Le Thanh Ung, an 81-year-old veteran who lost both his hands during the American War in Vietnam, now spends his civilian life raising a family and running a small, but thriving sugarcane business in the country’s Mekong Delta.
He currently resides in Thanh Hoa II Commune, Tan Thanh Binh Ward, Mo Cay Bac District, Ben Tre Province.
Ung’s neighborhood sits on Cu Lao Minh – an island flanked by two small rivers and the East Vietnam Sea which suffered brutal enemy attacks during the war but has since been transformed into a bustling ecotourism destination.
But despite the area’s war-torn history, Ung sees its regrowth as an ode to the sacrifice he has made for his country and the hard work he has done to build a life for himself since the war.
War and love
Ung once appeared in an episode of ‘Journey to Southern Vietnam,’ a TV documentary series designed to promote the country’s socialist ideology.
In the episode, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City offers donations to financially struggling students.
As they pass his home, Ung hurriedly jots down his name, address, and phone number on a slip of paper to let the committee know he is willing to donate to their cause.
He then points to a printed quote hanging on his wall: “You will receive more when you give joy, so always think about how much happiness you can give away.”
While Ung’s philanthropic mentality in the episode was admirable, it is his way to thrive despite having lost both his hands during the war that is truly impressive.
For the next several minutes, viewers watch as Ung manages adeptly.
With a humorous manner, Ung shows the visitors how he manipulates the pen using both the mouth and wrists.
Years later, Ung still maintains his determined, cheerful, and philanthropic outlook as he shared his life story with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
“I joined the war in 1960. It was the height of the Dong Khoi Movement in southern Vietnam,” Ung said.
“I fought in several battles but was badly injured in 1966 and had to move back to the liberated zone.”
Ung’s injury was the result of a weapon malfunction.
While loading artillery to carry out an attack on a guerilla stronghold, the weapon malfunctioned and fired prematurely.
The result was the 24-year-old Ung losing most of each hand and nearly all of his fingers.
Ung’s superiors attempted to send him to Hanoi for treatment, but he refused to be sent so far from his family.
“I did not agree because my father was still alive. I would have rather died than leave for Hanoi,” Ung said.
“I didn’t want to part from my father and my beloved family.”
At the time, Ung was engaged to his then-fiancée. Within the next two years, despite his injury, the two had married and given birth.
|Despite his old age, Le Thanh Ung works hard to take care of his garden. Photo: Quoc Ngoc / Tuoi Tre|
“Less than two years after the incident, we had our first child,” Ung said.
“We had six children in total, each two years apart. I was afraid my wife would leave me after the explosion destroyed my hands, but she kept her promise.
“She was so tactful and understanding as we dealt with my injury. During meals, she would set up a mosquito net to protect me from insects while she sat next to me and fed me."
Ung’s wife passed away in 1992 due to health-related reasons.
After the war
A soldier at heart, Ung found it difficult to sit still as he recovered from his injuries.
To fill his days, he taught himself how to write using his mouth and began volunteering with a supply unit of the army in 1968.
Eventually, however, his unit sent him home due to his disability.
“I went back to my hometown to help with the revolutionary movement there. I also enrolled in grade 9,” Ung shared.
“My education level was actually quite high compared to my peers.”
“Once the country was reunified, I simply hoped that the national common cause would be met,” he continued, “but I was also depressed because my disability prevented me from dedicating myself to the national mission.”
But Ung refused to feel sorry for himself.
Refusing to let his injury hold him back from supporting himself and his family, he poured his efforts into building a new life.
He began growing sugarcane and secured buyers in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Transport was limited in those days, so I had to make several detours through Tay Ninh Province and along the Ba Beo Channel to get to the city,” he explained.
“The money I made from selling sugar in Ho Chi Minh City was enough to keep my family fed.”
Ung’s success in the sugarcane business is owed to his ingenuity.
“I’m an eager businessman,” he said.
“Normally it takes eight kilograms of sugarcane to produce a single one kilogram of sugar, but I can produce as much sugar with just six kilograms of sugarcane.”
Over the years, Ung’s business acumen has led to offers by business owners and real estate dealers to join their companies so that taxes would be waived.
While these deals would have been extremely lucrative for Ung, he turned each and every one down due to his strong morals.
Now, with his children grown and raising families of their own, Ung lives peacefully with his second wife. His days are spent caring for their coconut, pomelo, and longan trees.
He is also a member of a senior citizen club and a self-governing club in his neighborhood.
Occasionally, he is invited to share his story with foreign visitors.
"In wartime, everyone has to fulfill their national duty,” he tells them.
Ung believes that he has had a full life and he hopes that other veterans, like himself, will continue receiving support from the Party and state.
“That is already too good for me. There are other veterans in this commune too, but now there is only me,” he said.