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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
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
"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
World Center, corner of Olden Street and Prospect Avenue, 609-497-3998.
Free. Sunday, November 14, 4 p.m.
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