Last updated on November 1st, 2018 at 09:17 am
What is your history? Where were you born, raised, schooled, family, occupation?
I was born and raised in the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan to Christian parents. My father worked in a bakery and later worked as a builder of homes. We were never very well off and for that reason I could not attend a Christian school. I graduated from public high school in 1963 with a D+ average. My first job was working as a janitor on a long-term treatment unit at Pine Rest Christian Psychiatric Hospital in Cutlerville, Michigan. I fell in love with psychology and after a few months enrolled in a psychiatric nursing course. I graduated a year later with a B+ average. The Vietnam War was beginning to make the headlines nearly every night and the draft had started. I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1966 with the intention of becoming a Marine Corp medic. Just after the Tet offensive of 1968, I exchanged orders with another Corpsman and headed out for Vietnam. I was wounded a few months later, and returned to the States where I spent two years at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, DC. I became involved in the anti-war movement and participated in the Washington Peace March. I was also a part of a small group of people who provided illegal street drugs to the doctors and nurses of Bethesda and because of this was court marshalled and given a dishonourable discharge. However, because of my perfect record and the fact that I was wounded they decided to give me an honourable discharge with benefits instead. I returned home but found I could no longer fit in. A car accident with one fatality was the deciding factor in my decision to leave home and search for meaning to life.
You moved to Cambodia. When and why Cambodia?
I worked for twelve years on the Navajo Indian reservation and then another twelve years in Honduras but always wanted to return to Asia. Vietnam was not accessible for many years after the war, however in 1996 I was able to return to Vietnam with the hopes I would be able to repay it for the evils I had been a part of during the war. I could not find any work however and in 1997 I decided to try Cambodia and fell in love with it from the moment my plane touched the ground.
Tell me about your work there. What do you do and why?
Presently I oversee the activities of Wat Opot Children’s Community in Bati, Takeo. I began by taking care of dying AIDS patients in 2001 and when the hospice closed in 2007 we had 50
who were left behind and needed education and a community to grow up in… and so I decided to stay on and create it.
What drives you to help others? How does it make you feel?
I have witnessed the worst of humankind and of myself and have seen the damage we can do when given power over others. I do not believe that all people are created equally, but I do believe all people deserve an equal chance at becoming the best that they can be. Success is hard to measure when working with the oppressed, but every once in a while it happens and when it does… it makes it all worthwhile.
What has been the worst experience you have had to date and what made it so?
At times we would pass those who had been injured by the bombings and they would plead with me to help them or their child but when I tried to, the Captain would order me to stay away from them. He told me there would be another team coming in after we left that would help them. I pointed to a child whose arm was dripping blood from the dirty cloth wrapped around the wound and asked “When will that be Sir? This child could die in the next hour if the bleeding isn’t stopped!” “Leave it alone Doc, it is not your job,” he replied, leaving no room for further discussion.
I saw the Staff Sergeant and walked over to him and asked, “Where are we, Sarge?”
He smiled and replied, “Vietnam. Why?”
“I know that, but the North or the South?”
“The South of course, we are a long ways from the North,” he answered.
”So why are we doing this? I thought we were supposed to be helping the South?”
“We are Doc, but these villages are suspected of helping hide soldiers during TET Offensive and this is payback time.”
A short time later we found a young boy hiding in a bomb shelter. He was wearing a military shirt, which he said he found on a dead soldier and took because he had no other clothes to wear. He was taken to the Captain who simply said, “We’re not taking prisoners Sergeant, you know what to do.”
The boy was dragged off behind some trees and when the men returned a short time later I didn’t even bother to ask what they did with him. It no longer seemed to matter, because as I stood there in the middle of that burned out village and heard the cries of the women and children, my conscience and soul were breaking apart inside of me.
As we were leaving the village, a women with a small child in her arms, stood defiantly on the dike in front of us. She was forced to one side to wait in the knee-deep water until we passed. As I came close to her I smiled compassionately and sensed that she understood that I was not the same as the others. She fixed her eyes directly on mine and than spat in my face. As I was wiping the spit and tears from my eyes I became nauseated, not because of what she had just done, but because I realized that I had gone over to the enemy, without even changing sides.
How did it affect you personally and how did you deal with it?
I did nothing to stop them from dragging the boy away and now I must see his horrified eyes pleading with me, day after day, to do something… but I can’t, and though I may help 10,000 others like him I have to admit that I let him die because I was afraid to say “STOP! You have no right to kill him.” I have spent the rest of my life trying to help the less fortunate, not out of guilt but because I now know it is the right thing to do.
You need money to do the work you do, yet people would rather donate to what they believe are the ‘trusted’ organizations—the so-called legitimate ones. However, in many cases only about four percent of the donation eventually gets to the people it was intended for, the rest is used for administration fees. What are your thoughts on this? Where do you get your funding, and is it adequate? How do you manage?
The waste and corruption in most NGOs is as you said, but I don’t even talk about it anymore because people think I am jealous. I would strongly recommend that if people want to give money to third world countries they should know who they are giving it to personally, or perhaps take advice from a friend who knows about the organization. There are few child sponsorships programs that do what they say and most children in the program have several sponsors. That is not to say that there are not good ones but chances are that a majority of your money is not reaching the child. Orphans and orphanages that look like they are doing well don’t get the money. People are suckers for the run down orphanage with dirty kids because they think their money will be put to better use, but chances are the director is stashing the money. Wat Opot is doing okay but we have lost money from potential donors because we look like we are doing well. Everything we have is paid for and so we cannot complain.
People are nervous about getting involved. There are many people who would love to volunteer, but these days there are many turnoffs. Organizations have taken control of volunteering and want copious resumes, police checks and money; there are companies advertising volunteer placement for a huge fee saying “a portion of this goes to the NGO;” there are NGOs that desperately want volunteers—for the money they often bring with them; and there are those NGOs that simply want all and any help they can get. What words do you have for all those who want to help, but either don’t know how or are wary of the volunteer industry?
There has been a real surge in volunteer programs and we have decided not to work with them anymore because we get only a fraction of what the volunteer must pay to get here. Wat Opot charges $100.00 per week for room and board. If you are paying more than that to an organization you need to know why. Most programs like ours have websites and ways of direct contact. I would advise people who want to volunteer to check out the websites and contact the organization directly to ask what you will be doing.
The life you lead can be physically, mentally and spiritually demoralizing. How do you keep yourself centred and focussed?
That is not easy… fortunately the volunteers we get provide stimulating conversation and relief in working with the children. We have time for meditation every day and that helps as well.
What do you do to relax—for yourself, personally?
I haven’t had a vacation since 1975 and I keep threatening to take a two-day break every month but I get bored in Phnom Penh and usually come back in one day. Writing is my escape, but I wouldn’t say it is relaxing.
Who has had the greatest influence on your life?
I no longer follow Christianity but still would have to say that Jesus has been my greatest influence in life, because in the stories told of him he stood up to the unjust practices of his day and paid the price of his life for doing so.
If there is anything you could change about yourself, what would that be?
I have grown fat in my old age and lack the energy I need to keep up with the children; would love to get back in shape.
Have you ever regretted some of the choices you’ve made? If yes, what where they and why? If no, why not?
I have made many, what appeared at the time to be wrong choices; but looking back, the lessons learned are what made me who I am today.
In helping others, personal lives often have to take a back seat for a long time, if not forever, and it is difficult to form any kind of relationship when your work constantly involves others. What are your thoughts on this, do you ever become lonely?
I am fortunate to have friends who have lived similarly to the path I have taken, and although we seldom have time to actually get together we know where to find each other should it be necessary for counsel… or a cold beer.
What would you like to see on Earth—and don’t say “world peace,” we all want world peace—well except for the Warlords?
I doubt that this world will ever know true peace… for the forces of ignorance are far too great, and even if we were able to bring enlightenment to all of humankind, the destruction our greed has caused to our planet and atmosphere is far too severe and it could very well be, that it is too late to redeem it. We will in all probability remain at war with each other until the last of our kind is standing and then, and only then, will the reality of our foolishness be fully understood. The best I can hope for in this life is to find Peace within myself, so that I can become a light for others to see.
If I told you I had enough money to give you anything you want in the world—but you can have only one thing—what would that be and why?
There is nothing money could buy that could make my life better and in fact it would very likely upset the balance I now have.
What is the one thing about you without which you wouldn’t be who you are, in essence what is your own core value?
I took vows of celibacy at the age of 12 and have never broken them. That does not mean I haven’t thought about it and even felt at times the vows were stupid; but each time I got close to someone something would happen and I didn’t go through with it. Perhaps I am just the world’s most unlucky lover.
Imagine that you woke up five years from now and your life was working as perfectly as it could and yet practically, what would that look like?
It would look as it does today, I would be here at Wat Opot only instead of caring for, I would most likely be cared for, by the children.
Complete this thought for me: If I could live this lifetime over again,
I wouldn’t change a thing.
I have filled a stadium with all 7 billion people in the world; they are all there and quiet, the acoustics are excellent, there is no language barrier—they all, even the youngest will understand what you have to say and will follow your instructions to the letter; what do you have to say to them?
When the applause has died and the stadium has once again grown silent… I would ask them all to be seated on the ground, to take a deep breath, to close their eyes, and while exhaling, to relax their bodies. Then I would join them for ten minutes of Silent Meditation, for the words of no man can compete with the message that Silent Meditation delivers… a message of Equality, of Unity, of Harmony, and of Peace.
photography by Anthony Wallace