Personal Experiences and Reflections of Vinh Son Montagnards Orphanage
I began to feel a need to revisit the Central Highlands of Vietnam in the mid 1980’s, after attending the dedication of the California Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Sacramento, CA. I had served there in 1967 – 1968 with the 4th Infantry Division as a heavy truck driver. As a truck driver pulling fuel tankers, flatbeds and refers, I’d traveled Highway 19 from Qui Nhon to Du Co and Highway 14 from Dak To to Banmethuot. And many roads and trails without numbers.
My brother-in-law, Mike Gregersen, had also served in the Central Highlands with the 173rd Airborne in 1970 – 1971. Together we decided to make a trip back in March of 2001. Another friend of ours, Pat McKee, decided to join us on the adventure.
Just before leaving Mike, who was a plumber by trade, injured his hand and was unable to travel. Pat and I told him that we would plan another trip when he was ready. So this became the first trip of 3 so far. On our second trip, Pat Keegan, another friend joined us. I mention this because these individuals have become dedicated supporters and now serve as 3 of the 7 officers of VSO.
On our first trip we traveled with a guided tour of returning veterans from the 4th and 25th Divisions and students from VMI. After touring around Saigon and the 25th Divisions AO, we headed to the Central Highlands.
While in Kontum we came across this beautiful wooden church with a Montagnard Orphanage behind it. We were invited to have some homemade sweet wine and bread with the Sisters of the Miraculous Medal who care for the orphans. After that we toured the orphanage and became forever touched by the children and their wonderful caregivers. It was clear that they were extremely poor, but everything was spotlessly clean. Although the children needed much, they had plenty of love and care.
Pat and I were very moved by what we had just experienced. We put together and donated the funds we had on hand. Although this wasn’t much we were motivated to begin a larger endeavor. When we returned to the US we had a small fund-raiser and wired the money to an address given to us by the Sisters. Pat wrote a follow up letter to insure that the funds had arrived safely. We received a letter in return telling us that all funds were received in total and the address of Sister Marie Dominique who helped start the convent and school at the site in 1957, who now lives in Los Angeles, CA. Many of the Montagnard nuns at the orphanage were her pupils.
Since then we’ve held yearly fund-raisers, with all funds going to the children. All administrative expenses have been borne by the group’s leadership. In July 2005 we formed an IRS recognized 501(c)(3) with groups of veterans from Cincinnati, OH (led by Dennis Coyne, a 4th Infantry veteran) and southern California (led by Mike Little also a veteran of the Central Highlands). These funds have made a huge difference in the quality in life of the Montagnard children and their care givers. The Sister from Los Angeles has also joined us and serves as our 1st Vice President.
On our 3rd visit to Kontum we were taken to another Montagnard Orphanage. We focused our activities on the 2 orphanages, Vinh Son I and Vinh Son II, the 450 children and their wonderful caregivers. Today we serve 7 locations with 850 children and their wonderful caregivers in Kontum and Pleiku.
Our plan is to have annual trips to the orphanages to distribute funds for basic needs. These trips are at the expense of the travelers and no VSO funds are used except for the direct benefit of the orphans. While there, we work on projects such as providing sewing machines that will help teach life skills, while providing clothing and income for the orphanages. We also plan to upgrade their computer equipment and contract for ongoing equipment maintenance. Email is our best source of communication with the orphanage, but needs to be improved.