In 1970, Thomas Murray spent many days in the back seat of an Army surveillance plane, ducking to avoid incoming rounds from the North Vietnamese as he radioed coordinates to American artillery troops. He remembers seeing the bombs explode and the burning craters they left behind. Today, nearly 40 years later, Murray has found a new purpose for those craters—and himself. The craters are filling with fish to feed the villagers whose lands he once bombed. And Murray, who’s loaning the money to buy the fish, is filled with gratitude for the opportunity to give back. “I don’t approach it as a veteran anymore but as an educator and how can I assist those people with educational opportunities,” Murray says. “That goes back to the Jesuits. My time at Xavier taught me about service and what to give back.”
An opportunity to return to Vietnam in 2005 to teach English to young Jesuits-in-training opened Murray’s eyes to the devastating effects of the war on the Vietnamese. But it also pointed him in a new direction—helping poor Vietnamese families send their children to school. After four visits, Murray created a non-profit corporation, Think About the Children, that has raised $25,000 and built a school and three libraries in villages on the western border.
But the goal of the foundation shifted when Murray, a 1969 political science graduate, realized that such projects can be self-defeating if the people can’t afford to maintain them. The preschool his foundation built last year is filled with children, but it will eventually have to start charging tuition to pay the teacher’s salary. He fears the children will stop coming. So his foundation added a micro-lending program, and now the villagers are digging out the bomb craters, pumping in water and filling them with catfish bought with their $150 micro-loan. In three months the fish are more than a foot long and worth $300.
The villagers repay their loans and plow the profits back into their businesses. Now Murray is turning the foundation’s management over to villagers. “We’re not trying to Americanize their way of life,” he says. “We’re trying to understand the dynamics of their lives and cultures. With our micro-loan program, we can adopt a village and do what they need.”