The Scars of Agent Orange

The Forgotten Ones: A Legacy of Agent Orange – Part 2 of 3

(This program aired on KQED’s The California Report on Nov. 23, 2010.)

By K. Oanh Ha

During the Vietnam war, the US military sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange over South Vietnam to destroy enemy hiding places, often drenching American troops and their allies. South Vietnamese soldiers describe the spray likea fog that was still there when they went into the jungles with the American troops on patrol.

In the decade from 1961 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed a total of 12.5 million gallons of dioxin-laced chemicals over Vietnam. The dioxin affected Vietnamese soldiers and civilians through direct exposure, and through the food supply, as the chemical concentrates in the fatty tissues of staples like fish and duck.

The Vietnamese government says more than 3 million people suffer from disabilities and cancers because of their exposure to dioxin, a toxic byproduct of Agent Orange. One of those people is Bui Tuy Son. A non-smoker, he lays dying of lung cancer on a bed made of wood planks in his home in the Quang Nam valley of central Vietnam. A recording of a Buddhist chant wafts through the hut to help ease him into the next world.

Son’s wife Le Thi Tham keeps vigil. She says Son was in pain for more than a year but couldn’t afford to see a doctor. The family sold its rice fields to care for him, and has nothing left. Without the income from rice fields, the extended family must help care for Son and Tham. Tham says her husband believes he was exposed to Agent Orange while spying for the Americans in the jungles of this region. Son’s cousin, Bui Duc Thanh, fought on the opposite side during the Vietnam war, but now speaks up for Son.

"He’s told us many times that ‘I did what the Americans asked me to do and did it well,’" Thanh said. "But after the war, they don’t know my name. They’ve abandoned me and have no concern for me."

Today, California recognizes dioxin as known to cause cancer and developmental harm. But when American planes soaked this valley with Agent Orange, says Chuck Palazzo, a former Marine who lives in Danang, there was scant information about its health effects.

"One of the things that I think about probably daily is what our commanding officers told us about this stuff," Palazzo said. "Essentially it’s so safe you can drink it."

It wasn’t uncommon for Vietnamese to reuse the metal drums that held Agent Orange as drinking water barrels. South Vietnamese soldiers recall patrolling the jungles, wet to the skin with the chemicals. Others loaded and unloaded Agent Orange with no protective equipment. Huynh Van Dan is a former infantryman who patrolled the jungles of Quang Nam valley alongside American troops. Dan remembers the mist of chemicals settling on him during patrols.

Since his service in the war, Dan and his wife Truong Thi Loan have had 10 children. Five of them live only in grainy photos on the family altar. Loan spoke about her dead children in whispers and shuddered at the memory of their distorted bodies.

"Their legs and feet were contorted," she said. "Their eyes protruded. They protruded and were big."

The children died before they were four years old. Another five children survived but are mentally challenged. Those children now receive monthly government stipends of about five dollars. Loan says that recognition eased their guilt. Neighbors had shamed Dan for fighting on the U.S. side.

"They said we had done bad things and my ancestors were evil and that’s why my kids were born that way," Loan said. "Now we know we were affected by the Agent Orange poison."

Former communist soldiers in Vietnam get top priority for medical and cash benefits; after that come civilians. Soldiers who fought for the U.S. are third in line and often don’t get anything despite an order from the Vietnamese government to distribute aid evenhandedly. Le Ke Son oversees the nation’s Agent Orange program in Hanoi. He says local officials are not supposed to discriminate, but sometimes the old loyalties have an influence on who gets aid.

"It’s possible that in a village, people still hate each other," Son said. They might look at each other, he said, and think, "you shot dead my father, my mother, so why should you got to benefit from the revolutionary regime."

A former vice-chair of Vietnam’s foreign affairs committee, Ton Nu Thi Ninh put it this way: "It’s asking a bit much, a lot of generosity from you us, you know, to say we’ll take care of both our own soldiers and the soldiers who were fighting against us," she said. "That kind of magnanimity, in theory I understand. In this real world, will take time."

The US government disputes the extent of the health impact of dioxin in Vietnam, and is reluctant to tie aid to Agent Orange. This is a point of contention between the two governments. Le Ke Son says the U.S. government needs to take responsibility.

"You brought the Agent Orange poison here and sprayed it," Son said. "It’s about responsibility and having a conscience."

Congress has spent $46 million dollars in Vietnam over the last decade to help the broader group of Vietnamese who have disabilities, but U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak, based in Hanoi, said it’s not U.S. policy to tie the aid to Agent Orange.

"The fact remains-I mean we settled all of our war-related incidents with the end of the war," Michalak said. "We believe that it’s from a humanitarian perspective, it is to the benefit of U.S.-Vietnam relations for us to deal with disabilities regardless of cause, and that’s what we’re doing."

Thirty-five years after the war, the scars of Agent Orange refuse to fade away. The Vietnamese say the diseases now extend well into a second generation.


Part 3: A Haunted Landscape



About K. Oanh Ha

K. Oanh Ha has reported on Asian American issues and Asia for the last decade. She came to KQED Radio from the San Jose Mercury News, where she was the paper's Asia Pacific correspondent. Her work included coverage of the economic rise of Vietnam and China, as well as of dissident movements in both countries. Her stories also explored the impact of globalization and the connections between Asia and America—from venture capital to Korean hip-hop to Japanese toilets. She is currently a reporter and Vietnam bureau chief, based in Hanoi, for Bloomberg News.

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