The Vietnam War ended but a silent threat from Agent Orange remained, p. 2

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The U.S. Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, now links dioxin to various cancers, diabetes and nerve and heart disease among people exposed directly or indirectly, and to spina bifida in their children.

The body of research documenting Agent Orange’s devastating impact on Vietnam’s second- and third-generation postwar children has been growing steadily. In one oft-cited 2000 study, academics Le Thi Nham Tuyet of Vietnam and Annika Johansson of Sweden studied 30 Vietnamese women who were exposed to Agent Orange and/or married to men exposed during the war and found high numbers of miscarriages and premature births. About two-thirds of their children had congenital malformations or developed disabilities before the age of 5.

Agent Orange and the long-term effects

Agent Orange and other dioxin-contaminated herbicides were stored, loaded onto airplanes or frequently sprayed at the site marked on the map. The dioxin contaminate is still present in the soil at high enough levels to be harmful to people living at these sites today.

View Potential Dioxin Hotspots in Vietnam in a larger map

Site contamination level

Red: Priority hotspots in need of clean up and remediation.
Yellow: Sites with signifcant risk or where dioxin contamination has been found.
Green: Sites that have a lower risk level from dioxin contamination.
Blue: Sites where risk of residual dioxin is suspected.
Purple: Sites where more information is needed to determine risk level

Related content

War Legacies Project: Potential Dioxin Hotspots in Vietnam

This is not news, until you consider how many of us have never seen or read the admirable journalistic efforts to cover the unthinkable disabilities among children hidden away in small villages, orphanages and hospitals in Vietnam.

In 2007, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time and now president and CEO of the nonpartisan Aspen Institute, addressed the issue of lingering doubts about cause and effect in an essay for Time titled, “The Legacy of a Distant War.”

Forget laying blame, Isaacson wrote. The U.S. should make it “a humanitarian issue rather than a compensation case, and help immediately to clean up the contaminated sites.”

The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that up to 3 million adults and children in their country have suffered from exposure to Agent Orange. Until the hot spots are eradicated, their numbers will only grow.

I was nervous about what I’d find in Vietnam. I foresaw a relentless string of sad, hopeless stories full of helpless children and their grieving parents. I also could easily imagine meeting many Vietnamese citizens full of hostility for a nosy American.

I was wrong.

Thao Nguyen Griffiths was my tireless traveling companion. Having started life in a remote village in Vietnam, she didn’t want to become a teacher like her parents or to work for the Vietnamese government. Instead, she became a highly educated and sophisticated activist, championing the cause of her country and the people she loves.

The 32-year-old dynamo works for several advocacy groups, including the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. As VVAF’s country director, Thao has spent more than a decade lobbying for help to remove land mines and to clean up the hot spots of Agent Orange.

“I wanted to learn about land mines because it is a way for me to learn about my country’s war with the United States,” she told me.

Smiling softly, she added, “Then I started learning about Agent Orange.”

The Vietnam Reporting Project had arranged for Thao, who lives in Hanoi, to handle logistics for the trip, help establish contacts, set up interviews, and translate during many of the interviews.

Thao and I were in constant contact in the weeks leading up to my trip, and so I learned a lot about her before I ever got to Vietnam. At first, she was all business. But our conversation quickly turned mother-to-mother personal after she told me she and her Australian husband have two young children, Liam and Aimee.

I asked if she had worried about Agent Orange when she was pregnant.

“Everybody worries,” she said. “I have never met a Vietnamese woman who does not worry about that.”

Fear of birth defects has created a climate of anxiety for women of reproductive age, and doctors say abortions in Vietnam have skyrocketed in recent years. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, storefront clinics offer prenatal ultrasounds without a doctor’s prescription, and researchers report that some women are so anxious about birth defects that they get dozens of ultrasounds during a single pregnancy. The slightest indication of an abnormality can cause a woman to seek an abortion, which doctors say the government encourages.

In 2002, several weeks before she gave birth to her son, Thao took a five-day field trip to central Vietnam, which remains highly contaminated with Agent Orange. Her job was to survey children with disabilities in Quang Tri, formerly known as the DMZ, or demilitarized zone, which had served as a boundary between North and South Vietnam during the war.

“It was an eye-opening trip for me,” she said. “It was the first time I had personally met with so many children who were disabled because of a war that had ended many decades ago. They were kids born with disabilities, or kids who came in contact with unexploded munitions.”

She was haunted by nightmares for the remainder of her pregnancy.

“I kept having dreams that I gave birth to a child covered with hair, or missing limbs, or unable to see because he had no eyes.”

A French doctor delivered her baby in a Hanoi hospital. Thao remembers being unable to immediately share the doctor’s joy when he yelled, “It’s a boy!”

A nurse rushed Liam to Thao’s side. She grabbed at his hands, his legs, frantically counted his fingers and toes.

“Only then could I smile,” she said. “Only then could I be filled with joy.”

She let out a long sigh.

“So many mothers,” she said, softly. “So many mothers do not have that happy ending. Not in Vietnam.”

Then she laughed.

“No, no, we must not end on this,” she said. “You have to know, Vietnam is not about our sad stories. The Vietnamese are a forward-looking people. Martin Luther King did not begin his speech with, ‘I have a nightmare.’ ”

Thao’s themes of hope and forgiveness pulse through the Vietnamese culture. Repeatedly, others reminded me that Vietnam is not a country of grudges.

As one female veteran patiently explained, “If we hated everyone who invaded us, we’d have no friends.”

Photographer Nick Ut’s personal story is intricately tied to the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese call America’s War.

Nick, who joined me in Hanoi as a Vietnam Reporting Project fellow, was born in Saigon in 1951. He became an Associated Press photographer in 1969, four years after his beloved older brother, Huynh Thanh My, another AP photographer, was killed in the war. Three years later, Nick captured a jarring image that ran in newspapers and magazines around the world.

On June 8, 1972, Nick was standing on the road leading to the village of Trang Bang, which planes were attacking with napalm. Instinctively, he raised his Leica and focused on a 9-year-old girl who was running toward him, naked and screaming from burns on her tiny body.

After he took the picture, he threw water on the child’s burning skin and then rushed her to a nearby hospital, which saved her life. Nick left the hospital and turned in his film to Associated Press editors in Saigon.

His photo of Kim Phuc — commonly referred to as “Napalm Girl” — is widely credited for triggering worldwide outcry against the war. The following year, Nick won the Pulitzer Prize for photography. He was 21.

Nick was wounded three times during the war. Another brother was killed fighting for South Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, AP helped Nick flee to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1984. He now lives in Los Angeles.

Nick’s parents and four of his siblings have died. His remaining family lives in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. When I met him the morning of Oct. 15, he was three months away from celebrating his 45th year with AP.

Today, Nick is the equivalent of a rock star in Vietnam. A documentary about Nick and his work had run in Hanoi only weeks before we arrived, and so whenever we were in the city, he was swarmed by admirers, particularly elderly women. He was ever patient, pausing in his work to smile and often show them his latest shots on the camera’s view screen.

I didn’t have to spend much time with Nick to understand that he has never been able to leave behind the children, and his own memories, of Agent Orange.

“It would come down like rain,” Nick told me, only hours after we met. “I worried — later, when we started finding out how bad it was — I worried that I had been exposed. But I’m fine. My children are fine. My grandchildren are fine.”

He smiled, shrugged his shoulders.

“I am lucky,” he said. “So far, I am very lucky, you know?”

He shook his head. “But the children you will meet here, Connie?” he said. “They are not so lucky.”

Part 2: Friendship Village provides support to people affected by Agent Orange


About Connie Schultz and Nick Ut

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." Nick Ut joined the Associated Press in 1966, when he was 16, following the death of his older brother, Huynh Thanh My, an AP photographer who was killed in combat the year before. Nick himself was wounded three times during his coverage of the war. Since the war ended in 1975, Nick has worked for the Associated Press in Tokyo, South Korea, Hanoi, where he opened the bureau in 1993, and Los Angeles, where he currently resides with his family.

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