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50 Years Malteser in Vietnam: Politics stays at the door

“Whenever I hear a helicopter I think about Vietnam – even today. That has never left me,” said Thomas Reuther. Now 71, he was a 26 year-old public administration graduate in 1971, when he applied to work for the Foreign Aid Service of the German Malteser Hilfsdienst in Vietnam. He was one of the 303 Malteser doctors, nurses, medical staff, trainers, and administrators who worked to help civilians between September 1966 and March 1975 during the war between the Communist North and American-supported South in what was then the Maltesers’ largest overseas deployment to date.

The German government asked the Maltesers to take part in the country’s large-scale humanitarian mission to Vietnam in January 1966. In order to provide legal security for the deployment, the Maltesers founded the Malteser Foreign Aid Service as a registered voluntary association – beginning a tradition of overseas aid missions that would culminate in the establishment of Malteser International as the Order of Malta’s worldwide humanitarian aid organization.

Unbelievable moral responsibility

Thomas Reuther was in Vietnam between 1971 and 1973, working as team leader in Da Nang – a port city that now lies in the center of the country, but which then lay on the frontline between North and South Vietnam. “They used to bring patients to our hospitals in helicopters. That’s why the sound is inseparable with Vietnam in my mind. They brought people with all kinds of wounds and injuries. The doctors had to decide instantly what kind of chances they had – who should be the first to get help, and who was already beyond helping. They had an unbelievable moral responsibility, and to this day I have nothing but respect for them,” said Reuther.             

The Maltesers operated three hospitals in Vietnam, and as Team Leader, Thomas Reuther was responsible for making sure that the medical staff had the time and resources at hand to do their jobs. “Everything organizational was my responsibility. At one point when the doctors had no blood reserves, for example, I was responsible for making sure that more was available. I drove to the American camp there and then, and told them the situation. Straight away, twenty American soldiers came to the hospital and donated blood for our patients – that is, for the people that they might have wounded that very morning. That’s the absurdity of war,” said Reuther. “All of the hospital’s patients received equal treatment – whatever their background or politics. The unshakeable rule was that uniforms were to be left outside. Hospital staff were required to observe absolute neutrality towards both of the conflict parties.” To this day, the principle of neutrality remains deeply embedded in Malteser International’s approach to providing aid in conflict zones around the world.

A talent for organization

During the nine years of the Malteser deployment to Vietnam, they also established a variety of teaching workshops for metalworkers, carpenters, and car mechanics in the Province of Quang Nam. Allowing the Vietnamese themselves to take over the task of providing medical care in the long term was planned from the beginning on, and Malteser personnel were also responsible for training hospital staff. Over the years, the Maltesers responsibilities in Vietnam grew to include a school, a school for the blind, refugee camps, mobile ambulance stations, a leprosy clinic, an old people’s home, and an orphanage. “My job was so varied. I didn’t have ‘aid worker syndrome’, I wanted to organized things all the time – I had something more like ‘organizer syndrome’, which I could live out at the time. At the time there was no training, no education available for the work that I was doing. I simply had to react,” said Reuther.

In 1973, Reuther returned to Germany. He flew back to Vietnam for the Maltesers twice more, but by 1975, the security situation had deteriorated so severely that the then-Secretary General Georg von Truszczynski ordered staff to evacuate in March. It was 1989 before the Malteser aid workers were able to return to Vietnam, today, Malteser International remains active in the country, primarily in the field of disaster risk reduction, and in promoting inclusion for disabled people.

Thomas Reuther continues to travel regularly to Vietnam – visiting the orphanage in Da Nang. To this day, he is an active volunteer in the Malteser Hilfsdienst.

Read more about our projects in Vietnam.

(Katharina Kiecol / Conor Heathcote, September 2016)

Vietnam: Malteser's first overseas aid mission

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