In 1969, Patrick Wheary was a 26-year-old United States Navy pilot flying a single engine-jet fighter attack aircraft, the A-7 Corsair II, off the USS Enterprise during the Vietnam War. For the first time, he talks about the weapon introduced to him at the time—the cluster bomb—and what he did with them. In his words:
My fellow Navy aviators and I loved flying, and an assignment to an aircraft carrier required extremely high aviation skills. We regarded our assignments as an honor, although we faced difficult and dangerous missions 24/7. We were highly trained and focused. Flying was our life.
Our missions took us over South and North Vietnam, and sometimes over Laos. Our mission was to intercept North Vietnamese Regular Army forces and transports advancing to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These forces were attacking U.S. and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) personnel in the South.
Onboard the aircraft carrier where we were based, we were introduced to a new type of weapon known as a cluster bomb. Unlike other bombs, cluster bombs are filled with smaller bomblets that disperse over a wide area. I assumed at the time that if they didn’t find a target, the bomblets would disarm or self-destruct after a few weeks. At age 26, facing death on a daily basis, I didn’t have much reason to consider the potential long-term impact of these weapons. Perhaps I was naïve.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned about the long-term persistence of cluster bombs. They don’t all explode on impact, and they may last for decades.
Unfortunately, there are still millions of them left in Laos. Today, a totally innocent person, just walking through the jungle, may lose an arm or a leg—even their life—to a cluster bomb. And they do.
Recently I returned to Vietnam and Laos as a volunteer teacher. The people I met literally wrapped their arms around me as a new friend—they did not see me as a former enemy. But the evidence of war was still very present. I met about a dozen people in Laos who had lost limbs after stepping on cluster bombs and they were indeed struggling.
It is finally time for me to speak out, raise awareness about the explosive cluster bombs we left in Laos, and do something for these injured Laotians.
Since 1983, Handicap International has worked to clear cluster bombs and other explosives in Laos, and provide support to victims. The organization also supports advocates who speak out against cluster bombs and argue for a universal ban on the weapon.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first “official” bombing of Laos. It’s time to bring the people of Laos the peace they deserve.