When Fletcher Hinds came home after his tour as a soldier in Vietnam, all he wanted to do was put the war out of his mind.
But in the five decades that followed, he’s learned to find peace by going back to the very places that once gave him nightmares.
“In combat, you do everything you’re taught not to do in Sunday school and then you’re expected to come back and forget it,” Hinds said. “I needed to come to terms with what I saw and what I did.”
That’s why Hinds, a retired 69-year-old social worker from Duluth, co-founded Minnesota Veterans for Progress about a dozen years ago. The organization finds and funds humanitarian projects in Vietnam and Cambodia.
“We cared enough about these people to go to war to try and help them, and I still want to,” he said. “For me, it’s not political, it’s personal. It’s a moral accounting, a way to accept the tragedy of the war and be willing to acknowledge my responsibility.”
Since 2004, Hinds has made five trips to Vietnam, often accompanied by other Minnesota veterans who fought there. In his first visit, Hinds and another veteran distributed wheelchairs to Vietnamese people who had been maimed by war-era land mines or were born with birth defects blamed on Agent Orange.
“It was a moving experience, and we saw the continued suffering and damage caused by war,” he said. “That motivated us.”
Volunteers with Minnesota Veterans for Progress went on to install wells to provide clean water in remote villages. In the following years, 40 veterans joined the effort to fund a school and have continued to support two orphanages. Most recently, the nonprofit endowed a sewing center to provide work and a trade to young rural women at risk of being trafficked.
“We recognize that it’s true that in all wars, it’s the women and children who are the real victims,” Hinds said. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a big difference there.”
So far, Minnesota Veterans for Progress has raised and distributed $30,000, collecting donations from Minnesota veterans groups, civic organizations, churches and through its website, mnvetsforprogress.com. It’s also gotten bequests from two fellow veterans who died and earmarked money in their estates.
‘New memories to replace the horrible ones’’
Raised in Rochester, Hinds enlisted in the Marines at age 19, motivated in part by a desire to see the world. He spent most of his 13 months in Vietnam as a “ground-pounder,” traveling through the jungle pursuing the enemy, and was wounded by a grenade in an ambush.
Hinds now recognizes that after he was discharged and back in college in Minnesota, he struggled with classic post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms — nightmares, hyper-vigilance, difficulty with relationships. But this was in the era before the disorder was widely recognized.
“When I came home, I sucked it up and tried to move on,” he said. “I think that’s why I still needed to do something to pull the loose ends together and get some closure.”
Long active in advocating for veterans, Hinds was a founding member of the Northland Vietnam Veterans Association in the 1980s. Now, he’s helping the effort to establish veterans courts and widen educational options for returning servicemen and servicewomen.
But nothing has meant more to him than returning to Southeast Asia and being of service to the people there.
“It’s helped me move on and heal that moral injury,” Hinds said. “I have new memories to replace the horrible ones. Now when I think of Vietnam, I think of the kids I met there, the people who were happy to see me.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based broadcaster and freelance writer.