Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a brief visit to Laos last month, making her the highest serving U.S. Government official to visit the country since 1955. As part of her visit, she took a tour of a visitor center in the capital Vientiane established by the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), an organization partially funded by USAID that is the only provider of prosthetic and orthotic devices in the country and assists survivors of cluster bombs left over from the Vietnam War.
COPE staff told Secretary Clinton about the on-going effects of the U.S.-made and deployed bombs during the Vietnam War that fell over Laos, where approximately 100 people a year continue to be injured or killed by those bombs and thousands more lives are disrupted by their presence, according to the organization. Secretary Clinton studied a map of U.S. Air Force bombing missions covering one third of the country with red dots, each signifying a bombing mission over a period of nine years.
COPE introduced her to the work it is doing to support cluster bomb survivors and people with physical disabilities with physical rehabilitation as the only provider of these services working with the Lao government. USAID’s Leahy Fund for War Victims supports a training program to develop the orthotic technology that helps COPE’s clients.
Secretary Clinton was introduced to Phongsavath, a 20-year old cluster bomb survivor who told her how he lost his hands and eyesight in an explosion four years ago. During their conversation, Phongsavath said he was lucky to have COPE assist him, but many survivors are not as fortunate and have not received any assistance. Secretary Clinton said the U.S. needs to work more with the Lao government to address this Vietnam War legacy and make sure that legacy comes to a safe end.
COPE supports the development of physical rehabilitation services through the five Lao government-owned rehabilitation centres across the country. A significant number of people assisted through COPE were injured by the unexploded ordinance that littered around one third of the country at the end of the Vietnam War. The COPE Visitor Centre hosts a permanent exhibition on the impact of unexploded ordinance on the Lao population.
Before leaving, the Secretary signed the center’s visitor book: “Thank you for all you do to help so many and I pledge the United States will support COPE and the Lao people and government to overcome the legacies of the past.”