingly short journey we call life. 
My heartfelt condolences to Lan, Mike’s Vietnamese and US families, and his many friends in Viet Nam, the US, and around the world. 



Coming Full Circle: A Conscientious Objector Returns to Vietnam

Doug Hostetter
Doug Hostetter

Below are some excerpts from an article by Doug Hostetter, who is director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York City.   He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war, who did his alternative service working for Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969.  Doug was a member of the National Student Association delegation to Saigon and Hanoi that negotiated the People’s Peace Treaty in 1970 and served as executive secretary of  FOR (Fellowship of Reconciliation)-USA from 1987–1973, and international/interfaith secretary from 1993–2001. Doug has published widely on the issues of war, peace, and nonviolence.

The photos below are of Doug and the daughter of an artist friend of his, Le Dinh Sung, taken when she was about 11 and during his visit last year.  As he mentioned in the article, They (Phuong Long and her older brother) both remembered me well, as I had spent much time in their home with their father.

I mentioned Doug and his work in Vietnam in this 2/14 Huffington Post piece entitled Jumping on the Vietnam War Commemoration Bandwagon: The Vain Search for Honor.


 “The Path of Return Continues the Journey” (Quote by Thích Nhất Hạnh)

When I learned that Vietnam had invited a group of 15 U.S. antiwar activists to come to Hanoi in January 2013, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that ended U.S. direct involvement in the Vietnam war, I realized that it was time for me to return to Vietnam.

Le Thi Phuong Long and Doug Hostetter - 1968 (Photos: Village photographer)
Le Thi Phuong Long and Doug Hostetter – 1968 (Photos: Village photographer)
Le Thi Phuong Long and Doug Hostetter - 2013 (Photos: Village photographer)
Le Thi Phuong Long and Doug Hostetter – 2013 (Photos: Village photographer)

I had first gone to Vietnam back in 1966, soon after graduating from Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  I had received conscientious objector status from the military, and then volunteered to do my Alternative Service in Vietnam, at the height of the war, working for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Vietnam with Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS).  VNCS was a joint program in Vietnam of the Mennonite Central Committee, Church World Service, and Lutheran World Relief, but was directed by MCC.

As a Mennonite I understood that I had no enemies, but was called to use the “weapons” of love and truth in the struggle to build a just and peaceful world.  Our Mennonite vision of the world clashed sharply with that of our government.

My path of return to Vietnam was a continuation of my original journey to learn peacebuilding.  As I relished the renewal of relationships from nearly half a century ago, I began to comprehend that a critical element of peacebuilding is authentic friendship.  Peace is founded upon relationships that transcend the national, racial, ethnic, religious, and political boundaries that usually separate humanity.

Follow this link to read Doug’s article in its entirety.


Same Same But Different

VFPEarlier this week, on a humid evening, the air heavy with memories and raw emotion at the Cinematheque in Hanoi, I met some of the 17 members of the Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 Spring 2014 Tour, who are here for a two-week visit, including Hanoi, Dong Ha/A Luoi, Khe Sanh, Danang, Hue, Hoi An and HCMC.  (This is the only VfP chapter in Vietnam.)

It’s an eclectic group that includes veterans of the American War in Vietnam, conscientious objectors and peace activists, among others.  What they all have in common is Vietnam and a heartfelt desire for peace and reconciliation.  Some have been here before, others for the first time, i.e., in the post-war era.  Each participant will donate $1,000 to support a charitable cause.  At the end of the tour the group will decide which project(s) to support.  Below is a list of Chapter 160 projects:

  • Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City- Has a special unit for Agent Orange (AO) babies & children.
  • Project RENEW – Clears UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance – landmines & unexploded bombs) in Quang Tri Province & throughout Vietnam; supports victims, teaches children & adults how to be safe.
  • VAVA – Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin – In A Luoi (“A Shau”) Valley in Quang Tri Province, Nha Trang & throughout Vietnam.
  • DAVA – Danang Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin
  •  The Friendship Village in Hanoi – A residential, medical & vocational center for Agent Orange victims, including Vietnamese veterans & their family members affected by AO.
  • HIVOW – Helping Invisible Victims of War is a non-profit 501(c)3 incorporated in New Jersey in 2009. Funds Duc Son Pagoda in Hue for disabled children & provides food to indigenous tribes along the former DMZ.
  • Orange Cow – Provides a cow or water buffalo to Agent Orange-effected farmers in the Hue & A Luoi Valley area by partnering with Hue University & “Hearts of Hue” to fund training, materials for the animals’ shelter, feed, & veterinary care

Same Same But Different

Chuck Searcy, Vice President of VfP Chapter 160, International Adviser for Project Renew and one of the subjects of “Same Same But Different,” introduced the film.

The highlight of the evening was the screening of a film entitled Same Same But Different, the story of veterans returning to Vietnam to heal the wounds of war.  It consists of interviews with four veterans who return to Vietnam to do what they can to right some of the wrongs of the past in different fields, some related to war legacies such as Agent Orange and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).  They are Chuck Searcy (Hanoi/Dong Ha, Quang Tri), Chuck Palazzo (Danang) and Mike Cull (Nha Trang), all friends of mine, I’m proud to say.  Same Same But Different was produced by  Deryle Perryman, a veteran (see photo below), and Moisés González, a film producer.  It was funded as a Kickstarter project with donations that totaled $25,050 and completed in 2012.  (Kickstarter is the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.)

The post-film discussion included some very emotional and eloquent comments by several members of the delegation and expats, all with a connection to Vietnam and the war. Two of the more notable contributors were Andre Sauvageot, a retired US Army Colonel, and another retired US Army Colonel and U.S. State Department official, Ann Wright.  One expat who works in the field of education spoke about losing three brothers and a cousin in the war.

Sauvageot,  who speaks fluent Vietnamese, arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1964 as a US Army district adviser to local forces.  He worked for Frank Scotton, a pioneer in counter-insurgency warfare, and was hired by Covert Action Chief Tom Donohue into the CIA’s Revolutionary Development Cadre program.

Wright is best known for her outspoken opposition to the Iraq War.  She was one of three US government employees to publicly resign in protest against the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, in addition to  Brady Kiesling and John H. Brown.

As many veterans have told me, the impact of a return visit to Vietnam is profound and therapeutic on so many levels.  This is something I wrote about in this 2013 article entitled From the Lion’s Den: An Open Letter (and Invitation) to Vietnam Veterans.


P.S.:  Here’s a Vietnamese language article about the tour:  Cựu binh Mỹ vì hòa bình: Tích cực trong giải quyết hậu quả chiến tranh.

Deryle Perryman, co-producer of "Same Same But Different"
Deryle Perryman, co-producer of “Same Same But Different”


“In Return to Vietnam, Vets Tackle Mess They Left Behind”

Some excerpts from this 2 December 2013 Newsweek magazine article written by Jeff Stein:

A handful of former U.S. servicemen have moved to Vietnam permanently to clean up devastation left by American bombs and Agent Orange. AP Photo (Courtesy: Newsweek)

It’s not easy to find a turkey dinner in Hanoi, but a handful of Americans and their Vietnamese friends gathered last Thursday over an imported bird cooked for them at a fancy restaurant in the capital’s old quarter, and they gave thanks.

One of them was Chuck Searcy, who was a U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Saigon 45 years ago. Another was Manus Campbell, who survived some of the war’s bloodiest fighting as a Marine draftee in Quang Tri Province. Both are nearly 70 now.

While hundreds of Vietnam vets have come back for brief, melancholy visits to the old battlefields to heal their psychological wounds, Searcy and Campbell are different: They and a handful of other former U.S. servicemen have moved to Vietnam more or less permanently to help clean up the deadly mess left by American bombs and Agent Orange, the widely sprayed defoliant linked to birth defects and cancers.

Myra Macpherson, a former Washington Post reporter and author of the 1984 book, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, threw a party at her Washington apartment in September for Searcy and Campbell and some of their Vietnamese coworkers, whom she met on a trip to Hanoi last April.

She calls these vets unsung heroes of a forgotten war. “They came as innocent young soldiers and left shattered. Their return, years later, is, in part, atonement for what their country did, as well as a personal heartfelt humanitarian apology,” she says.

“They are truly a courageous band of brothers.”

Follow this link to read the rest of the article about a story rarely told in the U.S. media.