Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Demining the DMZ
Montpelier Winter 1999

Two young Vietnamese boys discover a treasure - a relic of a war fought 25 years ago. Thrilled with their find, they take it back to their house and hide it. Their secret is safe - until curiosity eats away at them.

Finally, with an innocent ignorance of danger so universal to youth, the boys pull their treasure - an unexploded M-79 grenade - from hiding and toss it in the air. They just want to see it explode. Explode it does - hurling shrapnel through the air. The shrapnel catches one boy in the stomach, ripping a huge gash in his gut and leaving his intestines peppered with pieces of metal. An artery and nerves in his arm are cut.

In a hotel 300 yards away, a young American hears the blast. Trained as an emergency medical technician, he acts instinctively - grabs his first aid bag and runs. When he gets to the scene, he finds 50 or more people crowded around, staring at the boy writhing on the ground. The child's intestines are spilling onto the ground, and he's bleeding heavily. The American, towering a head above the crowd, quickly goes to work to stabilize the boy and dress his wounds so he can be taken by scooter to the nearest hospital.

The boy's bleeding can be stopped; the partial paralysis in his arm and hand can't. The legacy of that afternoon of innocent play - a digestive system that barely works and an ongoing threat of infection. The child's prognosis is bleak.


The other boy fairs better - shrapnel wounds to his shoulder and a jolt to his nerves leave the youngster shaking and crying. He'll recover. His fear won't be so easy to treat.

The American in this scene was JMU graduate student Don Price, and the setting was this third trip in a year to the Quang Tri province of Vietnam. It's a scene that is played out weekly in that province and daily in some war-torn areas of the world. Estimates place landmine injuries throughout the world at 20,000-25,000 a year. Not a huge number, some may argue.

But Price, who on the home stretch of a master's degree in health sciences with a specialty in humanitarian demining issues, counters that the number of victims is only the tip of the iceberg. The larger problem, the developmental, environmental and public health issues of landmines and humanitarian demining efforts, are the focus of his studies at JMU and a passion in his life.

Price is a pioneer of sorts - blazing a previously uncharted academic course at JMU. The university offers no standard master's degree in health sciences with a specialty in demining issues. Instead, Price's work at JMU is a tailor-made program that matches the university's expertise with Price's interests.

Like Price, JMU also is a pioneer. While many universities have programs that focus on the technical aspects of landmine clearing, JMU Humanitarian Demining Information Center is unique in its role as an information clearinghouse and resource center for the complex issues surrounding demining efforts. In fact, according to Dennis Barlow, director of JMU's demining center, the only similar program is the Geneva International Humanitarian Demining Center, which "is just getting started. We've been at this for over two years now." And while both organizations have the same mission - to serve as a coordination resource and information source for demining efforts, Barlow believes the two centers "complement rather than duplicate services. There's room enough for both of us."

The pairing of Price and JMU came in 1997. Following his graduation from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., with a degree in environmental science, Price launched a search for a graduate program that could build on his interest in the environmental issues associated with global landmine clearance efforts. He contacted the top 20 graduate environmental science programs in the country, and got the same answer: we have no such program, nor could we allow students to do the necessary field re-search for such an inherently dangerous topic.

In his search, he heard about JMU's Humanitarian Demining Center and placed a call to see if the center would support student research and/or activities in demining. Dennis Barlow took that call, saw the possibilities, and paired Price with JMU Health Sciences department head, Stephen Stewart. JMU couldn't offer a master's in environmental science - but it could tailor a master's program in health sciences with a specialty in demining that would examine the environmental impact of demining in the context of the broader public health issues.

JMU also offered Stewart who, with his expertise in epidemiology and his experience as a medic during the Vietnam War, was "completely prepared" to serve as both academic adviser and mentor to Price. As a professor who has traveled extensively investigating the landmine issue he "had a great networking ability," Price says.

The challenge for Stewart and JMU was to figure out a way to tie Price's interests to public health, to provide a broad perspective on the issues of demining coupled with in-depth knowledge. "We wanted him to see the whole picture," Stewart says. That meant a blend of course work, research and plenty of hands-on experience.

Price sees the emphasis on health science as a "natural fit" to his environmental interests. "Before I looked at how landmines impact the environment. It's a real natural progression" to examining how those environmental consequences could impact public health by contaminating drinking water, disrupting food production on land and disturbing once dormant toxic chemicals.

Price's basic course of study is broken into the three components of mine action: awareness, victim assistance and clearance. His work has included courses at JMU, countless hours in computer labs mapping potential landmine risk areas, and, most recently, serving as support staff in Vietnam for JMU's efforts in the Quang Tri province of Vietnam.

Working with Peace- Trees, a Seattle-based citizen's diplomacy group that recently completed a landmine education awareness center in Dong Ha, a town in the Quang Tri province, JMU is developing a curriculum for mine awareness education and a network of victim assistance programs. The mine awareness campaign is being underwritten by the Department of State through a grant to JMU. The project is being headed by Anne Stewart, associate professor of psychology, while Terry Wessel, professor of health sciences, is coordinating the victim assistance efforts, which include developing curriculum for the center.

While Price is taking a global perspective on the complex demining issues, his focus is on Vietnam. "There's nowhere like Quang Tri, where people are highly dependent on an environment that is saturated with residual chemical contamination, unexploded ordnance and landmines," Price says.

Located just south of what used to be the U.S. Demilitarized Zone, Quang Tri is littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance. Dormant in the subsoil is residue of Agent Orange and other chemicals used to defoliate the area's dense jungles during the war. The province also was home to as many as 17 former U.S. military bases located on prime spots out of flood plains and with access to transportation networks such as rivers, sea and roads. The same attributes that made the land good for a military base make it great for resettling - except that the sites are toxic waste dumps surrounded by landmines once used to protect U.S. forces. "If that area were here in America, it would be an EPA Superfund clean-up site," Price says. But, because of post-war realities in Vietnam, priorities and rules are different. It's simply abandoned.


The problem isn't just one of getting rid of landmines, Price notes. It also involves assessing the environmental risks involved in demining. Finding and detonating landmines remove one danger, but can create more by disturbing the subsoil and bringing the hidden chemicals back to the surface and back into the environment - in many cases to leech into rivers, streams and drinking water reservoirs. Chronic illnesses and birth defects can and do result.

Additionally, until land can be cleared, it can't be used. And in Vietnam and other struggling Third World countries, that loss of productive land can have devastating eco-nomic consequences. If land can't be farmed, food can't be raised; malnutrition, disease and starvation become the primary crops.

Add the economic burden of caring for victims maimed by landmine accidents and struggling families of those killed by landmines, and the impact of the multi-prong problem becomes apparent. Third World countries seldom have a human services safety net such as welfare, Social Security and Medicaid, so the burden falls on family, neighbors and friends, Price says.

Vietnam also offers a unique challenge in mine awareness efforts. Unlike in areas such as Bosnia where landmines are used as terrorist weapons to intimidate people both physically and psychologically, Vietnam is a country that has learned to live with landmines. Generations have grown up living with them, and, in many ways, have grown desensitized to the dangers surrounding them. "The majority of landmine accidents are associated with everyday lifestyle - clearing and planting the land, herding animals, searching for scrap metal," Price says. "Folks are just trying to make ends meet, and to do so, they often put themselves at risk. But what's the option?" Price asks. "It's just like us with traffic accidents. We know people are seriously injured and killed each day in traffic accidents, but we still get in our car and go."

Additionally, the people, particularly in Quang Tri, are "kind of victims of circumstance," Price says. A recent drought will undoubtedly bring more landmine injuries because farmers will be digging deeper in the soil to plant, as will the annual monsoon season, which will wash a new crop of landmines to the surface. The area also is the focus of a large government re-settlement program, which adds another dimension to the problem - one of new people moving into the area "who are not as streetwise" about landmines.

For Price, Quang Tri carries even more significance. The province was his first introduction to the complexities of the land-mine clearing issues, and a turning point in his interests and goals. His first contact with Quang Tri came when he was doing a six-month internship for the American Red Cross International Services, based in Seattle, during his final year at Evergreen.

The task was to see how demining efforts might affect or disrupt food production by taking land out of productivity and impact water quality. Price's job was to determine what problems might be created and what needs the Red Cross might have to address. Tracking chemical toxins through the ecosystems was a task that Price, who was just finishing his degree in biogeochemistry, was well suited for.

While with the Red Cross, he received a call from Danaan Parry, a former nuclear physicist turned citizen-diplomat and PeaceTrees founder. His PeaceTrees organization was just beginning a landmine clearing project in Quang Tri, and Parry was worried about the environmental impact and possible contamination problems from the operation. The two men immediately clicked, and talked two or three more times about the potential environmental consequences of demining.

Three days before the ceremonial tree planting for the then-future PeaceTrees center in Quang Tri that bears his name, the same center that JMU now is actively supporting, Parry died of a heart attack. His death left Price stunned - and haunted. He never knew the exact location of the site he and Parry had discussed, and wasn't sure just what was being done to address the environmental issues there.

His graduate work at JMU, closely linked to JMU's involvement in Quang Tri, is providing some answers. Stewart calls the beginning of Price's graduate studies, and his and the university's overlapping ties to PeaceTrees "somewhat serendipitous. When Don came [to JMU], Vietnam was not on our radar screen." That quickly changed.

Price started his graduate program with a two-month internship in Vietnam to provide the hands-on field experience so crucial to understanding the complexities of humanitarian demining. He was well suited for such an assignment. Price speaks Korean, limited Japanese and "survival Vietnamese," and, in addition to his science background, is trained as an emergency medical technician - which gives him a good understanding of the human as well environmental toll landmines have taken.

The first month of his internship was spent in Hanoi, working with Chuck Searcy, director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, a humanitarian group that focuses on, among other things, mine clearance efforts. Searcy gave him a desk, a telephone, a computer, and an insider's contacts and connections. That month was spent meeting with landmine clearance groups to get a clear picture of what currently is being done, and how.

The second month was spent in Quang Tri, traveling with a translator assigned by the Foreign Committee. There he experienced the maze of red tape involved in just traveling from one district to another within the province. "You just don't have the freedom to travel there that we're used to here," Price says.

Price's second trip to Vietnam was last March, when JMU was invited to the groundbreaking ceremonies for the PeaceTrees' Danaan Parry Humanitarian Demining Center in the Quang Tri town of Dong Ha. That ceremony marked the unofficial start of JMU's partnership with PeaceTrees/ Vietnam and the People's Committee of Quang Tri Province to provide an outreach program of dealing with mine awareness, victim assistance and mine clearance issues that would serve not only the new center but the entire province.

Since then, the government of Quang Tri has opened its doors to JMU and its work. "JMU is the only [foreign] group that has been given unlimited access to the entire province," Price says.

Price completed the final component of his graduate work - his thesis and related research - in December with yet another trip to Quang Tri. He plans to continue his associations and his work in Vietnam, perhaps with continued ties through JMU.

It's an assignment Price views with mixed emotions. Daily he is confronted with the misery of injuries and death caused by land-mines, the people's economic struggle just to survive, the ravages of disease, malnutrition and even starvation, and the environmental time bombs left by a war over decades ago.

"It's not a fun place to work, but it's one of the most rewarding places I've ever worked," Price admits. "I enjoy the thorough challenge" of Vietnam. "All my senses are fully challenged."

He pauses, then simply says, "It's the right place to be, the right thing to do."

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