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Each year for the last five years the U.S. has welcomed a delegation of Vietnamese affected by spraying chemicals in Vietnam three decades ago. The Fifth Agent Orange Justice Tour ended recently. It focused national attention on grass roots and legislative efforts to achieve comprehensive assistance to victims in Vietnam, to the children and grandchildren of U.S. veterans, and to Vietnamese-Americans.
It is not news that American troops fighting for the U.S. military in Vietnam were told by their commanders that the defoliants and herbicides sprayed by the U.S. Air Force were “perfectly safe…[they] just kill plants.”
The statistics, while heartbreaking, are, likewise, not news for anyone who pays attention to recent history. From 1961 to 1970 more than 20,000 missions that composed Operations “Trail Dust” and “Ranch Hand” dispersed about 13 million gallons of chemicals over five million acres of Vietnam’s forests and agricultural lands; southern Laos and Cambodia were sprayed too.
To the military mind, defoliating was a practical solution that disallowed cover to the enemy. To the corporate mind – Dow, Monsanto, Hercules, Uniroyal, Diamond Shamrock, Syntex Agribusiness, and more than two dozen others – manufacturing chemicals provided good ROI: one gallon of liquid cost $7 back then. Moreover, corporations sped up the 2,4,5T manufacturing process so they could produce more, faster. They ignored the partially catalyzed molecule, dioxin, that was a byproduct of the faster process; it remained in Agent Orange (AO).
Vietnam’s dense southern uplands’ forests were sprayed with a range of chemicals signified by color-coded barrels: Agents Blue, Orange, White, Pink, Purple and so on. Areas that the C-123 “Provider” airplanes didn’t reach – equal to the size of Rhode Island — were bulldozed with Rome Plows.
Paul Cox was a US Marine fighting along the DMZ for months. Today, he is a civil engineer, a Veteran for Peace member, and a board member of Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign (VAORRC). In a recent presentation in San Francisco, he described the area he fought in at the time as “almost totally denuded from high explosives and multiple spraying sorties; aside from some invasive grass, hardly anything lived, no animals, no bugs, no nothin’. We could operate in the area for days in a row and see no living trees.”
Since 1994, the Canadian company Hatfield Consultants has conducted contamination and mitigation work in Vietnam in close collaboration with Vietnamese Government agencies. More than nine projects in twenty provinces have determined levels of Agent Orange/dioxin in soils, food items, human blood, and breast milk. Hatfield also studies the effects of loss of timber that leads to reduced sustainability of ecosystems, decreases in the biodiversity of plants and animals, poorer soil quality, increased water contamination, heavier flooding and erosion, increased leaching of nutrients and reductions in their availability, invasions of less desirable plant species (primarily woody and herbaceous grasses), and possible alterations of Vietnam’s macro- and micro-climates.
In short, there is no let up to the devastation wreaked by war’s practicality and profit three decades ago.
Despite VAVA delegates representing three million people when they travel to the U.S., to date U.S. courts have not acknowledged the chemicals’ effects on Vietnam or the Vietnamese.
Yet, under U.S. law, veterans who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 (including those who visited Vietnam even briefly), and who have a disease that the Veterans Administration (VA) recognizes as being associated with Agent Orange, are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and are eligible for service-connected compensation based on their service.
The VA’s list of “Diseases associated with exposure to certain herbicide agents” are Acute and Subacute Peripheral Neuropathy,AL Amyloidosis, Chloracne (or Similar Acneform Disease), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (now expanded to B Cell Leukemias), Diabetes Mellitus (Type 2), Hodgkin’s Disease, Ischemic Heart Disease, Multiple Myeloma, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Parkinson’s Disease, Porphyria Cutanea Tarda, Prostate Cancer, Respiratory Cancers (of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus), and Soft Tissue Sarcoma.
Veterans’ children born with Spina bifida “may be eligible for compensation, vocational training and rehabilitation and health care benefits.” For the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded in its 1996 update to its report on Veterans and Agent Orange – Health Effects of Herbicides Used in Vietnam that there is “limited/suggestive evidence of an association between exposure to herbicides used in Vietnam and spina bifida in children of Vietnam veterans.”
A time line, briefly
September 10, 2004: an amended class action complaint was submitted to the U.S. District Court, Eastern District; Constantine P. Kokkoris, represented the victims.
March 10, 2005: in Brooklyn, Judge Weinstein dismissed victims’ claims.
September 30, 2005: a Brief was submitted to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York against 36 U.S. chemical companies. The summary by Jonathan Moore states:
The lawsuit…seeks to hold accountable the chemical companies who manufactured and supplied Agent Orange to the government. Contrary to government specifications, the product supplied to the government contained an excessive and avoidable amount of poison…[D]ioxin…was present in the herbicides supplied to the government only because these chemical companies deliberately and consciously chose to ignore then existing industry standards and produce a herbicide that contained excessive and avoidable amounts of dioxin. The presence of the poison dioxin had no military necessity…chemical companies…knew that the more herbicide they produced the more money they would make and the faster they produced it the more they could sell to the government….[T]hey ignored industry standards….
That lawsuit was unsuccessful.
This year VAVA, Veterans for Peace, and the Vietnamese will begin to apply pressure on Congress to pay the bills for damage done in that country. These groups are drafting legislation that they expect will become a bill that, eventually, addresses this legacy. It consist of four parts:
1) clean up the environment and do no further harm.
2) address the problems of millions ill …that now extends to three generations.
3) create regional medical centers specifically for victims’ children and grandchildren born with the physical deformities and mental illness associated with dioxin.
4) conduct a public health study on the Vietnamese American population in the U.S. to learn if, and if so, how they have been affected by AO sprayed in their homeland. (The assumption is that this population could have a similar exposure to deployed American military personnel).
Personal stories: new every time
If the news about dioxin – and the political and economic wrangling that accompanies it – is depressingly familiar, what is always fresh are the hopeful voices and enthusiastic faces of the VAVA delegates. All suffer grievous disease or deformities yet their spirits and generosity are astonishingly strong.
This year, 33-year old Pham The Minh accompanied the small group. He is the son of a Vietnamese fighter contaminated by Agent Orange in Quang Tri Province where the spraying was most intensive. Minh and and his sister were born after the war with birth defects that signal dioxin contamination.
His is no story of victimization. The man’s voice is vibrantly honest and alive as he says, “I grew up with pain in my spirit and in my body…I graduated from university and I am happy to teach English to victims of Agent Orange.”
In Minh’s city of Hai Phong alone there are more than 17,000 victims with birth defects, most of whom live difficult lives and require constant support from hard-pressed families.
Last year, the delegation was headed by Dang Hong Nhut who suffers from cancer and has experienced multiple miscarriages. Twenty-one year old Tran Thi Hoan accompanied Nhut. Tran was born with one hand and no legs due to her mother’s exposure. Despite Tran and her mother both being diagnosed with life threatening and disabling conditions that create severe and life-long hardship, the young woman attends college and is determined to work for a just solution for other Vietnamese families.
The 2007 delegates shared compelling stories too.
Vo Thanh Hai was 19 years old in 1978 when he was employed replanting trees around Nam Dong that had been defoliated by the U.S. Army’s spraying operations.
In 1986, Mr. Hai’s wife miscarried. In 1987, their son, Vo Thanh Tuan Anh was born. In 2001, he began episodes of fatigue and dizziness that was diagnosed as osteosarcoma for which he was treated with surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Their doctor also advised Mr. Hai to have a lump on his own neck examined. Tests disclosed Hodgkins Disease.
Both father and son have difficulty performing routine activities. Mrs. Hoa provides their daily care…which means the family has little regular income.
Nguyen Van Quy served in the Vietnam People’s Army from 1972 through 1975. He ate manioc, wild herbs and plants and drank water from streams in areas that had been spayed with Agent Orange. He experienced periodic headaches and exhaustion and itchy skin and rashes.
In 2003, Mr. Quy was diagnosed with stomach cancer, liver damage and with fluid in his lung. His son, Nguyen Quang Trung, was born with spinal, limb and developmental disabilities, enlarged and deformed feet, and a congenital spine defect; he cannot stand, walk, or use his hands.
Mr. Quy’s daughter, Nguyen Thi Thuy Nga, was born deaf and dumb and developmentally disabled. Neither child can attend school or work and neither is self-sufficient.
In her presentation in San Francisco, shortly before leaving the U.S. to return home, another 2007 delegate, Mrs. Hong, said how happy she was to have had a chance to visit this country and talk to people she found “very welcoming.”
Mrs. Hong had served in the Eastern Combat Zone of South Vietnam as a clerk tailor and medical care worker. In 1964, she was sprayed with Agent Orange while washing rice in a stream. She tried to dive into the water to wash away the chemicals that stuck to her body. Moreover, she consumed contaminated food, wild grasses, and water every day after that.
In 1975 she was diagnosed with cirrhosis and required long term hospital treatment. In 1999 she was found to have an enlarged spleen and hemopoesis disorder. Several tests later uncovered cancer of the left breast as well as shortness of breath, high blood pressure, cerebral edema, breast cancer with bone metastasis, stomach aches, cirrhosis, gall-stones and bladder-stones, varicose limbs, limb-skin ulcer, weak legs and limited range of movement.
Both Mr.Quy and Mrs Hong died shortly after they returned to Vietnam.
Tragedy of such magnitude easily can overwhelm those unprepared to hear it. Yet listening deeply to these personal stories presented in the even-handed, non-blaming manner of the VAVA delegates creates an opening that may allow We, the People to apply pressure on Congress to co-create legislation to alleviate our nation’s moral stigma from our actions in Vietnam.
Perhaps the courage of the women in Lan Teh Nidah’s poem, Night Harvest can give hope to Americans of peace and reconciliation. These courageous Vietnamese women harvested rice at night to avoid detection by American forces.
The golds of rice and cluster bombs blend together.
even delayed fuse bombs bring no fear:
Our spirits have known many years of war.
Come, sisters, let us gather the harvest.
We are the harvesters of my village,
We are not frightened by bombs and bullets in the air —
Only by dew, wetting our lime-scented hair.
One day, perhaps, we in the United States will acknowledge our responsibilities in Vietnam. For we, too, have known many years of war. Those of us who struggle for peace are harvesters too. Let us accept our history, sew the seeds of peace, and highlight the futile lose/lose proposition that is war.
SUSAN GALLEYMORE is author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, host of Stanford University’s Raising Sand Radio, and a former “military mom” and GI Rights Counselor. Contact her at email@example.com.