Ending the lingering threat of Agent Orange begins with awareness

This is the final part of the special report Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange.

William A. Morris, Heather Bowser's father, wearing his uniform at basic training in Ft. Lewis in 1967.

By Connie Schultz

Heather knew that, as she traveled south, she was diving deep into the part of Vietnam that had changed her father forever.

She had come to meet the children, and she had found them. But she also wanted to see, as she put it, “if I’d find any connection to the place where my father’s demons came from.”

Now she was as close as she was ever going to get to finding them. She stood on Vietnam’s famous Route 1 and looked at the crumbling wall of what used to be part of Long Binh Post, the largest U.S. Army base in Vietnam during the war, and where her father had stayed.

The demons that had greeted him in Vietnam stayed with him, breaking his stride until the day he died. Now, they were long gone.

For the first time since she’d landed in Vietnam, Heather felt that her father was ready to join her for the last part of the journey.

Route 1 is a bustling highway now, full of semitractors pulling cargo supply trailers and hostile to pedestrian traffic. Heather knew her father used to travel this same road.

“Pull over,” she said to the driver. “I’m getting out.”

She took out the photo of her dad as a young company armorer, the one she’d been carrying with her since she left Pittsburgh.

On the back, he had written a note to a childhood friend, dated Dec. 7, 1967:

Dear Jeff

Some day I will be able to take this uniform off for good. And maybe some day men all over the world will see its mistake and lay down their arms and live in peace.

Heather looked at her father’s 21-year-old face and smiled.

“Let’s go, Dad.”

Heather and Bill Morris started to walk.

Traffic zoomed past her, blowing humid exhaust into her face. She kept walking, and walking. They had a hill to climb.

“I was taking the steps of my father,” she says. “I was taking them with him.”

In the 12 years since his death, she’d had so many questions for him. Now that she finally felt him walking next to her, she was silent.

“I felt the symbolic,” she says. “I didn’t need to talk to him. He was so there.”

And she was finally ready to go home.

Three months have passed since Heather Bowser, Nick Ut and I traveled to Vietnam, each of us with our questions about Agent Orange, and our own ghosts at our sides.

Nick had seen so much sorrow in his homeland during the war. He had lost two brothers, and was wounded three times. He’d seen little Kim Phuc running toward him, screaming as her naked body seared with napalm burns.

But Nick has a stubborn capacity for joy. It was he who insisted I take an early-morning walk around Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake to hear the Vietnamese women who gather there each day to sing a promise of friendship. When I was overwhelmed by the sight of so many children with disabilities, it was Nick who offered words of comfort, and regularly reminded me that there was much hope in Vietnam, too. And he has never lost touch with Kim Phuc, who is married with two children and lives in Canada.

Still, my country’s Vietnam War was Nick’s American War, and it is always with him. I was reminded of this in another exchange we had on the streets of Hanoi.

I was walking a few feet ahead of him, hot and sweaty, when I lifted my arms at my side to grab what little breeze was blowing.

“Connie,” Nick said, softly. “Connie.”

I whipped around. He looked like he was in pain.

He shook his head slowly, and explained.

“When you walk like that, when you walk with your arms out like that, I think of Kim. I think of Kim Phuc.”

When I started to apologize, he waved his hand and cut me off.

“It’s OK, Connie,” he said. “It’s OK to remember.”

He looked down at the ground, and kept walking.

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.

“I’m the daughter of a steelworker,” she told me recently. “I’ve always been about ‘union pride,’ ‘America first.’ My fear before I left for Vietnam was that I’d be used as a political pawn — by anyone.”

What she didn’t expect was to empathize so much with the Vietnamese veterans who were once her father’s enemy.

She remembers a particular exchange with a veteran whose first two children were born with disabilities.

“I see the same pain in your eyes when you look at your children that I saw in my father’s eyes when he looked at me,” she told him.

Sharon Morris says her daughter’s trip to Vietnam may ease the pain that has pulsed through her since the day she was born. But only America, she said, can heal Heather’s invisible wounds.

“I want our government to at least acknowledge that Heather, and other children like her in this country, suffered because of Agent Orange,” Sharon said. “I don’t want money. I don’t want medical care, although it would be nice if the VA covered Heather’s medical expenses. I just want her to get the satisfaction of their admitting to what they did, that they exposed our veterans’ children to Agent Orange. They denied it to our veterans for so long. Now I want them to acknowledge that they did it to our children, too.”

Heather’s feelings about the war, and her own country’s role in it, continue to be complicated.

“I think I understand now how confused everyone was,” she said when we met last October in Hanoi. “And I’m glad to see that their children of Agent Orange are being cared for.”

But then a month after her return from Vietnam, Heather sounded more conflicted in an e-mail.

I think I have a wall that is up to block the reality of [the children’s] situations because it is overwhelmingly painful to understand the children there suffer like I have. The most horrifying is, due to hot spots and genetic generational issues, [Vietnam] will continue to have innocent victims. . . [S]omeday they will understand they are different, like I did in Kindergarten class.

The truth in the matter is I am them. . . they are me. We are so common it is frightening. My parents and their parents have suffered. . . It takes so much day-to-day to make it through this life with the cards we have been dealt:

How do we have what it takes to finish this battle?. . .(I) am left to fight, not for myself anymore, but for the younger generation, the babies. How do I fight for them when I am still a victim myself? It’s a heartbreaking reality. . .”

Still, she is aware of her privileged American life, which was driven home by a visit to Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. There, she would see jars of deformed stillborn babies and take ragged breaths as she met children with eyeballs the size of tea cups, flippers for limbs, webbed hands and feet.

But she also met a 12-year-old boy, sitting in a wheelchair, smiling at her.

“He was my mirror image,” she said. He was missing the same leg and virtually all the same fingers.

Heather gestured with her camera, looked quizzically at the boy. He nodded, and lifted his left hand toward her. She lifted hers and they matched their hands.

“Tell me I’m not a child of Agent Orange,” she said weeks later, when she showed me the photo in Ohio. “Same limb loss, same war.”

Not, however, the same care.

“I have a $25,000 leg,” she said. “The Shriners always made sure I had what I needed. And I have a great life.” Her voice broke.

“That boy? He’s stuck in a wheelchair. He’s living in a hospital.”

Her voice trailed off.

Three days after Heather’s return from Vietnam, on Nov. 1, 2010, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs announced it had added three additional medical conditions to the list of presumed illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a list first established in 1991.

Heather’s mother called to tell her the news.

“The VA has changed its mind,” Sharon said. “Dad’s heart disease is finally on the list.”

Heather didn’t say a word.

Instead, she dropped to her knees and started to cry.

Scientists have designated 28 dioxin “hot spots” that must be cleaned up if Vietnam is ever to fully recover from the war that ended more than 35 years ago. There are ways to do this, but it’s expensive, and Vietnam is a poor country.

In 2007, the nonpartisan Aspen Institute convened a fact-finding U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Last year, the group issued a formal plan to help “eliminate the public health threat of dioxin hot spots, improve the lives of people with disabilities, restore the defoliated land, and remove a barrier to fully normal U.S.-Vietnam relations.”

Divided into three phases over 10 years, it would cost an estimated $300 million in U.S. government commitments, money raised by private and public donors and “an appropriate continuing investment from the government and people of Vietnam.”

Last year, in late December, U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak announced that the U.S. had set aside almost $17 million to clean up the area around the Da Nang Airport in central Vietnam, which was sprayed heavily with Agent Orange during the war. Total cost of that project is estimated at $34 million.

Cleanup is scheduled to begin in July.

Last October, I arrived in Vietnam full of questions.

Most important, I wanted to witness the legacy of Agent Orange. I got more than I bargained for, and some sad, hard memories threaten to take up permanent residence in my mind.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe these new ghosts will help me add a small, persistent voice to the chorus of American scientists, policymakers, journalists and activists calling for an act of conscience, not confession. We cannot change the fact that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam is the reason millions of innocent people there continue to suffer from exposure to an herbicide we sprayed on them more than 35 years ago. But through humanitarian and private aid, we can alter the future for generations of their children, and their grandchildren.

I also went to Vietnam hoping to finally understand what had happened to the boys from my hometown who left for the war as goofy kids, and too often returned as haunted old men.

That mystery continues to hover. Some stories are understood only by those who lived them. My respect for the survivors — men and women, in both countries — only grows.

I returned to American soil on Saturday, Oct. 23. My first conversation about my trip took place at U.S. Customs in Houston, where an official who looked young enough to be born after the war ended peppered me with questions.

“How long were you in Vietnam?” he asked, examining my journalist’s visa.

“Eight days,” I said.

“What were you doing there?”

“Reporting on Agent Orange.”

He looked up, stared at me for a few moments.

“Agent Orange?” he said. “Isn’t that old news?”

Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange


About Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Plain Dealer and Creators Syndicate, and is a regular essayist for Parade magazine. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for columns that judges praised for providing “a voice for the underdog and the underprivileged." Also in 2005, Connie won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Commentary and the National Headliner Award for Commentary.

Comments are closed.