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Wineka column: Local men make fact-finding trip to Montagnard people in Vietnam

SALISBURY — Jeff Motes seldom hesitates to volunteer for a new adventure.
“I’m very fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants,” Motes explains.
So when Dr. Matt Harrison promised a trip to a contentious Communist country, a chance to ride scooters and the opportunity to visit lepers in the mountains, Motes said count him in.
“Stuff just pops up to me, and I say, ‘I should do that,’ ” says Motes, 32. “It’s a very backward way of running your life, but it makes great stories.”
Motes and Harrison returned earlier this month from a two-week trip to Vietnam with Father Vang Cong Tran, founder and president of the Viet Toc Foundation.
Harrison calls Father Vang “a walking saint” and Motes a problem-solver who’s good on the fly.
Vang, Redemptorist priest at St. James the Greater Catholic Church in Concord, evacuated from his South Vietnamese homeland in 1975 with the fall of Saigon.
Twice a year, he returns to Vietnam as part of the foundation’s efforts to provide educational opportunities, some medical care and clean water to the Montagnard communities in the central highlands.
It can be an uncomfortable undertaking. The Montagnards are a persecuted minority in the Communist-controlled country because of their faith, impoverished living conditions and historical support for the United States during the Vietnam War.
So when Americans make visits to Montagnard villages and offer their assistance, it is not looked on fondly by Vietnamese authorities.
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As always, Vang and his volunteer recruits — this time, Harrison and Motes — took calculated measures to fly under the radar while in Vietnam.
Entering as tourists, the men wrapped supplies they were bringing into the country as Christmas gifts. Especially in the bigger cities and as they passed through towns with a police presence, they also wore masks (as many natives do, to fight the smog) and clothing to hide the fact they were foreigners.
While in the central highlands, not far from Pleiku, the men based themselves at a convent, which was fenced in and offered protection at night.
By day, they usually traveled by van to different villages, at times coming within a half-mile of the Cambodian border. The roads were primitive at best, and drivers there make navigation a constant game of chicken, Motes says.
“It was nerve-wracking,” he adds.
Toward the end of the men’s 12-hour ride out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) into the mountains, Motes was jolted awake by a crash involving the vehicle they were traveling in.
They left the car, rather than risk being questioned by authorities, and a friend of Father Vang’s transported them the rest of the way to the convent.
“It’s a whole different world,” Motes says, recalling how they abruptly left villages twice when they were told police were on their way.
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Motes says the language was a significant barrier for him, but he could sense the nervousness in people’s voices. A couple of times he told Harrison, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m pretty sure it’s bad.”
Much of the men’s mission from Dec. 29 to Jan. 11 was observing and gathering information to bring back home to share with potential contributors to the foundation.
They introduced some water filters in the smaller communities, and Harrison, who lives in Mount Pleasant and is a full-time in-patient physician at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, provided some basic medical treatment.
Harrison said he saw cases of leprosy partially treated, while others were full blown. Living in squalor, lepers often are segregated. When untreated, the contagious, circulatory disease leads to the loss of fingers, toes, arms and legs.
In some cases, parents have given the disease to their children, Motes says.
Leprosy can be cured, with about a year’s worth of treatment and medications, but Motes says those with the disease often give away their medicine or stop when they don’t see immediate results. They also won’t leave their families to seek treatment in bigger cities.
Harrison says he saw lots of orthopedic problems. People who suffer injuries in the fields or on their scooters seldom receive treatment.
Harrison also noticed thyroid problems and many instances of malnutrition.
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As a people, the Montagnards are always moving and working, demonstrating “an incredible work ethic,” Harrison says.
“Even though they are poor, they are absolutely not lazy,” he adds. If they weren’t working fields, they were spreading out coffee or peppercorn to dry, sweeping and cleaning.
“They’ve kind of gotten pushed back farther and farther in the mountains,” Harrison says.
Their land was passed down from generation to generation, but over time outsiders have just moved in and claimed it, especially in areas with good, clean water.
What struck both Harrison and Motes was the Montagnards’ kindness and generosity, even though their poverty was so obvious.
“They kind of accept their station in life, do the best they can, and they’re happy,” Harrison says.
Motes says being in the presence of the Montagnards was a humbling experience, seeing people so giving when you know they don’t have anything.
Motes credits Father Vang for serving as their interpreter and making it easy to move among the villagers.
Their days typically lasted from 4 a.m to 10 p.m., but the weather was sunny, gorgeous and in the 80s, Motes says.
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A 1999 graduate of West Rowan High, Motes works as a nursing assistant at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center and is a full-time nursing student at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
But that just scrapes the surface of his many talents. He also restores vintage cars and ships them across the world, and he has an associate degree in culinary arts from Johnson-Wales University.
Motes and his wife, Noelle Loebe, have traveled extensively, including trips to Central America. His vintage car business has taken him to the Middle East, and he accompanied Harrison last spring on a two-week medical mission trip to Ghana, Africa.
Besides his full-time duties at the hospital, Harrison, 48, helps part-time at Kannapolis Family Medicine and is medical director for the student health center at Belmont Abbey College.
A parishioner at St. James Catholic in Concord, Harrison has known Father Vang for about five years and finally agreed to Vang’s requests for him to make a trip to Vietnam.
It didn’t take Harrison long to persuade Motes to go along.
“You learn something from everything,” Motes says. “… It’s definitely not for everyone.”
For information on making a contribution to the Viet Toc Foundation, visit viettoc.org. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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