Giving New Meaning to Military “Service”

Ly Minh Tran’s reunion with his family at the Salt Lake City International Airport in October of 1991 was another success story for a group of LDS Vietnam War veterans and friends.

The Tran family was able to leave Saigon through the assistance of the Veterans Association for Service Activities Abroad (VASAA), a nonprofit organization originally organized to help Latter-day Saint families who remained in Vietnam after the war ended.

VASAA’s dedication to humanitarian service has involved the group in helping many individuals of other faiths as well. Often, as in the case of the Tran family, the request for help has come from Church members with ties to someone in Vietnam.

Ly Minh Tran had been sent out of Vietnam as a boy in 1978, and his family had not seen him since. In the meantime, he had come to the United States, lived with a Latter-day Saint family, joined the Church, and served a mission. At the airport, he introduced his family to his new bride, Tamara.

VASAA had served as the “facilitating agency” to keep the Tran family’s paperwork moving through the United Nations Orderly Departure program, thus making the reunion possible. Since its beginnings in 1982, VASAA has successfully handled more than eighty such cases. Families like Ly Minh Tran’s have been reunited, or family members have been put in contact with each other for the first time in years. Individuals and families have been relocated in countries where they could worship freely, often after years of longing for the opportunity to meet with the Saints or to visit a temple. (See Giving New Meaning to Military “Service”, June 1989, p. 44.)

At the end of 1991, VASAA was working on more than ninety other cases. About eighty of those involve people in Vietnam; the rest involve people living in Asian refugee camps or in other countries.

VASAA began as the result of a letter which found its way to Salt Lake City in 1982. It was addressed simply to “V. Kovalenko, Mormon Church, Utah (USA).” Virgil Kovalenko had been home teacher to the family of Nguyen Ngoc Thach while serving with the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in the early 1970s. Brother Kovalenko joyfully read the letter from Sister Thach when it was routed to his Salt Lake City home. He had tried for seven years to find the Thach family.

An exchange of letters with Sister Thach in Vietnam took months. Brother Thach had been imprisoned because of his ties to the Church, but when he was released, he wrote that he was still living the gospel faithfully.

It had been assumed that all Vietnamese Latter-day Saints left Vietnam in 1975; transport had been arranged for them just before Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces. But letters from the Thach family furnished tangible proof that many Church members had stayed.

Was there a way to get them out? When inquiry was made of agencies and organizations that might be able to help, the report was that it would be impossible. When Brother Kovalenko reported the results to other Latter-day Saint military personnel who had known the Thachs in Vietnam, their reaction was unanimous: we’ll do it ourselves.

Acting on their own, these Latter-day Saint servicemen and others formed the Bien Hoa LDS Servicemen’s Group Association. It included Latter-day Saint military personnel who had been stationed in Bien Hoa while in Vietnam, as well as Vietnamese refugees who had been members of the Saigon Branch. The organization grew as Latter-day Saint military personnel who had been stationed in other areas of Vietnam joined. The name of the organization has changed through the years, but the VASAA acronym has been a constant since 1983.

VASAA delegations have traveled to Vietnam several times. VASAA officers have worked with U.S. embassies and officials of other governments. Because of its successes, government or other agencies often refer cases to VASAA.

Brother Kovalenko emphasizes that VASAA members do what they do because of their belief in service to others.

[photos] Top: Ties between Vietnamese members and LDS servicemen endured after U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Above left: In 1972, a group including Nguyen Ngoc Thach and his children met at the Bien Hoa chapel (identified by the sign, far left). Above right: Brother Thach, his wife, and two sons met again with Virgil Kovalenko, their home teacher from 1972. (Photography by Virgil Kovalenko, Carroll Crittenden, AP/Wide World Photos, Inc., and Allen C. Bjergo.)

[photos] VASAA helped relocate Ly Minh Tran’s family (far right) and Cong Ton Nu Tuong-Vy (below, right). Below: During 1989 VASAA visit, medical doctor Lewis Hassell, a missionary in Vietnam in the 1970s, presents portable EKG monitor to staff members at a hospital. Bottom left: LDS veteran’s dogtags; the letter that started VASAA; U.S. military’s Vietnam service medal; and U.S. advisers’ Vietnamese rank insignia. (Photography by Jed Clark, Virgil Kovalenko, Allen C. Bjergo, and Melanie Shumway.)

LDS Dentists Reach Out

About one hundred people are waiting for the mobile dentist office to arrive in the small Thai village. When the converted school bus arrives, two Latter-day Saint dentists prepare for a day’s work.

The dentists, with their Thai assistants, immediately begin extracting teeth and treating infections. Often the dentists wear sweat bands to keep the perspiration out of their eyes. But at the end of the day, when they are too tired to work any longer, the line of patients is just as long as when they started.

“I found myself doing a normal week’s worth of dentistry in a day,” said one dentist, who volunteered for a month of service in Thailand.

In an effort to help alleviate oral disease problems of people worldwide, the Academy of LDS Dentists sponsors service projects in many nations, said Dr. Gordon J. Christensen, founding president of the academy.

“The dentists consider it an extension of Church service, as well as fulfilling the oath they took as professionals,” said Dr. Jack Karl Rasmussen of Salt Lake City, speaking of the many hours spent in volunteer work.

Since the organization of the academy in 1977 at Brigham Young University, dentists have served in Africa, China, Israel, Mexico, South America, the republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union, Thailand, the West Indies, and the United States.

The projects include treating dental caries and caring for gum and bone diseases and poorly functioning teeth, as well as providing training and supplies to local health professionals and teaching dental hygiene programs, Dr. Christensen said.

The support for service projects among the academy members and their families is overwhelming, Dr. Rasmussen said, and the dentists know that in some countries, the dentist from the academy may be the only dentist many people will see in their lives.

In many nations, local dentists have difficulty dealing with an overwhelming demand for their services because they are hampered by limited supplies and training. Because they are so few in number, each Thai dentist could serve as many as 300,000 patients, contrasted with 1,500 patients per dentist in the United States, says Dr. Dale Linton of Bountiful, Utah.

The project in Thailand ran for about five years in the mid-1980s, with dentists donating a month to six weeks treating those in need. “I’ve spent thirty years in dentistry, and that month was the most satisfying I’ve spent in the profession,” said Dr. John Bevan of Salt Lake City.

The academy is now developing another project in the area, a plan providing retired dentists to train Thai professionals and donate medical equipment. “It is one way to teach the people to take care of themselves,” Dr. Linton said.

In 1988, members of the Academy of LDS Dentists took part in a health fair in Trinidad sponsored by Church members. Eight couples who are members of the academy volunteered their time and paid their own travel expenses in order to screen thousands of people for dental problems.

Also in the West Indies, the academy is working with educational leaders in St. Lucia to formulate a dental hygiene program. In health care, the prevention of disease can be far more important and less costly than the treatment of the same disease, says Dr. Christensen.

The academy has helped support the Instituto Superior de Odontologia, the dental school in Chihuahua, Mexico, by donating equipment, supplies, and training. Clinics in Bolivia, Guatemala, and Jamaica have also received medical help.

The academy is always looking at new opportunities for service. One member has been involved in training dental students in Uganda, and several dentists have traveled to China to help with education.

In June 1991, four dentists and two lab assistants traveled to the republic of Georgia in the Soviet Union to lecture and demonstrate dental techniques. “The experience felt like a mini-mission,” said Dr. Kent Seal of Sandy, Utah, “and we developed a special love for the people we served.”

Donations from the academy are funding the education of Latter-day Saint dentists in less developed nations around the world. This particular project, administered through the Church Educational System, provides an education for students who have no other means of support, said Dr. Rasmussen.

The long-term possibilities are tremendous as these students, many of them returned missionaries, learn to be leaders in the Church and in their professions, he said.

Through their service, said Dr. Christensen, academy dentists have developed love, empathy, and fellowship with people worldwide.

[photo] Dr. Gordon Taylor of the Academy of LDS Dentists examines a young boy at a 1989 health fair in Trinidad. (Photo by Dr. Jay F. Harmer.)

Girls’ Camp “Pranks”

Girls’ camp should be a time of hiking, certification, swimming, campfire programs, late-night stories, meals around the fire, and silly songs. Added up, these usually equal fun. So why, Anita Kingdon wondered, was one girl crying?

Sister Kingdon enjoyed the opportunity to help at camp, but the sorrow of this young girl was disturbing. The girl was sad because of a prank played on her, and she was not the only one angered or disconcerted by what had been done to her in the name of “fun.” Some of the adult leaders were also upset by pranks that had been carried too far—pranks that were contrary to the guidelines encouraging friendliness and appropriate behavior at girls’ camp.

Why was it okay to make people miserable at camp with sleeping bag surprises and scary noises, when this mischief would not be condoned in a normal setting? Sister Kingdon pondered the dilemma but did not know how to address the situation. Apparently other leaders were also uncertain. Some said, “Pranks are just a part of camp.” But should pranks be part of a camp that is trying to teach gospel principles?

When Sister Kingdon was called as the Grand Rapids Michigan Stake camp director soon afterward, she had the opportunity to do something about this nagging problem. But she wondered how to handle it, since the girls could rebel if they thought their “fun” had been banned. So she sought advice from the one Source who could provide a workable solution. After much prayer and pondering, the answer came: Eliminate pranks and substitute something in their place.

As a result, the “positive prank program” was born. In stake precamp meetings, leaders were advised that there were to be no embarrassing or malicious pranks at camp. Instead, the girls were to be encouraged to try “positive pranks.” Instead of filling a tent-mate’s sleeping bag with shaving cream, why not put a candy bar on her bed? How would a girl feel if she found a note of appreciation pinned to her tent or bunk?

Adult leaders agreed to try the idea. At first, some of the girls were upset with the new rule, but as the week progressed, the change became evident. An atmosphere of love and caring filled the camp that year. One ward covertly placed miniature candy bars on every bed in camp so no one would feel forgotten. The girls were so busy doing “positive pranks” that they forgot about the negative ones. At the end of the week, the leaders heard many girls say it was the best camp they had ever attended.

The first year was not perfect, but each year improved, says Sister Kingdon, who has since moved to Montana. Negative pranks vanished as the spirit of love and friendship increased, Sister Kingdon recalls. Older girls taught younger girls the “positive prank” tradition, demonstrating that love in action is what really makes camp fun.

[photo] Photo by Melanie Shumway