My First Trip to Savannakhet Province
I recently had the opportunity to visit Savannakhet Province and was impressed with all of the economic and development activity – all pointing to a bright future for the province. On the day of our arrival, we visited HALO Trust, an international NGO working hard to clear unexploded ordnance in Sepon District. They gave us a chance to help dispose of a recently uncovered “bombie.” We observed as the HALO team showed us the partially buried UXO, and then moved back 300 meters or so while they placed an explosive charge on it. When the charge was set, they gave me the detonator, and I sent an electrical charge through a wire to the explosive. It was startling to hear the power of the explosion, even from a safe distance. HALO is funded as part of the United States’ $9 million annual assistance to UXO efforts and it was heartening to see the progress being made in this hazardous task by a dedicated team of Lao and foreign - including U.S. - workers. They put in tremendous effort throughout the dry and wet season, usually in difficult terrain, to ensure the safety of local villagers.
Watching Lao staff of HALO Trust as they work to clear UXO
The next morning we saw another side of the legacy issues from the war when we visited a crash site run by our Joint Personnel Accounting Command (JPAC), which searches for U.S. soldiers and airmen who were lost during the war years. In this particular case, we were looking for a U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant who was shot down in an F-4 Phantom during the “Lam Song 719” battles. I was impressed by the dedication of our JPAC team as they sought to bring home one of our own from the conflict. I was also struck by the friendly and cheerful attitude of the local villagers who were working at the site. Yes, Lao and Americans are working side-by-side on this important task. It is hard work – physically tiring – and it is far away from any city or developed area.
I joined JPAC members as they sift through the crash site, looking for a trace of one of our Missing in Action from the Vietnam War.
The day was a whirl of activity, as we went from the JPAC mission site to eat lunch at the Dongsavanh School, located right along the border with Vietnam. The school is one of over 60 in Vilayburi and Sepon provinces that is benefiting from a school feeding program supported by U.S. Department of Agriculture funding and run by Catholic Relief Services (CRS). My wife Judy and I were overwhelmed by the friendly greeting that the school gave us and had a delightful lunch with the children there. I don’t want to forget some of the smiles I saw there. In fact, I have a framed photograph from CRS that I will keep here at the Embassy to help me remember. We planted a tree on the school grounds before we were off to the next stop.