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Jerilyn Brusseau

Cofounder, PeaceTrees Vietnam

“Take the time to become grounded in your vision and your purpose. Then, call people you never imagined calling so that you can meet and generate connections.”

In 1995, when I was 52, I started this work with my late husband and my mother, in an effort to heal the legacy of the Vietnam War — my mother called it “turning sorrow into service.” In partnership with the Vietnamese people, PeaceTrees Vietnam is working to clear land mines and other unexploded ordnance from the most war-torn areas in the central provinces, return the land to safe use and build bridges of trust, respect and understanding between our countries.

The problem I’m trying to solve

The aftermath of war is tragic. In central Vietnam thousands of people continue to live with the risks that unexploded munitions, bombs, grenades and ordnance pose to their lives and livelihood. We’re working to reverse the consequences of war, to transform adversarial relationships into partnerships and to restore communities by safely clearing the land. We have worked in the most heavily bombed areas of Vietnam to safely remove dangerous explosives, to support accident survivors and to honor the losses on all sides of the war.

Our 25 years of work alongside the people of Vietnam has brought extraordinary results. We have removed and destroyed nearly 120,000 items of unexploded ordnance, cleared nearly 2,000 acres of land, enabled volunteers to plant more than 50,000 native trees on the cleared land and provided mine-risk safety education to approximately 140,000 people. As a result, children in these areas can now walk to school safely and communities can grow food on the land. What’s more, we have built schools, libraries, community centers and family homes for accident victims.

The moment that sparked my passion

My brother Daniel was an incredible spark of life and a U.S. Army helicopter pilot. He had been in Vietnam exactly 16 days when he and his copilot were shot down and killed, on Jan. 6, 1969, while saving the life of a fellow pilot who was shot down ahead of them. That moment told me that someday,  families like mine must reach out and build relationships with Vietnamese families to honor the losses on all sides of the war. The next moment came 26 years later, when the U.S. and Vietnam reestablished diplomatic relations under President Bill Clinton. That’s when I realized it was absolutely urgent to reach out to the people of Vietnam to propose working together to heal the devastating consequences of the war. That’s the day the vision of PeaceTrees Vietnam was born. 

What I wish other people knew

I wish that more American families affected by the Vietnam War realized the tremendous opportunities there are to build bridges of trust and friendship with the Vietnamese people and that there are welcome arms and warm smiles to greet us in Vietnam. I wish more veterans could experience the peace, warmth, hope and possibility for healing after the war, inside each of us and on the ground. One of the most amazing moments came when I watched my then 90-year-old Gold Star mother embrace a 92-year-old Vietnamese mother who had lost two sons in the war. Together they dedicated a kindergarten and library in honor of all mothers who lost children in wartime.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Take the time to become grounded in your vision and your purpose. Then, call people you never imagined calling so that you can meet and generate connections. Once you have a clear vision for what you want to do, dive in and go for it while keeping the elements that are important to you in sight.

Why my approach is unique

We focus on bridge building, while considering how families on all sides heal after losing a family member in the war, and creating resilient relationships going forward. We’re taking a compassionate, nurturing approach to this issue — these are diplomatic missions, restorative missions. The power of seeing U.S. veterans come to Vietnam and, in some cases, meeting Vietnamese veterans who were fighting on the ground at the same time, and watching the dissipation of fear that occurs is amazing. When each person shares his or her loss, it becomes a circle of connection around the table. These experiences are profoundly healing, and they shift our lives going forward.

What’s next for PeaceTrees Vietnam

It’s our 25th anniversary, and as long as there is unexploded ordnance in Vietnam, we intend to be there. We now have the most highly trained demining teams in Southeast Asia. We want to continue to make war-torn areas safer, to decrease mine accidents through education and to build schools so children can learn and grow and have a brighter future. We have an ongoing dream: In 25 years we hope the issue of unexploded land mines will be resolved. And we want to create a PeaceTrees Foundation that can be shared around the world, in order to empower former adversaries to restore trust, vitality and resilience between their countries.