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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 10, 1999. All rights reserved.

For a Father-Son Team, a Vietnam Challenge

Most wars are not between peoples, they are between

governments," observes decorated Vietnam War veteran Ed Weihenmayer.

A member of Princeton’s Class of 1962 and former captain of the football

team, Weihenmayer returns to Princeton from his home in Florida to

introduce a screening and discussion of "Vietnam Long Time Coming"

at the Global Cinema Cafe. The Emmy Award-winning documentary chronicles

a cycling journey — made by a united team of American and Vietnamese

athletes, with and without disabilities — that aimed to provide

a step toward healing and reconciliation. The screening takes place

at Princeton’s Third World Center, on Sunday, November 14, at 4 p.m.

The Vietnam Challenge was a 16-day, 1,200-mile ride from Hanoi to

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in January, 1998. Sponsored by

World T.E.A.M. Sports (the acronym stands for "The Exceptional

Athlete Matters"), the purpose was to demonstrate the healing

power of sports across cultural and political borders.

Weihenmayer and his son Erik, a blind athlete celebrated for his mountain

climbing accomplishments, participated in the ride together on a tandem

bicycle, and are featured in the documentary. Ed served as the pilot

(the rider in front) and Erik served as the stoker (the cyclist who

propels the second seat of the tandem).

Weihenmayer, now 59, joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduation

in 1962, and flew the Marine attack plane A4 Skyhawk in Vietnam

in 1965 and 1966; he flew 108 missions and earned five medals for

his Vietnam service. When he returned from Vietnam, he trained

other pilots in flying the A4 at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina

until his discharge in 1967.

After the Marine Corps, Weihenmayer went to work for Pfizer in the

area of human resources, and because he had international assignments,

the family lived in Hong Kong and Latin America. He took his Pfizer

training to Wall Street, where he spent the last 15 years as head

of human resources in investment banking, most recently for Solomon

Brothers.

He says his youngest son Erik, born in 1968, knew his father as a

proud Vietnam veteran. However, at school he was taught that there

was little that was positive about America’s participation in the

Vietnam War. Participation in the Vietnam Challenge helped both father

and son come to terms with the reality of the Vietnam war.

"Erik is probably the best-known and most versatile blind athlete

in the world right now," says Weihenmayer. Born with a degenerative

eye disease, "Erik had workable sight — he could see, but

not read — until the age of 8 or 10, but he is now completely

blind," explains Weihenmayer, whose other sons are Mark, 40, and

Eddie, 34 (his wife was killed in an auto accident in 1985).

Introduced to relatively safe and simple hiking by his father, Erik

transformed himself into a world-class mountaineer. He has climbed

three of the Continental summits, has a major climb in the Himalayas

set for April, and plans to scale Mount Everest in 2001. A Boston

College graduate, Erik was a middle school teacher in Phoenix until

several years ago, when he decided to concentrate on this athletic

exploits. He supports himself now by giving lectures. As the October

31 issue of the mega-circulation Parade Magazine pointed out in a

cover story on Erik, his mountain climbing passion intersects with

other loves: In 1997 he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to get married at

13,000 feet to his schoolteacher-sweetheart, Ellen Reeve.

The Weihenmayers got involved with the Vietnam Challenge through Erik’s

work with Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former POW and co-chair

of the Vietnam Challenge.

When McCain told Erik about the event, he told the senator, "I

know my dad has always wanted to go to Vietnam and bike. And my dad’s

a veteran, and I’m disabled, so on a tandem bike we’ll be the equivalent

of a disabled veteran."

"It’s true that this was on my list of 25 things I wanted to do,"

says Weihenmayer, noting that a journey down the Amazon is still on

that list. "I wanted to see how Vietnam had been affected by the

war, and how it was developing as a country. My three sons and I had

done this sort of thing before, had trekked in several undeveloped

countries. The idea was to see a culture that was vastly different

from our own."

Over the course of the trip, father and son decided

that the term "differently abled" was more appropriate than

"disabled" to describe the team members. "These were all

accomplished athletes, including an international bike racer who had

lost both his legs."

"It clearly was an adventure and an endurance test for the participants,

but it was also a wonderful experience for us on the lines of peace

and reconciliation," says Weihenmayer. "There can be no argument

with the fact that the Vietnamese greeted us with open arms. The people

welcomed us, they were friendly, we saw almost no signs of hostility."

"Having been part of the forces that destroyed, we were welcomed

back in Vietnam. Many of those same soldiers never felt they were

welcomed back at home in the United States as warmly as we were there."

"One of our fellow riders, Pham Ngoc Son, had lost a leg as a

member of the Vietcong. He befriended my son and the two bonded from

the first day. At our first meal together as a team, he grabbed Erik’s

hand and put it on his own wooden leg. They wound up in a raised handshake

with Erik saying, `My eyes, your leg.’"

"Son had lost his mother and seven siblings to the bombing, yet

here was someone who had put this behind him. You know, in Buddhist

culture, everything has a meaning, every event has a purpose. I don’t

know what exactly moved Son in that direction, but he exemplified

that attitude of acceptance." After the trip, the organization

found a way to bring Son to the United States and equip him with a

new, high-tech artificial leg.

"Vietnam Long Time Coming" was produced and filmed by Kartemquin

and Longshot Films, Chicago, the same team that made the acclaimed

feature film, "Hoop Dreams." It has been described as a powerful

film that examines lasting effects of war through a unique perspective.

"The film team rode with us for the entire 16 days. They were

terrific people, and they took so much footage all the time, that

I came to ignore them," says Weihenmayer. "The Vietnamese

people are very energetic and, particularly in the south, they are

very entrepreneurial — they work hard and they drive their motorbikes

fast. I know they are going to do fine and compete globally."

"We wound up at a monument to commemorate the massacre that took

place at My Lai by American forces led by Lt. Calley — the massacre

of 500 older civilians. Many veterans on the trip did not choose to

participate at My Lai and it was one of the more emotional times of

the trip. This is one place where Erik and I have a dialogue that

was captured by the film producers."

The Vietnam Challenge was conceived and executed by

World T.E.A.M. Sports, a seven-year-old, non-profit organization.

Its founder and co-chair is James Benson, chairman, president, and

CEO of New England Financial. The organization launches a Global Challenge

event every two years, organizing and assembling teams for smaller,

out of the ordinary events, always with a special focus on those with

disabilities. World TEAM Sport’s first event was a Mount Kilimanjaro

climb by a team of mentally disabled individuals. Each Global Challenge

event includes a documentary film crew, "a powerful way for people

to learn about what we do," says Mike Savicki, associate director

of World TEAM Sports.

The Vietnam Challenge was the first sporting event officially sanctioned

by the governments of both the United States and Vietnam in over 30

years, says Savicki. Two years in the planning, the route was set,

day by day, and hosts from Vietnamese government traveled with the

team.

"Vietnam Long Time Coming" was first broadcast on NBC television

in December, 1998, and again in April, 1999. It opened in theaters

in many U.S. cities and was well received at seven film festivals.

Earlier this year, the film was broadcast on Vietnam’s national television

for an estimated 30 million viewers.

World TEAM’s next event, planned for next May, will be called "The

Face of America," a 22-day, cross-country relay, conceived to

bring together people of different cultures, ethnicities, and athletic

interests and to showcase what the U.S. looks like in the new millennium.

The ride will be comprised of two teams, one leaving from the East

Coast, the other from the West Coast; they will meet under the arch

in St. Louis.

"The events we organize are meant to build communities. The Vietnam

Challenge was about peace and reconciliation, but also about building

a new relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam," says Savicki.

"The power of this event was that it focused on Vietnam as a country,

not as `a war.’ It focused on the people and the optimism that exists

in the country today."

— Nicole Plett

Vietnam Long Time Coming, Global Cinema Cafe, Third

World Center, corner of Olden Street and Prospect Avenue, 609-497-3998.

Free. Sunday, November 14, 4 p.m.


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