US Veteran Devotes Life to Caring for Injuries Caused by War

David Thomas, an American painter and war veteran, has made multiple trips to Vietnam in order to cope with the traumas of war and to use his art to speak out against the conflict.

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One day in late April, American artist and war veteran David Thomas and I strolled along Nguyen Thai Hoc Street in Hanoi, where the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum was exhibiting his latest works.

He said that walking was greatly beneficial for someone suffering from Parkinson’s like him. The disease was a result of his exposure to Agent Orange during his army service in the Central Highlands in 1969.

As we strolled, we reminisced about his initial journey to Vietnam, and how he had been captivated by its beauty ever since. He spoke fondly of the land and the people, and how they had enriched his life with their warmth and hospitality. His memories of the country were nothing short of special, and I could see why he had held it close to his heart all these years.

 David Thomas at his exhibition in Danang in April. Photo courtesy of David Thomas

The battle is not yet won!

The fight is far from over! We must continue to strive for victory and never give up hope! No matter the odds, we will not surrender and will persist until we have achieved our goal. The war is not over and we must stay united in our cause.

Recalling those days of my first visit to Vietnam during the war, I feel an immense sense of nostalgia and sorrow. I remember the horrors of the conflict, the loss of life, the tears that were shed, and the courage of the people who fought for their freedom. It is impossible to forget those days, and yet I am also reminded of how far Vietnam has come since then. The country has been transformed, and I am proud to have witnessed its remarkable progress and development.

In June 1968, after graduating from Portland Art School, I joined the United States Army. From April 11, 1969 to March 22, 1970, I was stationed in Pleiku, Buon Me Thuot, and Kon Tum, South Vietnam. My primary role was driving a jeep around the area and designing blueprints. However, I also seized the opportunity to document the lives of the children who often gathered around my jeep when I stopped. Through drawings and photographs, I captured the innocence and joy of the children living in this war-torn country.

What I miss most are the curious children from the Central Highlands who surrounded the jeep and fiddled with my radio. At that time, I was overjoyed to spend time playing with them. In the group, I was especially close to a girl who was deaf and mute. There was no language barrier between us; instead, we communicated using our hands.

At that time, I had embarked on a mission that seemed daunting and insurmountable. Yet, as I reflected on my experience, my heart ached for the children who had been raised in such a difficult environment. Upon my return to the United States, the one thing that stayed with me were the unforgettable smiles of those children.

When people talk about Vietnam, they think of the war, but I discovered many other beautiful aspects of the country and its people. Their souls are full of poetry, longing for peace, and an incredible resilience to overcome all the difficulties of war. I was deeply moved by the beauty and spirit of the Vietnamese people.

I strongly oppose war and actively demonstrate my stance against it by creating art that pays homage to those who have been impacted by its destruction. My artwork focuses primarily on the plight of Vietnamese children, a direct result of the Americans’ involvement in the conflict. Through my paintings, I hope to raise awareness of the human cost of war and inspire others to take a stand against it.

When I heard about the reunification of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, I felt a sense of hope and joy. It was a major historical event that symbolized the end of a long and devastating conflict. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of pride for the Vietnamese people and their resilience in the face of such difficult times. I was also filled with anticipation for the future of the unified Vietnam and the opportunities it would bring.

I’m thrilled that the war is finally over. After centuries of struggle, the Vietnamese people now have the peace and stability they deserve. I’m especially heartened to think of the children in the Central Highlands forest, who can now attend school and lead a normal life.

The war may be over, but the reality of its consequences still lingers. I suffer from the legacy of Agent Orange, and I am far from alone – millions of Vietnamese people have been affected by this deadly weapon. The current generation may be healthy, yet what implications will this have for their descendants? Unexploded ordnance is still buried in the ground, posing a risk of injury and accidents to the unsuspecting.

So, in a way, the lingering effects of the war are still present. That’s why I’m still creating, to make people aware of it.

 Some books by David Thomas about Vietnam. Photo: Ngo Minh/The Hanoi Times
Hopes for the future
– What made you come back to Vietnam in 1987 and the following years?
It was a simple personal effort of going back to the country where I was involved in the war in my youth, to find a way to connect and mend the past.

Little did I know that I would spend the rest of my life trying to ease the pain caused by the American War there, to educate Americans here about the real tragedy of our invasion of Vietnam, and to humanize the people we had dehumanized in order to kill and poison them. I have been invited into the homes of our former enemy many times only to learn how much we have in common, not that which divides us. We have laughed and cried together and shared many beautiful memories and hopes for the future.

I became enraptured with the life of Vietnam’s great leader Ho Chi Minh, and created over fifty portraits of him. I also compiled an artist’s book and a trade book about his life and country.

A year later, in the summer of 1988, I founded the non-profit Indochina Arts Association (IAP) to establish a connection between the cultures, art, and individuals of the two countries. My goal was to make the world, and especially Americans, aware of the beauty of Vietnam and its people.

 Exhibition “David Thomas and Friends” opens at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Ngo Minh/The Hanoi Times

– Why did IAP discontinue in 2019?

IAP (Immediate Action Plan) ceased in 2019 due to the fact that it was no longer deemed necessary. The program had been in place since 2015, designed to help governments and organizations prepare for, respond to, and recover from sudden-onset disasters. As the program’s successes began to decline, and the resources required to maintain it became too costly, the decision to discontinue it was made.

Yes, IAP has successfully connected many Vietnamese and American artists, organized various exhibitions showcasing the artistic perspectives of artists from both countries, and facilitated the travels of dozens of Vietnamese artists to the US for exhibition, exchange, and study purposes. Over the years, I have had the privilege of building relationships with esteemed painters like Le Huy Tiep and Phan Cam Thuong… Yet, as a non-profit organization, IAP has always needed to depend on fundraising for its operations. In 2019, as I had grown old and was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, I decided that it was time to step down from the organization.

This disease has been an immense hindrance to my artistic work in many ways. It has disrupted my creative process, making it difficult for me to concentrate on my work. It has also taken away my energy and motivation to create art. Additionally, it has caused me to miss important deadlines and opportunities. Ultimately, this disease has prevented me from producing the art I want to create.

In 2015, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that may have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange during my time in the military. Research suggests that individuals exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War have a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s Disease than the general population. The diagnosis has had a profound impact on my life, and I am determined to face this challenge head-on.

During a year in the Central Highlands, I never really paid much attention to why nothing grew in that rich, volcanic red soil. I did know that my unit was also responsible for killing the vegetation a hundred yards on either side of the roads we were building and at all work sites. This was done primarily to remove jungle growth where snipers and enemy soldiers could hide, ensuring our safety.

Although I was assured by my superiors that this poison was only harmful to plants and posed no danger to humans, I still had my doubts.

On December 14, 2020, I was presented with a unique opportunity: the chance to see my brain for the first time after an MRI scan. This experience left me with a newfound appreciation for the complexity of the human body, as well as a surplus of ideas for potential graphic works about the consequences of war. Will my newfound illness prove to be an obstacle in my creative journey, or will it become material for me to continue to explore and create? Only time will tell.

Thank you for your valuable time!