For all of us here, the Vietnam War ended about 40 years ago, Tommee Sherwood says. Those who are still affected have been forgotten.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years in Laos, totaling 2 million tons of ordnance, according to Legacies of War. This organization is dedicated to raising awareness of the war’s impact on the southeast asian country and mobilizing advocacy for U.S. funding of bomb clearance.
About one-third of the bombs never exploded, LOW states, leaving at least one-third of the land across all 17 provinces in the country contaminated, still maiming or killing people today.
Laos, while officially a neutral country in the Vietnam War era, became the most bombed nation on earth.
Lawrence resident Tommee Sherwood traveled to Laos with his wife, Patty Martella, in 2007 in sheer curiosity of the small country. Not realizing he was curating an exhibit at the time, he continued to collect images, taken by him and Martella, and materials that represented such beautiful, yet devastating terrain.
“Whenever I tried to talk to anyone about this issue, I’d just get blank stares, so I decided to make an attempt to illustrate what I was talking about,” Sherwood says. “If you travel there at all, you become aware real fast that there’s bombs all over the place.”
He reached out to Legacies of War, and they sent a box of textiles, silk prints, old photographs and reproductions of artwork done in the '70s by refugees whose villages had been bombed. A friend Sherwood had met in Laos had gone on a kayak trip down a river, and he took photos of his fiberglass-constructed kayak next to a couple of canoes that were made from bomb cases.
“It’s kind of startling,” Sherwood says. “He went into a village and they had a whole bunch of these lined up on a fence and they were getting ready to make some more.”
The first-ever “Hard Rain-Living with Bombs in Laos" exhibit at the Percolator started to come together as he became more aware of other connections and available materials.
An embroidered story cloth, made by Hmong refugees in the Kansas City area, will also be featured, showing the bombing of a Hmong village, ground attack by communist forces, and flight across the Mekong river to a refugee camp in Thailand.
Sherwood’s contribution of photos shows two sides of a story. He documented just how widespread and mainstream the use of bomb casings has become. Planters, fence material and fence posts have all been made with this excess resource which, Sherwood adds, isn’t in any way safe.
But he also captured the beauty of the land.
“It wouldn’t be fair for someone to come to this exhibit and think this country was only a devastated wasteland,” he says. “We’ve got some sad and disturbing images, but we’ve also got images of beauty and hope.”
On eBay, Sherwood found a hand-carved, briefcase-sized teak box with a carved skull and crossbones on the outside, and it was full of carved replicas of lethal explosives commissioned in Laos 40 years ago. These hand-carved and painted objects were used to educate villagers about the dangerous objects scattered in the jungle as part of a safety program.
The exhibit opens at the Percolator Gallery, 913 Rhode Island St., 6 p.m. Friday, with a blessing and prayer for peace by the monks of the Lao Buddhist Association of Olathe.
People are still getting hurt, he continues. It’s important to bring awareness to communities all over the country, including Lawrence, he says, to educate people and let them know that they can help do something.
This year the U.S. government committed $12 million dollars to cleaning up the unexploded ordnance in Laos, more than in the past, but just a small contribution in comparison to how much was spent destroying the country in the secret war, Sherwood says.
“We spent $2 million a day to bomb Laos,” he says. “$12 million is just a drop in the bucket, but a step in the right direction.”