Jerilyn Brusseau: Planting a Tree for Peace

In 1969 U.S. servicemember Daniel Cheney was killed in Vietnam. His sister Jerilyn was heartbroken– but instead of allowing her sorrow to turn into hatred, she vowed to find a way to build bridges of peace.          

Jerilyn Brusseau was devastated to lose her younger brother during the war between the U.S. and Vietnam.  But she resolved to turn sorrow into service– she wanted to do all that she could do to help heal the emotional and environmental wounds of the war.

That day finally arrived 26 years later. In July of 1995, President Bill Clinton announced that diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States would be normalized. Jerilyn Brusseau and her husband, Danaan Parry, created an organization called PeaceTrees as a way to reach out to the Vietnamese people and start healing from the losses of the war.

In the fall of 1995, a small group of friends gathered around a Sunday breakfast table to share their vision for building peace and friendship with the people of Vietnam. As Jerilyn recalls, “We wanted to take the spirit of ‘citizen diplomacy’ fostered by 18 previous international PeaceTrees programs in other countries to a deeper level, by working with the Vietnamese people in removing landmines and planting trees.”

A few hours after their breakfast meeting, Danaan flew to Washington DC, hoping to attend a reception at the Mission of Vietnam. Although he arrived at the door without an invitation, he was greeted warmly by the Vietnamese Chief of Mission, Le Van Bang, who offered support and encouragement for their idea.

Events began to move quickly. In early January 1996, Danaan and Jerilyn traveled to Vietnam and met with representatives of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations and the Quang Tri Province Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss plans to sponsor clearance of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from 6.5 hectares of contaminated land near Dong Ha. They also agreed that 40 volunteers from the United States and other nations would gather to plant trees on the newly cleared land.

By September 1996, three former U.S. military demining experts had traveled to Quang Tri Province to donate their time and expertise to the clearance effort. This work made PeaceTrees the first international non-governmental organization since the end of the War to be given permission by the Vietnamese Government to sponsor humanitarian demining work. Prior to this, all demining work had been done by the Vietnamese people. In November 1996, 43 international volunteers prepared to leave for Quang Tri to join 43 Vietnamese volunteers in planting the demined area with 2,000 trees.

Just days before their scheduled departure, Danaan Parry suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack. Jerilyn and the rest of the PeaceTrees team were deeply shocked and saddened, but believed so strongly in their mission that they knew that they must go forward. Gathering from locations around the globe, the volunteers met days later in Quang Tri Province to begin planting trees alongside their Vietnamese counterparts. Over 2000 trees later, Friendship Forest Park had been created in Dong Ha and countless friendships had been born.

Jerilyn is not the only member of the Cheney family dedicated to building bridges of peace and friendship between the American and Vietnamese peoples. Rae Cheney, Gold Star Mother of Jerilyn and Daniel Cheney, is one of countless Americans who have chosen to turn sorrow into service. Rae has spent the past 14 years as a volunteer with PeaceTrees Vietnam, in appreciation of the Vietnamese mothers who lost their sons and daughters in wartime. At 89 years of age, she is a continual advocate for building strong relations between the people of Vietnam and the United States.

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