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Student-Faculty Research Team to Examine
Warfare's Environmental Impact
on Vietnam Battlefield

RELEASED: March 6, 2009

EAU CLAIRE — The lasting impact that warfare has on the environment will be the basis of a research project that will take two University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students and their geography professor to Vietnam for three weeks in May and June.

Dr. Joseph Hupy
Dr. Joseph Hupy

The research team will assess the Khe Sanh battlefield in Vietnam 40 years after the fighting ceased, said Dr. Joseph Hupy, assistant professor of geography and anthropology.

"Although many areas in southern Indochina were devastated by war, the Khe Sanh battlefield stands out," said Hupy, who has previously done research on battlefields in Vietnam and France. "Between February and April 1968, aircraft delivered nearly 99,000 tons of munitions over the Khe Sanh battlefield. That's more than all the tonnage of explosive munitions deployed by allied forces in the entire Pacific Theater of World War II."

Hupy and senior geography majors Justin Berg, Chippewa Falls, and Thomas Koehler, Appleton, will document the degree of landscape disturbance across the battlefield, and the patterns of landscape recovery, taking into consideration how people have used the land in the decades since the war.

"Many landscapes affected by war, whether incidentally or intentionally, still show battle scars," Hupy said. "Although these areas maybe re-vegetated, the landscape surface and soils below may remain dramatically altered."

At left, during a 2007 visit to Vietnam, Dr. Joseph Hupy, UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of geography and anthropology, walked through elephant grass while attempting to reach the summit of Hill 861 on the Khe Sanh battlefield. The landscape in the area was decimated by explosives during the fighting in the area 40 years ago. At right, unexploded ordinances (UXOs) lay among the grasses growing atop Hill 861. Cattle now graze at the site, the location of some of the most furious fighting at Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War.

While battlefields in many parts of the world are preserved for historic or memorial purposes, the Khe Sanh area has been heavily used since the fighting ended, said Hupy, who in 2007 traveled to the battlefield with three Vietnam War veterans who helped him understand the region and events that occurred after the 1968 siege. That trip provided him with the insight he needed to help structure the current student-based research project, he said. Two of the veterans, Glenn Prentice and Tom Ford, will travel with Hupy when he returns to the Khe Sanh in May.

"The data we gather will show how this utterly decimated landscape has been altered and to what degree it recovered," Hupy said of the battlefield, which now is primarily a grassland used for growing coffee. "The research will incorporate human land use that has potentially influenced the lack of reforestation on the landscape."

While the impact terrain has on warfare has been studied in depth, few scientists have studied the lasting impact warfare has on landscape and how land is used in the years after a conflict ends, the research team said.

"This is a topic that receives little attention in the scientific community but deserves a great deal of recognition," Berg said. "It deserves attention because of the role agriculture plays in different areas of the world that have experienced the effects of war on the landscape, Asia in particular. It's also important because of the numerous U.S. military bases that boast a diverse population of mammal and bird species, including several endangered species, and the role agriculture plays and its contributing factors toward land degradation on war torn topography."

In Vietnam, Koehler will perform analyses using Geographic Information Systems.

"I will develop a preliminary analysis of the Khe Sanh battlefield, looking at the region's topography and land usage to determine where we need to collect data," Koehler said. "This will allow us to construct a detailed elevation map of the battlefield so we can determine what sort of impact the war has on the environment. After returning, I will compile the data and build an analysis of the study site."

It's important for the researchers to have an understanding of the historic events of the Khe Sanh siege, Hupy said, noting that the student researchers must read books relating the Vietnam War before they travel to Vietnam in May.

Using GIS technology, Hupy is building an extensive database that records the history of the siege, he said, noting that a number of Vietnam War veterans are contributing information for that project. A student also is compiling a collection of satellite imagery that will show how human land use has had an effect on the area since the end of the war, he said.

"We're combining science and history in a way that hasn't been done before," Hupy said of the projects.

The May trip to Vietnam is possible because of funding from the ASIA Network, a consortium of colleges and universities devoted to furthering the teaching and learning of Asian studies. Hupy, Berg and Koehler received a grant totaling more than $15,000 through the ASIA Network's Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows Program to support their work in Vietnam. The grant — the first awarded by ASIA Network to UW-Eau Claire — was one of just 14 grants given out in 2009 by the fellows program.

Koehler and Berg said the research experience will help them as they pursue graduate school and jobs.

"I have an interest in Asian studies and this allows me to apply high-level analytical work to something that interests me," Koehler said. "This project is exactly the sort of thing I hope to do as a career. Such a high level of research will give me a great start in finding a career after I graduate. I'd love a job that allows me to travel to places around the world, and I will definitely do something with Geographic Information Systems. This type of research will allow me to get my foot in the door with government agencies like the Department of Defense and the NSA."

A former U.S. Marine, Berg said the project ties in well with his plans to pursue soil research at the graduate level. In graduate school, he plans to examine landscape disturbance in other regions of the world and at United State's military training facilities that contain live munitions impact areas, he said.

"Undergraduate research is one of the best things a student can do," Koehler said. "It allows for a student to advance in their field before they even graduate. So far it has been a lot of hard work, and will continue to be, but the rewards are great. It is especially great to get involved with research at such a high level. A lot of the things we are doing are on the same level as people do for their PhD dissertation, and I have the opportunity to do it as an undergraduate."

For more information about the research project, contact Dr. Joseph Hupy, assistant professor of geography and anthropology, at 715-836-2316 or hupyjp@uwec.edu.

-30-

JB

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