By Connie Schultz, with photographs by Nick Ut
Vietnam and the United States have a common enemy. Its name is Agent Orange. From 1962 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of the herbicide, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin, to defoliate the jungles and forests that gave cover to Ho Chi Minh’s northern forces in what was then South Vietnam.
At least 4.5 million Vietnamese, and the 2.5 million Americans who served there, may have been exposed to Agent Orange. These numbers do not reflect the possible impact on future generations.
The U.S. Veterans Administration now recognizes 15 illnesses linked to war-time exposure. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that roughly 3 million adults and children continue to suffer illnesses and birth deformities because of these contaminated sites. This is a fixable problem. To the majority of Americans, it is also an invisible one.
Today, more than 2 million acres in Vietnam remain barren. Numerous studies have shown that “hot spots” on the perimeter of former U.S. bases in the south still leach dioxin into the soil, contaminating water, vegetation, wildlife — and people. Field researchers have found dioxin in nursing mothers’ milk and bloodstream, at far greater than established safe levels.
More than 100 children, from age 6 to 20 or so, live at Friendship Village for two to four years for medical treatment, rehabilitation and job training. At any given time, 40 or so war veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange also stay at the Village for a few months’ respite care.
As the plane descended toward Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport, her anxiety soared. The 38-year-old Ohio native had been planning this trip for a long time, but now that she was nearly there, uncertainty was beginning to mute the buzz of her initial excitement.
Heather was 9 months old when she was fitted for her first prosthesis, which belted around her waist and didn’t bend at the knee. She was a quick study, in part because her parents were relentless teachers in the art of can-do.
Heather’s heart sank when she entered the gates of Friendship Village. She was shocked to see the isolated, rural setting of Friendship Village, which was partially built on former rice fields. She was taken aback by the neglected grounds. Heather’s mood changed when she met the children.
Heather Bowser continues to wrestle with what she discovered about herself in Vietnam. She holds tight to the many wonderful memories of her trip, but she also admits to moments of despair that she can’t quite explain. Not yet, anyway.
In 1996, war veteran Madame Cuc founded the mushroom farm co-op, where the women now work together to grow and harvest various types of edible and medicinal mushrooms.
Operation Ranch Hand marked the beginning of the aerial spraying of herbicides in Vietnam.
Agent Orange contained the toxic chemical dioxin. The contaminant was left behind in soil and water wherever Agent Orange was used and stored. Exposure to dioxin in large quantities poses health risks.