Dorset-based Clear Path International stands up for landmine victims
The 22-year-old woman known only as "Ha" hasn't walked since she was 2. In 1984, her mother accidentally detonated a white phosphorous grenade outside their remote village near Vietnam's border with Laos. The explosive's intense heat made it a popular weapon among U.S. soldiers when they needed to render "downed" equipment useless to the enemy during the Vietnam War.
Both Ha and her mother survived the explosion with severe burns. But because Ha never received professional treatment, part of her left foot fused with her calf, forcing her to "walk" on her knees.
Last fall, for the first time in two decades, Ha was able to walk upright once again, thanks to Clear Path International. The nonprofit organization, based in Dorset, Vermont, paid for Ha's reconstructive surgeries. Doctors say she'll soon graduate to walking without crutches. Increased mobility will help her to care for four younger siblings -- their parents died a few years after her accident. Clear Path has helped her family, too, providing nutritional assistance while Ha recovers.
James Hathaway, 35, a Clear Path co-founder and its communications director, explains that the organization does more than just replace lost limbs. "It goes beyond giving somebody a leg and moving on," he says. "There is a wide range of needs to be met... You make a commitment to somebody; you can't just walk away."
It's a lesson about Vietnam that the U.S. government never learned -- U.S. troops left the country 30 years ago this April, but casualties from the conflict, which the Vietnamese call "the American War," haven't stopped. Thousands of unexploded land mines, grenades and cluster bombs, many of them property of the U.S. military, still litter the countryside.
The extent of the danger is impossible to know. But since the end of the war, land mines and unexploded ordnance -- or "UXO" -- have killed more than 6000 people in Quang Tri Province alone. Another 4000 have been maimed in that area, near the former demilitarized zone. Each week in Vietnam, someone is hurt in an explosion.
Some nonprofits work to remove these mines or ban them all together, and Vermonters have often led the way. Brattleboro native Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for founding the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is a long-time champion of land-mine issues. He founded the Leahy War Victims Fund, and wrote the first law adopted by any country to ban the export of land mines.
Clear Path focuses on helping victims rebuild both their bodies and their lives. The 5-year-old organization -- which has offices in Vermont, Vietnam, Cambodia and Seattle -- pays for surgery, rehab devices and prosthetics, as well as various types of assistance and vocational training.
Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., Senator Leahy praises Clear Path for carrying on Vermont's anti-land-mine tradition. "It's a small organization," he says, "but it's making a very big difference -- day by day, person by person -- to overcome the legacy of the Vietnam War."
Leahy also says he's "a great admirer" of the Hathaways -- James' 36-year-old wife Martha is the organization's executive director. The couple met at a Grateful Dead show in 1987, and will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in May. They began working in the mine "field" in Seattle during the late 1990s with a group called Peace Trees Vietnam. James Hathaway says the two "just fell into it." But once they got in, they couldn't bear to get out.
Martha Hathaway relates an experience she had while leading a trip to Vietnam in 1998. While resting in her hotel room in Quang Tri Province, she heard an explosion. Two young boys had found a grenade in their back yard nearby. They lived in poverty on an abandoned U.S. Marine base, and Hathaway says the UXO was most likely American. The boys had been aware of the grenade for some time and knew they shouldn't touch it, but curiosity overcame them. They picked up the explosive and threw it against a rock. It blew up, burning them and peppering them with shrapnel.
The boys survived, and Peace Trees was able to help them recover from their injuries. But the episode made an indelible impression on her. "When you experience something like that," Hathaway says, "it's really difficult to turn your back."
After a few years with Peace Trees, the Hathaways -- along with Dutch journalist Imbert Matthee and Manchester, Vermont, native Kristen Leadem -- founded Clear Path in 2000. Matthee now staffs the Seattle office; Leadem is on sabbatical.
James Hathaway admits it might make more sense to run the organization from an office in Washington, D.C., but, he says, "Who wants to do that?" The Hathaways moved from Seattle to raise their two young boys in Vermont. They chose Dorset because James grew up there. His family owned Pelcher's store and lived in an apartment overhead.
The couple now directs operations from a refurbished garage. They have five full-time employees and an intern in the Vietnam office, as well as a newly acquired squad of 10 part-timers who zip around on Mopeds looking for survivors in need of help. "It's like a little mosquito fleet," marvels Hathaway. "Isn't that cool?"
Clear Path isn't focused solely on Vietnam; it also funds a clinic on the Thai-Burma border that has provided prostheses for hundreds of Burmese land-mine amputees. Technicians there also train new prosthesis technicians, all of them land-mine accident survivors. The operation was far enough from the coast to escape the reach of the recent tsunami -- in fact, none of Clear Path's sites were affected.
And the organization has a strong presence in Cambodia, where two decades of civil war have resulted in an estimated two million unexploded land mines. That explains the country's highest per-capita percentage of mine amputees in the world; one out of every 236 Cambodians has lost one or more limbs.
Clear Path has two full-time and several part-time employees in Cambodia who coordinate classes that teach vocational skills to survivors. In that country, disability often means that a person can no longer work, and that has far-reaching effects on families. "When you take someone out of the resource-generating equation," says Hathaway, "it's devastating."
Clear Path teaches region-specific skills, such as fixing radios and engines. This keeps mine victims from moving to the cities to beg. "You'll be in Phnom Penh and there'll be beggars everywhere," says Hathaway. "We're trying to assist in making sure that doesn't happen."
Hathaway also points out that Clear Path's classes have created a support network. "Some of these folks, they don't know that there are thousands and thousands of other land-mine survivors, and they're ashamed," he says. Happily, he notes, job skills haven't been the only benefits -- "We've had a few marriages, actually."
Hathaway credits Arn Chorn-Pond, a high-school friend he met at Gould Academy in Maine, with helping to connect Clear Path to Cambodia. Chorn-Pond grew up there, and was sent to a work camp when the genocidal Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.
Chorn-Pond escaped in 1979 and was adopted by a Lutheran minister, who brought him to the United States. He has established a variety of community-rebuilding and Cambodian-assistance organizations, and has received the Reebok Human Rights Award and the Anne Frank Memorial Award. He now lives and works in Lowell, Massachusetts, and is Clear Path's Cambodian advisor.
Connections like these have helped Clear Path prosper -- its programs have won support from institutions such as the Freeman Foundation in Stowe, and from a variety of celebrity activists. The organization has held events featuring Judy Collins and the late Spalding Gray. And it has attracted attention from Heather Mills McCartney, who narrated a short Clear Path DVD. She also profiled Clear Path at the third annual Adopt-a-Minefield fundraiser in Los Angeles last fall.
Clear Path solicits donations through its website, http://www.cpi.org; this April, it will sell a benefit CD to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Artists on the disc include Natalie Merchant, Hot Tuna, The Samples and Philip Glass.
Though the organization chiefly seeks donations to export aid, its work brings benefits back to the States as well. Last spring, Clear Path's Viet-nam office hosted a delegation of students and faculty from Johnson State College. The Vermonters spent a month in Vietnam visiting orphanages, harvesting peanuts, and meet-ing blind and disabled mine survivors.
Johnson's Director of Service Learning Ellen Hill says it was an eye-opening experience. She and the students returned energized to spread the word about Clear Path, and to act as ambassadors for the landmine victims they met half a world away. The school plans to send another group this spring.
Hill observes that Clear Path has put a human face on what seems like a distant tragedy -- the first step toward making people care enough to stop the suffering. "They shattered the concept of knowing Vietnam just as a war," Hill says of Clear Path. "Now it's a country, a culture, a people."