KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President Obama is in Vietnam, and relations between the two countries are probably the closest they've ever been. Most Vietnamese people were born after the Vietnam War ended, but every day, people come across the war's leftovers. Michael Sullivan reports from central Vietnam.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In central Vietnam's Quang Tri province, grade-schoolers learn their three R's, reading, writing and arithmetic. But they also have to learn a fourth, rockets, and about cluster munitions, which they call bombis.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Bombis.
SULLIVAN: And mines and grenades and other ordnance left over from the war. Their teacher today at the Mine Action Visitor Center makes a game out of identifying various munitions. Quang Tri was the most heavily bombed province of the war. And as much as 10 percent of those munitions, the U.S. Defense Department says, didn't detonate.
CHUCK SEARCY: Forty years later, the ordnance is still active. It's still lethal. It will still blow your arm or your leg off or kill you. And these kids are especially vulnerable.
SULLIVAN: Chuck Searcy is with Project Renew, which runs this center and a whole bunch of ordnance disposal teams in Quang Tri. These kids are brought from schools all over the province, and they're quick studies.
HUY NGUYEN: Hello, my name is Huy. I'm in grade four. I learn at (speaking Vietnamese) primary school.
SULLIVAN: And your English is very good.
HUY: Thank you.
SULLIVAN: Huy says if he sees unexploded ordnance in a ditch or on the playground, he knows exactly what to do.
HUY: Yeah, I'll run.
SULLIVAN: Fair enough. You're a smart young man.
HUY: But first, I'll calm down. Then I'll run. And then I'll call my dad.
SULLIVAN: Who will call the disposal team to come and get it. Chuck Searcy smiles as he listens to the boy. Education's a huge part of the effort to make the province and the country safe from unexploded ordnance, which has been Searcy's mission here for pretty much the past 20 years. But his first trip to Vietnam, that was almost 50 years ago as a reluctant draftee.
SEARCY: I really had no idea where Vietnam was - couldn't find it on a map or a globe. And I didn't have any particular interest in Vietnam except that, like a lot of young men at the time, I wanted to avoid serving in Vietnam.
SULLIVAN: Now, though, Searcy is Mr. Vietnam. Congressional delegations, tour groups, business men - everyone comes to see Chuck, a lanky cross between Jimmy Carter and Gary Cooper, whose pleas for aid early on were often ignored, the war still too fresh in many minds back home and here.
SEARCY: I've been here a long time. And it's been a frustrating process at times and sometimes not very hopeful.
SULLIVAN: Not anymore - the State Department recently ponied up nearly $8 million for Project Renew's Norwegian partner and more for several other demining groups, which also work in Quang Tri.
SEARCY: It's been a long time coming, but the U.S. government now is fully engaged in dealing with these efforts. And, in fact, now the U.S. government is the largest donor.
SULLIVAN: And now Searcy sees a light at the end of the tunnel. A time, he says, within a decade or less, when Vietnam will be able to manage its unexploded ordnance problem and keep its people safe even in Quang Tri. He's also encouraged the U.S. is now doing more to help deal with the lingering effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange after denying any responsibility for so long.
He still wants to see more attention paid to the families of those suffering health consequences. But all in all, he says, it's progress.
SEARCY: It's amazing progress, actually, when you think about it, given the fact that 20 years ago, there was hardly any conversation, much less any contact, much less any cooperation involving these terrible issues.
SULLIVAN: But the work is far from over and the danger from unexploded ordnance still real. The day we spoke, while we were talking, one of Searcy's colleagues was killed while trying to dispose of a cluster bomb just a few villages away. Ngo Thien Khiet was a 45-year-old father of two. He joins the list of more than 100,000 people killed or injured by leftover munitions since the war ended.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Quang Tri province, Vietnam.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.