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                               LIFE GOES ON 

My father  returned to Australia with  a heart filled with hatred  after enduring the horrors of fighting in the Australian contingent of the Vietnam War. His job saved for those young and lean enough to fit into the enemy tunnels , was commonly known as a rat boy and the psychological terror of  being the first down a dark and narrow hole to identify  and disarm sources of danger  has never left him. Not to mention the oozing cankerous sores on his back  from Agent Orange exposure that still weep to this day.

Like so many soldiers , my father married  almost instantly after his service and set to work on creating a family in the hope of carving out a new purpose .I was born 6 weeks prematurely  with chronic asthma and lung problems and testicular cancer.  My brother was born with failed kidneys which nearly killed him and hospitals were a common theme of both of  our lives for the first few years.   Perhaps because of the doctrine  that was not confined to not just  our house at the time,  I knew from a very early age that I wanted to understand  other cultures. In essence I think that is  why I probably I  became a documentary photographer .

When a friend of mine told me about a veterans  hospital that was not commonly known of and  located in her home village, I decided to spend some time there . It was an  emotionally charged   first step walking through the gates of a hospital where effectively the “other side” soldiers  to my father were living injured and traumatised by the same war that shaped my father and impacted my brother and I  directly and vicariously . I didn’t know what to expect.  I was welcomed with open arms as if  I  was a family member.

105 people have died in the  War Invalid Sanitarium Thuan Thanh centre since it opened after the war. There are currently 97 residents, 2 of whom are veterans from the French War. Tucked away in  Bac Ninh province, infirm and able bodied veterans alike live out their lives in a humble existence. The unmistakable gaze of Ho Chi Minh presides over all , his portrait displayed in  communal living areas  and erected in pride of place in personal quarters.

I can  remember it being a very hot day as I walked through the modest  door to Mrs   Nguyen Thi Nau  ‘s unit.  Behind  her I could see her husband , Mr Nguyen Duc Dam ( 66) lying on a bed  contorted in almost a fetal position . Moments later I was to hear the powerful  story of undeniable love which has spanned more than 40 years .   Working through an interpreter, Mrs   Mrs  Nguyen Thi Nau explains her life story as follows.

I knew my husband before the war ,we were very close from the moment we first saw each other  in our village . My husband was a farmer .   I met him in 1967 and  soon after he left for the war as a freedom fighter. He was severely  injured in 1970  – shot in the right top side of his head  and was on the brink of death. The bullet created  four pieces of shrapnel .Unfortunately the  medical field  team could  only successfully remove one piece of the metal  due to the location  in the brain  ,if they had  attempted to remove any more he would have certainly died right  there on the operating table in front for their eyes .   When my husband did recover to the point he could return back to our village, I fell back in love with him immediately and knew it was my destiny to be by his side for the rest of our lives . We were married in 1973.  At that point neither of us knew the pieces of bullet that  remained lodged in his brain would move , worsening the condition as   days , weeks months and years rolled into one .

When we first got married the only symptom was a slight drool  plus constant headaches and the loss of the use of his right arm . Apart from that he was able to function normally. We had  a   few years when  we thought  we were so lucky and the injury would not progress as it has . We made the most of our lives  having our first child the same year of our marriage and  life could not have been any better.  In total we have 3 children now all of who  have liver problems and have had to deal with mind issues  .

 In 1981 we had a fourth child but unfortunately he has  severe birth defects  physically and mentally  . My husband’s health was declining rapidly as well. ‘This was the hardest time of  my life . I was trying to look after my husband and our child while making a living which proved to be an impossible task . Our son needed constant 24 hr care from the moment he was born and  we had to live off donations of rice from our relatives .The harvests had been very poor that year making the simple task of eating almost impossible . In the end I had no choice but to admit my husband into hospital where he has reminded ever since . We lost our child shortly after.  My heart still bleeds with sorrow  daily.  Without the  government  pension  and this sanitarium , we couldn’t have survived .

 I do find it very hard to live like this but I couldn’t be without my husband .I simply see it as my   duty to look after him . When it gets hard I think to myself how many of the other women from my village lost their husbands for our struggle for independence  and  will never have the opportunity to touch their husbands and tell them how much they love them as I do daily   .  I don’t see myself as a hero I only see myself as a wife fulfilling her destiny and standing by my loved ones.

I then spoke with the director of medicine  Dr Ngo Huy Pho,  who has been working with the  centre for four years. His comments are provided below.

I got involved with this facility for two reasons. Firstly,  for the love for the veterans that have sacraficed their lives for the freedom of our country . Also,  I had a relative who was killed in the war.

Agent orange has effected the brain , liver ,  eyes , and deformities of their children which we are still seeing in  generations being born this way still. 

Patients who are paralysed still feel pain because it is neurolgical mind recognition from the moment that they were injured.

I think that ladies who have stood by their husbands for more than 40 years shows us  courage for the entire Vietnamese population to learn from .

 As a doctor seeing what I see daily, I wish that the world can realise that we are one people and that war only leaves victims. We should always aim at peace and understanding while appreciating the difference that we have.

My final conversation  was with Mr Nguyen Khac Du the hospital director.

The family can live with the seriously injured veteran so they can attend to the needs of their husbands .It is a situation where  many women  look after their husbands .We support the wives so that can  continue to cope with their r husbands . We tell them about how their lives still have meaning …  the new generations of our people can learn about the dedication  the soldiers have for our freedom .

This comment caused me to reflect on the daily life of Mrs Nguyen Thi Nau .In my short stay I have observed her industriously toiling .  When the sun peers through the small window and the local roosters  defiantly  announce  the  dawn a new day,   the first duty is to bathe her husband and to  clean the  colonoscopy bag .  She struggles to turn his body from one side to the other almost like a side of beef  with every gesture being as gentle as  possible with a tender touch that only a loved one can  provide. Her husband’s bed sores are as large as fists. This process takes more than half an hour of sweat dripping gymnastics for  Mrs. Nguyen and is facilitated at least twice per day .

After cleansing her husband, Mrs Nguyen performs her own ablutions  before  tending  her  three  meter garden patch which yields occasional  vegetables to help balance their diet  of rice .

Mrs Nguyen  often heads off to the markets which are located at the front gates of the hospital  . The  veterans who have mobility aided by the use of  wheelchairs    chat to the locals congregating at the markets. Like any other market, it is an opportunity to make  small talk, exchange gossip, discuss current affairs, reminisce  on times gone by , while buying produce. This is a tight community.

Mrs Nguyen heads back to her unit with essential supplies to prepare the four meals that she feeds to her husband. This is  confronting to witness as  Mr Nguyen  is unable to communicate verbally and has no muscle movement whatsoever except for limited opening of the eyelids.  The objective is to provide nutrients without choking which means that each meal  takes  nearly an  hour . Mrs Nguyen provides  nurturing hugs of reassurance  throughout, while  tears drip down her face .

At the end of the day Mrs Nguyen fits a mosquito net to the top of the bed and tucks Mr Nguyen in and for a moment I see  utter peace come over both of their faces as she holds her husband until he falls asleep . The world quietens except the  subtle background   buzz of  crickets and  the  tremendous love  in the room is  as thick as  fog .  I feel like an intruder while husband and wife send each other  unspoken words of love telepathically.

As I slip away, I am struck by   a portrait of  a proud, young   Mr Nguyen  . It occurs to me that this is the freedom fighter that Mrs Nguyen fell in love with and still loves to this day .   I leave  with  the overwhelming sense  that  there are likely to be  hundreds of  thousands of people in our global village  quietly harnessing  love to transcend space and time  , possibly at this very minute.  This story is a tribute to those  brave enough to give love selflessly and to those who receive love appreciatively and allow themselves to trust  another infinitely,  despite experiencing atrocities of war.

The triumph of human spirit is  indeed colourless and boundaryless .



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