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The Toxic Legacy of Agent Orange

by Carol Miller

On Aug. 10, 1961, the United States began spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam, in a campaign called “Operation Ranch Hand.” The spraying lasted nearly 10 years and resulted in death and disability for more than 3 million Vietnamese, including the children and grandchildren of those directly exposed.

In addition this deadly defoliant seriously damaged the environment of Vietnam. An area of 7.5 million acres were sprayed affecting nearly 26,000 villages and hamlets. Large areas still contain hot spots of contamination. (Source: Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/ Dioxin)

What was our government thinking?

Agent Orange (AO) is a weapon that wounded both sides in the American War, as the Vietnamese call it. After years of struggle, many surviving American veterans finally receive care and compensation for Agent Orange exposure.

The U.S. Veterans Administration continues to add new diseases to the list of those they now admit were caused by exposure to Agent Orange, and its deadliest component, dioxin. Among the most recent additions are Parkinson’s disease and Type 2 diabetes. Despite many illnesses among the children and grandchildren of affected vet erans, Congress and the VA only recognize spina bifida, a very rare birth defect. In Vietnam, the govern ment’s efforts to deal with the toxic legacy of Agent Orange are very visible. Collection boxes for donations are out side of restaurants, museums, train stations; they are every­where.

Schools and job training programs are available for some of the more highly functioning affected children and young adults. There is a serious shortage of these schools. The more seriously affected victims need care 24 hours a day.

Most of the help to Agent Orange victims in Vietnam has been provided from Europe, Japan and Canada. U.S. veterans, both as individuals and through various organizations, also provide help to Vietnam.

Canadian scientists have been working with the Vietnamese to identify hot spots and determine where food can safely be grown today. Some fields have recently been approved for quick  growing crops such as leafy greens, but even in these areas, meat and fish remain too toxic to eat.

The U.S. Congress has done very little to address the legacy of Agent Orange spraying in Vietnam. A new bill could change this. HR 2634, the ‘Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2011’ was introduced by Congressman Bob Filner of California in July. If passed, this law will be a significant first step to helping victims of Agent Orange in both the U.S. and Vietnam.

The beginning of August every year is a time of reflection about war here in New Mexico. There are a range of remembrances, as varied as prayer vigils to movies to debates and arguments over the atomic bombs dropped Aug. 6 in Hiroshima and Aug. 9 in Nagasaki. This year, the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima brought even more passionate protests against both nuclear power and nucle ar weapons and warfare.

And now there is Aug. 10, a date to reflect on the first use of chemical warfare on Vietnam by the U.S. On a human rights delegation to Vietnam, I attended a public health presentation in the Vietnamese Central Highlands, the area that was most heavily sprayed with Agent Orange.

The speaker opened his pre sentation saying, “Vietnam is the size of the state of New Mexico and more bombs were dropped here than all the bombs dropped in World War II everywhere.”

I am still haunted by that comparison that inextricably links my home, New Mexico, with the incredible destruction imposed on Vietnam.

It is important to remem ber what the government has done in our name, includ ing the use of technological weapons that have changed the very DNA each of us has in every cell of our body. We still do not know how many future generations will suffer from wars fought decades before they were born. But we can say “enough!”

The U.S. government must help countries recover from the destruction we have caused through warfare. It is the right thing to do and our national security depends upon it.

Carol Miller is a resident of Ojo Sarco.

Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (population 300) and an advocate for “geographic democracy,” the belief that the United States must guarantee equal rights and opportunities to participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives. She is an officer of the Peaceful Skies Coalition.

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