Operation Smile marks 25 years of missions to Vietnam

Posted at 8:07 PM, Dec 16, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-17 06:59:20-05

A Hampton Roads-based charity is marking a milestone.

Operation Smile volunteers just returned from a medical mission to Vietnam.

This trip came 25 years after Operation Smile first went to Vietnam.

NewsChannel 3’s Les Smith spoke with one doctor, a Vietnam vet, who was on both trips.

In 1969, thousands of young Americans were fighting an unpopular war a long way from home. Mike Solhaug was one of them. He returned after a year in Vietnam and eventually went to medical school. The country was so divided over the war he stopped telling people he was a Vietnam vet.

“Instead of the country of stars and stripes I was living in the country of scars and stripes,” says Solhaug.

He became a pediatrician at CHKD in Norfolk. It was there in 1989 that he got the call to go back to Vietnam as a volunteer with Operation Smile.

“I wasn`t looking for closure. What I wanted to do was to see myself in the best way a human can behave which is giving to others. I had seen the worst behavior in humans-war,” says Solhaug.

That was Operation Smile's first trip to Vietnam and for many of the veterans, their first time back to the country where they had fought 20 years earlier. They returned as healers.

“The central part of this is not  Vietnam vets going back to Vietnam with Operation Smile, it`s Operation Smile. I saw doctors who were in training in 1989. Well they are the ones doing the surgery now,” says Solhaug.

Dr. Solhuag just returned from another Operation Smile mission to Vietnam - 25 years and thousands of cleft lip and palate surgeries after that first trip.

“I always knew that something was going to be unfinished and still is unfinished. There`s a lot of kids out there that need surgery,” says Solhaug.

Solhaug looks forward to Operation Smile returning for a 30th anniversary trip to Vietnam.