August 7, 2008

War Reminders Valley Group Helps Educate People, Remove Land Mines From Areas of Conflict

By Douglas Morino

WOODLAND HILLS -- The land mines they defused and removed from war-torn regions of Southeast Asia lie like specimens on display thousands of miles away in a cramped, fifth-story office in the San Fernando Valley.

Sitting alongside photographs of fields dotted with mines in Vietnam and Cambodia, the palm-size explosives serve as reminders of just how long armed conflicts can linger.

"You can see why they are so dangerous," said Brian Gilmore, head of program development for the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation. "Children see these in the fields near their homes -- and think they are toys."

The foundation was started 10 years ago by Joseph Trocino, a retired chemical engineer. From its small Woodland Hills headquarters, the group works to help remove land mines and educate local populations in countries where the lasting effects of war remain. The organization has helped defuse 50,000 land mines worldwide over the past decade.

Although casualties have decreased in recent years, land mines claim victims in more than 100 countries. While total reported land- mine deaths were 1,367 in 2006, the last year for which figures are available, the United Nations says the actual figure is closer to 20,000 a year because so many go unreported.

"That's just the nature of this problem. Many incidents go unreported so we are often unable to accurately gauge the scope of the problem," said Lydia Good of the United Nations Mine Action Team.

Help from nonprofits

It is the work of humanitarian organizations that has helped lower casualties from these hidden bombs, she added.

"Nonprofit organizations like the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation are part of a global effort and have made a massive difference in land-mine removal," she said.

After a busy career as a government engineer that included work on the Manhattan Project -- the secret program to develop the atomic bomb during World War II -- Trocino later helped fine-tune mine- defusing technology for the U.S. military.

His connection to explosives started when he was a kid growing up in Iowa.

"I was raised on a farm and we used dynamite to remove tree stumps," he said. "Back then you could pick up dynamite from the feed store."

When retirement came, he knew he had a lot still to offer. While in his 70s, he started Golden West after discovering an easy and safe way to dispose of mines.

"I was able to develop a simple explosive that would be able to defuse unexploded mines. Once I realized how successful this device was, I decided to put it to work internationally," he said. "That's when I decided to start this charity."

Called NMX-foam, Trocino's invention looks like shaving cream. The foam -- which acts as an explosive -- can be sprayed from a distance onto an active land mine, which is then blown up with a remote detonator.

"I discovered that the best and most efficient way to get rid of land mines is to blow them up," he said.

Technology put to use

Trocino's technology is being used to defuse land mines in Cambodia, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique and Azerbaijan.

"Conflicts happen and these explosives get left behind," Gilmore said. "Land mines have an incredible resilience, and after three decades they are still dangerous and armed."

A large part of the program developed by Golden West focuses on providing educational materials and safety equipment to local residents so they can remove unexploded land mines from farm fields and schoolyards themselves.

As reported land-mine casualties continue to fall, funding for mine programs reached record levels in 2006, according to a recent report by Landmine Monitor, the research arm of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

In 2006, $29.5 million was spent to remove mines in Cambodia and $8.2 million in Vietnam.

Thousands a year killed

Still, the mines kill thousands a year, and many more deaths and debilitating injuries go unreported, said Gilmore, whose own grandfather was injured by a land mine during World War II in Europe.

"The impacts are hard to quantify," he said. "Roads become blocked by mines that are inadvertently set off, so access to markets, health care, clean water and education facilities becomes hindered. ... Simply put, these land mines impede development."

Awareness of land-mine use has grown significantly since the Cold War, when they were commonly used to protect borders.

The late Princess Diana helped put the international spotlight on the issue as an outspoken advocate for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She also made several high-profile trips to Asia and Africa to meet with injured children, and campaigned for international legislation banning anti-personnel explosive devices.

She's also credited with influencing the adoption of the International Mine Ban Treaty, or Ottawa Treaty, in 1997.

"She certainly had a huge impact," Gilmore said. "One that we are still feeling today."

Many share her passion for land-mine removal, added Gilmore, who has devoted the past decade to raising awareness of the issue.

"When you work on something as important as land mines, it becomes a personal connection that goes deep," he said. "It can really drive you."

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