This is the fifth of six parts of the special report Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange
By Connie Schultz
Heather’s heart sank when she entered the gates of Friendship Village.
She had eagerly anticipated this visit. More than anything else on her travel agenda, she looked forward to meeting the many children whose parents were exposed to Agent Orange during the war, children like her. And she had heard a great deal about the Village, which was founded by an American Vietnam veteran like her father.
Two days earlier, she and Aaron had flown out of Pittsburgh in the height of autumn plumage and landed in a country where, even in mid-October, the muggy, exhaust-filled days flirted with 90-degree heat. She was still flush from the sensory overload of the bustling city of Hanoi.
Heather was at first 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. Nearly every building was in need of paint and other maintenance. Weeds sprouted where flowers might have grown. It struck her as a barren place for children to thrive.
“But after being in Vietnam for a few days, we came to understand that it’s like that everywhere there,” she said. “Their expectations are different.”
Friendship Village Director Dang Vu Dung ushered her across the campus “like a tour guide who’d done it hundreds of times before.”
Her mood changed when she started meeting the children. As she watched them interact and shyly demonstrate their new skills for her, she was caught off guard by a feeling she hadn’t expected.
She envied them.
“I never spent time with other children like me,” she said.
Vietnamese children still suffer from ancestral beliefs of shame related to birth defects, as if disfigurement were a punishment for family members’ past misdeeds. But it is widely assumed that a deformed child is a victim of the long-term impact of the American War, as it is called in their country.
“In Vietnam, if people see a child with disabilities, they immediately think of Agent Orange,” Heather said. “That doesn’t happen in America, in Ohio.
“Throughout my life, the pictures of Vietnamese children affected by Agent Orange have been far more prevalent. Most people look at me and stare and stare and stare, but nobody thinks of Agent Orange. We have no idea how many of us are out there, and most doctors don’t acknowledge any link.”
One young girl noticed Heather’s hand and tugged on it to examine her missing fingers. Heather asked the translator to explain that Agent Orange was the reason. The little girl nodded with a smile of hard-earned wisdom.
Heather and I met three days later. We joked about the unlikely circumstances that brought two working-class girls from small-town Ohio together as grown women in a restaurant in Hanoi.
“Doesn’t God have a sense of humor?” she said, beaming.
In the two hours we spent together that evening, Heather’s mood alternated between euphoria and profound sadness. Repeatedly, she said, “I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I’m in Vietnam.” Just as often, she said, with tears in her eyes, “I wish I could tell my dad. I wish he could be here with me.”
Never did she wish that more than when she met with North Vietnamese Army veterans staying at Friendship Village for respite care.
“To go into a room full of soldiers being treated. I was very tentative, I didn’t know how I’d be received,” she said.
She wore a skirt that day, so her prosthesis was in plain view. She showed them her hands. Then, through a translator, she described what had happened to her father. The diagnosis of diabetes and heart-bypass surgery in his 30s; the stroke in his 40s; the heart attack that killed him when he was 50 years old.
They nodded, some of them tearing up as she spoke. They told her they were sorry he was gone. A couple of them followed her down the hall as she was leaving, wanting to talk more about the legacy of Agent Orange that was chipping away at their lives, too.
“When those soldiers started walking with me, I wanted my dad to be there so bad,” Heather said. “I wanted him to be able to look them in the eyes and tell them that we share things in common. That we understand.”
Heather had dinner two days later in Ho Chi Minh City with VAVA Chairman Tran Ngoc Tho, who was a major general for the North Vietnamese Army.
They talked about how Vietnam’s veterans have the same symptoms as Americans who served in the war: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. He nodded sympathetically as Heather described how her father suffered.
At one point, Tran excused himself for a few moments, and Heather watched as he tried to collect himself.
“I could tell he was concerned about losing face in front of this young American woman,” she said. “So much like my dad.”
During her visit with Tran, her own insecurities came to a head.
“I’d been so inward-focused before I got to Vietnam,” she said. “I was the American patriot’s daughter, and for me it was all about Agent Orange in America. I started to feel guilty.”
She finally worked up the courage to ask Tran the question that had been nagging at her since set foot in Vietnam.
“Aren’t you angry at Americans? How can you not be?”
Tran waited for the translation of Heather’s question, then shook his head.
He answered in clear English.
“No,” he said, smiling. “Because we won.”
Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange