The Toledo Rotary members grew silent as Fred Grimm tried to compose himself.
Standing to address the luncheon crowd of 220 last week, the Vietnam veteran choked back tears as he recalled how difficult it was to read in The Blade about the atrocities committed by an elite Army platoon.
Still shaking, the Springfield Township resident commended the paper for the Pulitzer Prize-winning series "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths," but talked about the good done by veterans after the war. His comments brought a resounding applause.
After all, he is a living example of such a veteran.
After reading the series, Mr. Grimm and his wife, Jill, decided to pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to build a school in the area rampaged by the Tiger Force platoon.
His logic was simple: "You know, if we hurt some people right there, let's see what we can do for them."
Beyond that, the personal quest of the 56-year-old merges his most horrific memory of the war and the humanitarian endeavors of he and other local veterans over the last five years.
The DOVE FUND, the local nonprofit group to which he belongs, has quietly raised more than $500,000 since 1999 to help an area of Vietnam hardest hit by military action three decades ago.
Fred Grimm and his wife, Jill, pose with children from the Vietnam village where he plans to pay for a new school. Mr. Grimm, a soldier during the war, lives in Springfield Township.
A DOVE board member since 2000, he has contributed money for those projects - not an uncommon feat among the group's 24 board members, many of them Vietnam veterans.
But Mr. Grimm's project will be the first to take place in the Song Ve Valley, a remote area where Tiger Force began its seven-month string of atrocities in 1967, and in a province where Mr. Grimm nearly died two years later.
While Mr. Grimm was starting college at Ohio State University, the Army dispatched to the Central Highlands a special task force that included Tiger Force, a highly acclaimed platoon of about 45 men that went on long missions in small teams to hunt the enemy.
Facing numerous ambushes and booby traps, some platoon soldiers began routinely executing prisoners and shooting unarmed civilians of any age or sex. The seven-month rampage stretched from the Song Ve Valley to the mountains west of Chu Lai and is estimated to have resulted in hundreds of deaths.
The next spring, the 11th Brigade's Charlie Company slaughtered about 500 people in nearby My Lai, a case the Army tried to cover up until it was publicly exposed in November, 1969.
By then, Mr. Grimm had his own experiences in Quang Ngai province.
Drafted into the Army after dropping out of college, he had come to the region in April, 1969, as a combat engineer to help build bridges and roadbed. He said he saw no atrocities, but remembers dodging ambushes, mines, and mortar attacks.
One mortar attack he couldn't dodge.
As he sat atop his bunker for 2 a.m. guard duty on Aug. 12, 1969, a mortar blast 100 yards away sent him diving into his bunker. Seconds later, a rocket landed atop the bunker, leaving him and friend Bob Griffin dazed and bloodied.
Both would be evacuated by helicopter, Mr. Grimm with a shattered eardrum and Mr. Griffin with one eye blinded and wounds that would leave him unable to work for the rest of his life.
Five weeks ago, as part of a delegation for DOVE, Mr. Grimm returned to the Song Ve Valley - this time on a mission of peace.
It wasn't DOVE's biggest event of the roughly two-week trip. The group's entire 30-member delegation dedicated five schools and visited sites for a health station, a water project, and several more schools that they are underwriting in Quang Tri province farther north.
But while many of the group's members spent a rest day in the tourist city of Hoi An, Mr. Grimm and 10 others ventured south down Highway One, the same road Mr. Grimm helped build 35 years ago.
They didn't have time to stop and find Landing Zone Dottie, where Mr. Grimm had spent his four-month tour. Instead, they drove directly to find a site for a school that he could dedicate to his friend, Mr. Griffin.
Do Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American DOVE member, helped lead the side trip and remembers how emotional it was for Mr. Grimm. He said people warmly greeted him, with smiling children running up to him.
"This is part of the healing," said Mr. Nguyen, who attended Bowling Green State University during the war and stayed after Saigon fell to the communists.
Nearly three decades after the war ended, residents of the Song Ve Valley still can recall the atrocities that cost the lives of family and friends. But, Mr. Grimm said, they didn't bring them up during the DOVE visit, instead focusing on the future.
Since the war, the government has brought electricity to the region and built a series of dikes and levies to help farmers. But the people remain poor, and the schools are old and crowded.
Mr. Grimm had expected to build a one-room nursery school, costing about $6,000, but instead discovered the community really needed a two-room elementary schoolhouse. It may be double or triple the price, but Mr. Grimm isn't complaining.
His father and others are already pledging to help him. Besides, he said simply, "God has been good to me."
After returning from Vietnam, he married his high school sweetheart, left the service, and obtained bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Toledo to help forge a career as a financial representative for Northwest Mutual.
The father of two said he escaped the worst of the poor treatment received by returning Vietnam veterans but never forgot the horror stories of other veterans being demeaned.
His fears of another anti-veteran backlash returned last fall when he read The Blade's series exposing the Tiger Force atrocities and Army cover-up.
"My initial reaction was [that] the Vietnam veteran has never been appreciated and this is going to make it worse," he said. "After thinking about it, I said, 'I'm sure the research is done and it's accurate. It's definitely a story.' "
That's when he thought of the new school.
"As a veteran, you've got to look at the present: What can we do now to help?"
Mr. Grimm came to the Toledo Rotary meeting Monday to hear two reporters from The Blade speak about the series. It was then that he stood up to talk about his experience during and after the war - memories that sometimes still evoke emotion - and the efforts of DOVE to offer help.
He deflects praise. Instead, he just asks that people remember Vietnam veterans are trying to do good work there.
"A lot of positive things are happening," he said.
Contact Joe Mahr at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6180.
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