In October 2013, my daughter, Kyleigh joined me on a special Roots of Peace ‘Mines to Vines’ journey to Rome, at the invitation of Cardinal Peter Turkson, President, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.  Together, we had the honor of meeting His Holiness Pope Francis, who ‘blessed’ our work to eradicate landmines worldwide. Following the meeting, we were introduced to a Vatican priest named Monsignor Paul Phan, and spoke of the importance of eradicating landmines in Vietnam.  As he listened to our mission to replace minefields with bountiful pepper vines in Quang Tri, his eyes cast down as he quietly whispered that he grew up as a young boy during the Vietnam War on these same battlefields.  Monsignor Phan knew of landmines first-hand, as his local priest in Dong Ha blew up stepping on a landmine, along with two young alter boys.

All roads lead to Rome, and it was fitting that we began a lifelong friendship with Monsignor Phan.  The following year, we invited him to join us in Vietnam, where he saw first-hand the work of Roots of Peace healing the wounds of war.  Over 3000 farmers have been trained by Roots of Peace to grow high-value pepper vines on former war-torn lands, and export markets are provided to sell the pepper to major distributors such as Morton & Bassett Spice Company in California.  Containers of black pepper have been shipped across the Pacific Ocean, and the sale benefits farmers in the fields of his homeland, Quang Tri, Vietnam.

In May 2017, I returned to Rome and had the honor of another ‘blessing’ of our work by Pope Francis.

Once again, we invited Monsignor Phan to join us on a delegation to Vietnam to see the progress made by farmers, and we were fortunate that Cardinal Peter Turkson approved of his presence on our delegation.

Our journey began with a Sunday Mass in Ho Chi Minh City, seeking interfaith blessings for our footsteps for peace.  As we flew to Hue, Monsignor Phan reflected on his journey from Quang Tri to The Vatican.

Monsignor Paul Phan was born on July 15, 1953 in Hue, Vietnam.  He is the oldest of nine children.

His father, Nhon Phan, was a police officer who specialized detonating bombs, and was thus assigned to Quang Tri province during the war.  Paul was only 11 years old, and entered the Seminary in Hue to play soccer.

During the Summer and Tet Holiday, he would return home to his family in Quang Tri during height of the Vietnam War.  The road linking Hue to Quang Tri was riddled with landmines, UXO and cluster munition, and he feared for his life each time he drove home.  One day, he was attending Mass in Dong Ha, and a canon ball was fired into the gates  of the garden and hit a tree.  Shrapnel flew everywhere, and severed the legs of many teenagers.

Paul had heard the cry of a young boy, and at the age of 15, he carried him on his back for a long distance as his red blood seeped into his black jacket.  As he arrived at his home, he laid the boy on his bed–only to see severe wounds to his stomach, as the stench of blood seeped down his shoulders.  The boy was only a few pounds less than him, but he had the courage to run through minefields to get another young boy to the safety of his family.

A few years later, Paul’s mother died at childbirth on April 29, 1971–leaving behind eight children for him to raise, while his father earned a living as a police officer during the height of the Vietnam War.  Paul was only 18 years old, and his promising career as a soccer player and academic abruptly ended.  He was raised on the frontline of the war, and his faith to walk the minefields ultimately led to the priesthood–where we met in Rome years later.

Paul shared his stark memories of his neighbors who often ‘died twice’ during the Vietnam War.  He quietly whispered, “First, they died from the bullets of war. Then, as their coffin rode into the burial ground, only to drive over a landmine.”  There is no rest when landmines remain buried in the ground, long after the guns have silenced.

Now, as we return to Quang Tri in November 2017 on a Roots of Peace delegation, Paul shares his strong memories of the Vietnam War–and his passion to eradicate all landmines/UXO/cluster munition by Earth Day 2020.  Enough children have died due to these deadly explosive remnants of war, and it is now time to plant the Roots of Peace in his beloved homeland of Vietnam.

As my Grandmother McNear wisely told me, “Coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.”  It is no accident that we met Monsignor Paul Phan.