Four decades ago, during another war that divided the country and dragged on with no hope in
sight, Tom Whelan left his home in Castle Hill and went to Vietnam.
He spent a year in Cam Ranh Bay and Tuy Hoa, considering himself lucky to be in a combat
support unit and not on the front lines as the Tet Offensive unfolded.
When he returned to the Bronx he went on with his life, taking some courses at Bronx
Community College and working in the computer field.
After getting a buyout in 2002, he decided to travel and booked a stop in Vietnam while on a
swing through Asia.
"I thought three days would be enough time to close the circle," he said. Like many Vietnam
veterans who have returned, he was to see the country through the eyes of a middle-aged man
hoping it had become a better place than the one he saw as a youth.
Late at night in Saigon, he saw little girls selling flowers or books or trinkets on the
streets, their watchful mothers hovering in a doorway, earning the equivalent of about
five U.S. dollars a day.
"They don't send the kids to school because they need them to make money for the family,"
said Whelan, 60.
One girl, named Nga, was particularly outgoing, and Whelan befriended her family.
"She was a street kid ... and hadn't been to school in two years!" Whelan said.
He became her sponsor through a children's foundation over there, for $24 a month.
"She started going to school again," he said.
But the plight of the street kids stayed with him.
"After meeting some of Nga's friends and other street kids I returned to America with a vivid
sense that I had to do something," Whelan said.
"There is a clichéd image of the American G.I. as a guy handing out chewing gum and candy ...
Well, that's what it was, wanting to help in some small way."
He returned to Vietnam, and worked with an order of Catholic nuns in Saigon to come up with
"The goal was to get these girls off the street and into an entry-level job. They're very
street-smart, but not educated. They know some English phrases, but they don't even know their
own language very well.
"We came up with a modest program - some remedial Vietnamese, a little English, and some
computer skills," said Whelan.
The nuns would set up tutoring sessions. The Catholic Church is prohibited from operating
schools in Vietnam, but you can get around that by private tutoring, he said.
Whelan got his four brothers and his sister to join him in donating money to pay for the
They called the charity Burke House in honor of their mother, Rita Burke Whelan.
"It's a mom-and-pop operation," he said, "It's a family thing. A hundred dollars over there
can do a lot. We pass the hat around and I travel to Vietnam to make the donation to the
Right now there are five girls being tutored by the nuns, two other girls are taking English
lessons independently, and another girl will be joining the program on May, he said.
"It's a work in progress," he added. "I am planning to return to Saigon in May to look in on
"They and their parents tend to look at the present, how much money they can make that day,
and how school keeps them from doing that.
"We try to tell them they have to look at the long term, how they can have a better life."
Since his first trip in November 2002, Whelan has been back to Vietnam six times. He said he
spent the last five Thanksgivings in Saigon.
"I threw Thanksgiving dinners for the kids and their families, it costs about $500 for a nice
dinner for 50 people. They think I'm some rich guy," Whelan laughed.
He will be returning to Vietnam in May to check on the program.
Whelan, who went to St. Helena's School on Benedict Ave., regaled the Vietnamese sisters
with tales of Catholic grammar school life in the 1950s Bronx, and his nuns' wielding of
His siblings all moved to the suburbs, but Whelan only got as far as Pelham Bay.
He says he is just a guy who never left the Bronx.
But now he journeys 9,000 miles to help a few kids.
"It's just a goodwill thing," he said, "the chewing gum and candy thing."