ROBERT MULLER STEERS HIS wheelchair through the maze of workers on the workshop floor of the National Rehabilitation Center in Kien Khleang, Cambodia, stopping by a bench where Sun Ty, a 29-year-old farmer and lather of two, is being fitted for a prosthetic leg. Ty explains that his right leg was blown off below the knee as he walked his cows across a field in 1988. Muller shakes his head. “Vietnam was brutal, but it wasn’t the absolute insanity that took place in Cambodia,” he says. “Here land mines became the principal weapon of war.”
With catastrophic effect. Since 1970, more than 60,000 Cambodians have been killed or maimed by the estimated 7 million to 10 million mines planted in the country over the last three decades by U.S., Vietnamese, Cambodian and Khmer Rouge armies. In 1984, Muller, a Marine veteran paralyzed in combat 15 years before, traveled to Cambodia as head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, an organization he founded to look at causes and consequences of war. Muller was shocked by the number of amputees and the lack of care he found. He began making plans to help. Since 1991, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, VVAF has manufactured and supplied more than 4,000 prosthetic limbs, about 1,000 orthotic braces and more than 2,000 wheelchairs, free of charge. “I tell these people that simply because they’re disabled doesn’t mean they’re on the trash heap of life,” he says. “The concept is so far removed from anything they’ve had before.”
Muller’s empathy and tenacity are born of experience. In 1969, as a lieutenant, he was leading an assault on a hill in South Vietnam when a North Vietnamese bullet severed his spinal cord. “I remember being on my back, looking at the sky,” he says. “I grabbed myself in the gut, but I didn’t feel anything. Then everything got very mellow and relaxed. I felt like a balloon deflating. My last thought was, ‘I don’t believe it. I’m going to die on this s——y piece of ground.’ ” He awoke days-later aboard a military hospital ship to the news that he was paralyzed from the chest down. But instead of feeling anger, he says, he was ecstatic to be alive. “When you thought you’d cashed in your chips, and instead you get a refund, how can you complain?”
Such resilience is vintage Muller. The elder of two sons of Robert Muller, a tool company executive, and his wife, Edith, Muller grew up in a New York City suburb and enrolled at nearby Hofstra University to study business. It was 1965, and American involvement in Vietnam was escalating. “The propaganda of the day was that there were freedom-loving people who were being invaded by the Communist north,” he says. “I accepted the fact that we had an obligation to go.” He enlisted in the Marines in May 1967, was sent to Vietnam in September 1968 and was wounded in April 1969.
Muller became involved in the struggle for veterans’ rights while undergoing rehabilitation at the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y. “The place stunk, it was overcrowded,” he says. “There was a lot of despair.” Muller began to rethink both his country’s role in Vietnam and his own. “I came away with some appreciation of the violence we brought there,” he says. “Destroying a village to save it from Communism didn’t make much sense.”
Discharged from the hospital in June 1970, Muller joined the antiwar movement and entered law school at Hofstra. One day he visited the mother of a fellow vet who had committed suicide and met the man’s sister, Virginia Estevez. “She kind of caught my eye,” says Muller. The couple married in 1975 and settled in Huntington, N.Y.
After going to work as legal counsel to the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, a service organization, in 1975, Muller cofounded the Washington-based Vietnam Veterans of America in 1978—and VVAF two years later. In 1984 he made his fateful trip to Cambodia. “My 10 days there had a more powerful effect on me than all of my Vietnam war experiences,” he says. “In one field being excavated, we saw 10,000 skulls piled up. It was the legacy of genocide.”
Coincidentally, a friend of Muller’s told him about a doctor in India, Pramod Karan Sethi, who had pioneered a flexible prosthesis called the Jaipur foot. The prosthesis was well suited to Asian life, where many people squat and sit cross-legged. Waterproof and sculpted to look like a human foot, it can be worn with or without sandals.
Muller won funding from AID to launch a workshop to make the Jaipur foot in Cambodia. Four years later, the program has expanded to include a mobile clinic and a satellite factory in southeastern Cambodia, as well as workshops in Vietnam and El Salvador. “Bob is very motivated,” says Jay Byrne, a spokesman for AID. “He’s overcome numerous challenges to provide a real opening in areas of the world that desperately need it.”
Today, Muller makes several trips a year between Southeast Asia and Washington. On weekends, he meets his wife, now a researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York City. His next project, he says, is to start a fish farm to employ Cambodia’s disabled. “You can only go so far giving someone a wheelchair,” he says. “What each person ultimately needs is a job. If we can accomplish that, we’ll have hit a home run.”
ANDREA PAWLYNA in Kien Khleang