DAVID MCKAY WILSON 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Forty years ago, when Bobby Daniels guarded a mountaintop in Vietnam called LZ Russell, a deadly firefight broke out. Daniels was seriously injured after he was shot in the knee and shrapnel ripped into his hips from a hand-grenade. Daniels returned to Vietnam this spring to mark the anniversary of his service atop Landing Zone Russell. He traveled with a group of veterans intent on connecting with that forlorn piece of land in Southeast Asia. Daniels’ journey, however, extended beyond his desire to return to the place near the Demilitarized Zone where he came of age during wartime. He traveled to Vietnam with his stillsharp memories and three duffel bags brimming with 2,400 pairs of eyeglasses from the Georgia Lions Lighthouse in Decatur. He was returning to a village near the mountaintop, called Landing Zone Russell, or LZ Russell, where the Marine Corps’s 105th Hollister Unit was stationed to serve as the staging ground for assaults into the jungle as well as a place where the artillery unit fired ordnance up to 6.5 miles into North Vietnam. A member of the Jones County Lions Club, Daniels decided to bring the glasses as a goodwill gesture for a country, like many in the developing world, which lacks glasses for tens of thousands of citizens who suffer from near-sightedness, far-sightedness or astigmatism. “Once we decided to go, I said, ‘Let me take some glasses,’” recalls Daniels, 59, now retired, who worked as an inspector for 36 years at Robins Air Force Base in Robins. “The question then became: how many could I get in three duffels?” He ended up with 2,400 pairs, and the Jones County Lions Club paid the $50 charge per duffel to take them on the plane. Once in Vietnam, Daniels with swarmed with Vietnamese who wanted a pair. He even gave a handful to a government agent who detained him for two hours as he patiently waited to make it through customs. In fact, at their hotel in Ho Chi Minh City—formerly Saigon—the demand was so great that he set up shop in the lobby to dispense 1,000 pair there before setting off for the village near LZ Russell where the LZ Russell veterans have raised money to build a kindergarten. “The people hugged my neck, shook my hand, and bowed to me,” says Daniels, a former president of the Jones County Lions Club. “Pretty soon, there was a line going out the hotel door.” Daniels’ decision to take the glasses to Vietnam was just one of thousands of such forays each year in the Lions’ efforts to improve vision care around the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 153 million people have uncorrected vision problems that can be addressed with glasses. The Lions Club, which began collecting eyeglasses more than 80 years ago, has 17 eyeglass recycling centers around the world, including 9 in the United States, which has collected more than 6 million pairs of used eyeglasses in the past year, says Marilee Kadar, department manager of health and children’s services at Lions Clubs International. An estimated 2.5 million were distributed to mission teams and sent to permanent clinics in the developing world. In addition, local clubs have their own used eyeglass collection efforts, with an estimated 20 million pairs recycled annually. The eyeglasses that Daniels brought to Vietnam came from the Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation, which was founded 60 years ago by Atlanta Lion George Bingham, a blind man intent on sharing the gift of vision that he would never experience. “We prepared the glasses, and washed them,” says Lighthouse Associate Director Victoria Jordan. “Like I tell every volunteer, that one pair of glasses that they wash is going to help one person somewhere in the world who really needs them.” Daniels and the Jones County Lions have helped support the Georgia Lighthouse for many years, with part of the proceeds from the annual Jones County Fair. The fair, which raises about $25,000 each year, also supports the local Lions program that provides free glasses and eye exams to residents who can’t afford them. Daniels says he’ll never forget the expression on the faces of the Vietnamese children whose world became clear when they first looked through corrective lenses. “Before, they’d look out at a tree and it would be a blob of green,” says Daniels. “Then they put on the glasses, their face and mouth and eyes all lit up. It was unreal. It’s an experience everybody ought to see.” Many of the glasses for children were given out at a kindergarten in the village of Dongha that was built with contributions from the LZ Russell veterans group. They had arranged for an optometrist to be on hand when they arrived in the village, which was at the base of the mountain. During the war, Daniels stayed atop the mountain and never ventured down into the village. By the time Daniels and his party arrived, they still had 1,400 pair of eyeglasses. The party was well received – both for the glasses they brought and for their service in the country four decades earlier. “Those kids were happy to see the glasses,” he said. “I had several older men thank me for trying to help them. The people in Viet Nam couldn’t have been nicer to us.” After dispensing the glasses, Daniels had one more mission to accomplish—to make it back up to LZ Russell and revisit the mountaintop battleground that had been ringed with concertina wire to keep the North Vietnamese at bay. They’d worked with the government to have guides take the three American veterans to the top of the mountain, where they planned to spend the night. It was an arduous climb, taking the group four hours to ascend 1,200 feet. Daniels would walk 10 or 15 feet, gasp for air, rest, and do it again. At one point, the trail got so steep that one guide was in front of Daniels, pulling him up, while another was behind him, pushing to get him up the incline. After making it to the summit, Daniels found the parapet where he was standing when the grenade exploded. They took pictures, and laid out a tarp down by the spot where they’d slept so many months in their hootches – make-shift lean-tos made from ammunition boxes and sandbags. Then the guides broke out a bottle of rice wine. They passed drinks around, with the Americans and Vietnamese communicating as best they could. “They spoke in broken English and hand motions and asked us lots of questions,” says Daniels. “The three of us talked about the good times we had up there. We didn’t focus on the bad times. There were too many of them.” Then Daniels took out his cell phone to call his wife of 30 years, half a world away in Georgia. The reception was clear—unlike the garbled voices he recalled hearing on the ham radio sets 40 years ago. “I intend going back, and next time my wife is coming,” says Daniels. “If I can get them, I’ll be bringing glasses again too.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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