This story is part of the special report Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange
By Connie Schultz, with photographs by Nick Ut
They are the forgotten veterans.
Dr. Chi Nguyen is protective of them. It takes weeks of negotiating before she is convinced that our journalists’ motives are pure.
“If they believe you want to hear their stories, they will not be able to stop talking,” she says. “They have kept these stories in them for a long, long time.”
We drive for three bumpy, dusty hours from Hanoi to the small mushroom farm and commune in Ninh Binh Province. The farm, in English, is called the T&B Resource Center. Its Vietnamese name is Thuong Binh & Benh Binh, for “the injured and the invalid.”
A couple of rotating electric fans fail to deliver on their promise in the crowded community room. Nearly two dozen Vietnamese veterans pull up chairs and lean toward me.
They are all women.
Some of them still wear the uniforms of their youth. A few hold disabled children in their arms. They lock eyes with me, and stare.
Every few minutes, when one woman starts to answer a translated question from me, and others immediately join in.
“Please!” Dr. Chi says in Vietnamese, smiling as she repeatedly motions for them to quiet down. “Speak one at a time. Let us listen to every person’s story.”
Some of the women begin to quietly rock in their seats, embraced in their own hugs. A few dab at tears or stare at the ground. Slowly, the collective theme of their lives rises like a song:
They were girls — some as young as 14 — when their fathers and brothers started going off to the war.
We did not want to be left behind, one after another said. We, too, wanted the honor of defending our country.
There were thousands of girls and women just like them.
Many of them left home to toil on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an artery of roads, trails and rivers used to supply North Vietnam’s soldiers in the South.
Planes flew overhead. The spray fell like rain.
The world fell silent. Birds no longer sang, there were no more animals. Trees were black skeletons pleading to the sky.
Our bodies started to change . . . Our hair fell out. . . . We stopped menstruating, some of us forever . . . Our young faces turned ashen, and then grew very old.
All of them suffer from the legacy of Agent Orange, including the few children and grandchildren who live there.
Men would not marry them. Their country would not honor them. Their families were ashamed of them.
Only women bear this burden in Vietnam.
In 1996, war veteran Madame Pham Thi Cuc founded the mushroom farm co-op, where the women now work together to grow and harvest various types of edible and medicinal mushrooms.
“We have shareholders,” she said proudly. “We have more than 20 workers. And we have one another. After what we endured in the war, we can do this. The poor help the poorer.”
Dr. Chi has started a medical file on each one, and cobbles together the means to treat their diseases, which include diabetes, hypertension and various cancers.
But they also have a place where, finally, they feel they belong.
And, increasingly, they have their champions.
“Those women volunteered when they were young and cheerful. They came back looking like they were in their 40s. There is no man who wants them,” veteran Phan Thanh Hao told me. She is the co-author of the book, “Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War From North Vietnam.”
“Thirty years ago, when you saw deformed fetuses in the hospital, it was hard,” she said. “Now, 35 years later, you go to the kindergartens and you still see deformed children. That is harder.”
Phan had agreed to meet for coffee in a small cafe in Hanoi the day after I’d visited the farm. In English, she grilled me about what I was going to write about the women.
“Do not feel sorry for us,” she said. “Do not beg for us. It is really hard to say how America can help. People want to get rid of their guilt with money. But the question is bigger than that.”
She gathered up her purse and notebook, and pushed away from the table.
“With Agent Orange, people are suffering. Women are suffering,” she said. “You can never, ever say we won the war.
“Nobody won the war.”
Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange