War veteran, son of war veteran.
It has been said that “war is hell”, and I can’t think of a more accurate truism. Any war and especially those that have abounded in our modern history which include taking innocent civilians through the gates of hell, reflect the absolute worst in our humanity; and when you add the human made atrocities that seem to be inherent in war, you compound the evil of war and the hell becomes even (if possible) more savage and disgusting. Then there is the Vietnam – U.S. war in which the dimension of conflict gets expanded even further into a horrid legacy that refuses to be left behind.Agent Orange Related Facts (to the best of my research and knowledge).
Agent Orange: An herbicide mixture containing the poison Dioxin (tetrachlorodibenzodioxin / TCDD)
Agent Orange was one of 15 types of herbicides used by the U.S. military in Vietnam between the years of 1961 to 1972 to defoliate the jungles of South and Central Vietnam in “Operation Ranch Hand”
19 million gallons of Agent Orange was sprayed over 4.5 million acres of Vietnam between 1961 and 1972.
Agent Orange was supposed to be diluted, 20 parts water to one part herbicide however firsthand accounts from some Vietnam veterans report that the spraying of undiluted Agent Orange was not uncommon. The Agent Orange Record (agentorangerecord.com) has veteran testimonials and accounts of their experiences with the dioxin.
Dow Chemical and Monsanto were two of the primary manufacturers and suppliers of Agent Orange to the U.S. Department of Defense.
As many as 4 to 5 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange and it is reported that another 5 million Vietnamese spanning 3 generations of Vietnamese are suffering from medical conditions related to Agent Orange.
The following are some of the diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure: Diabetes, Hepatoma, Hodgins Disease, Lymphoma, Spinal Bifida, reproductive abnormalities and over 15 classes of Cancer including Prostrate and Respiratory Cancer.
In Hai Phong City alone, over 7000 people have been certified as having Agent Orange related diseases or afflictions.
Dioxin remains in the soil and in the sediment of rivers, streams and coastal waters for an indefinite period of time.
U.S. Military personnel affected; 2.8 million U.S. military service men and women had boots on ground between 1962 and 1975. I could not find an accurate estimate of how many of those 2.8 million Americans were affected by the dioxin, but some estimates are in the hundreds of thousands up to over a million; and those numbers do not reflect the effects of agent orange on the children and grandchildren of those directly exposed to and affected. In 2010 the U.S. government appropriated $16.2 million in compensation to veterans with Agent Orange related diseases or disabilities. The Veterans Administration did not correlate this compensation directly to Agent Orange. And as far as I can tell the children and grandchildren that are affected are not covered by this or any other monies appropriated.
My father towards the end of his military service
I was 11 years old when my dad who was in the USAF at the time was deployed to Vietnam. The Vietnam war was beginning to get more publicity but at that time it was still a war in a far off land. A war against the “communists” and there probably weren’t too many people, Americans anyway, that thought that this war against a small communist country would last very long. We were the strongest, most powerful country in the world, and by God we were the United States of America, no one was going to beat us. That said I still remember that day, and like thousands of other American military family members I was very sad to see my dad going off to the “jungles” of Vietnam. I had no idea of what he would face, or for that matter what either country would endure over the next 10 years and because of that war, beyond.
My father who was stationed in Bien Hoa, one of the agent orange “hot spots”, returned to the U.S after his year in Vietnam, retired from the air force and passed away in 1983 at the age of 51. Cause of death, not certain. We know that he was a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker, either or both could have led to his early death. As to whether or not he suffered from PTSD and possibly the effects of Agent Orange, is unknown for sure. Personally I have no doubt that the answer is yes to both, but we will never know for sure.
2007 – 2015
Through our involvement with KWB both Dawn and me over the last 8 years have seen probably hundreds of babies and children in orphanages from Hanoi to Saigon that were victims of agent orange. The devastating stories of these babies and children that are often handed over to orphanages shortly after birth is beyond heartbreaking. Parents that are not equipped financially or emotionally do deal with a child that is partially or in many cases totally incapacitated both physically and intellectually sometimes have little choice but to give their babies away. The orphanages KWB supports and others do their best to provide a nurturing and safe environment for these children. It is difficult to look into the faces of these babies and children, for to do so is to look directly at the war and the horror of its legacy. Many of these children will not survive to adulthood. Understanding the gravity of this situation compelled both Dawn and me to learn more and if possible, do more.
January 2016, just before the Chinese New Year or as it is named in Vietnam, the Tet New Year, Dawn and me were approached one of our “Kids Without Borders” (KWB), volunteers (Phuong), to meet with the one of the Vice Directors of the Vietnam Agent Orange Victims Association (VAVA) in Hai Phong province. VAVA (vava.org.vn), VAVA is a national Vietnamese non-profit organization that among other things represents victims of Agent Orange and coordinates efforts to assist victims through government as well as private humanitarian means. We had a cordial information sharing discussion and we were surprised to find out that although there were over 7000 “certified” victims of Agent Orange in Hai Phong Province, VAVA has estimated the total number of victims at closer to 17,000. To be certified the government has to perform a physical on the potential victim and conclude through testing that indeed the person’s condition is directly a result of dioxin poisoning. Many of those afflicted live in small villages or elect not to get medical care for their conditions and so the number is probably much larger. Although the spraying of herbicides was primarily in the south of Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers fought in the South and thus were affected and then returned to their homes in the North of Vietnam unknowingly bringing with them the poison that would later cripple and kill many of their offspring.
A few weeks before the Tet New Year Phuong organized a quick (over 3 weeks) fund raising drive in order to help those families of Hai Phong affected by Agent Orange that are in the most need of assistance. Primarily through her efforts we were able to raise close to $1,500 to donate to these families. With that money we purchased food and some household goods for 20 families with enough cash left over for each family to buy whatever they needed or wanted.
On a cool drizzly morning in early February I drove with Phuong and the Director of Hai Phong VAVA to a town about 90 minutes outside of Hai Phong. I wasn’t sure what to expect or knowing in advance that I had to speak, what to say. Once in town we were met by a few city government officials and two other representatives of VAVA and we proceeded to into a small government office meeting room where a crowd of approximately 35 individuals sat waiting. There were several war veterans and family members, some of them had deformed or missing limbs, some had less obvious affects, some were just there representing family members who so incapacitated by their impairments, they could not make it to the event. A few of the officials gave short speeches and in not one of those speeches was there a negative statement against the United States, and it almost seemed ironic that everyone in attendance seemed eager to hear from me and genuinely excited to shake my hand and say thank you. For my part I did give a short speech and thanked them all for being there and presented the money we had raised and the household goods. After the event everyone wanted to take pictures with me, including the war veterans themselves. Before returning to Hai Phong the VAVA took us to a two homes of veterans who could not make it to the event. In both homes the veterans were incapacitated and in one of the homes an older grandson was also incapacitated (paralyzed from spinal bifida) and has been bedridden for 3 years. There homes were small and sparse but clean, and again they the hospitality the afforded was (given their situation) humbling to say the least. This was indeed a day of mixed emotions from gratefulness to these people’s humility and kindness to a deep rooted shame for the history that resulted in so much pain and heartache.
Young man paralyzed from spinal bifida
War is never moral, there is no virtue in war. War is not glamorous, it is pure evil and it is never final, never really over. It lives on in the memories, in the heartbreak, in the nightmares, and the faces souls and of those scarred, maimed, those who suffered, those who loved those that suffered and loved those that died. Dead soldiers do not come back to life after war
And so here I am immersed in Vietnam, almost 2 years into a 3 year tour. One part discovery, one part penance, one part a search for answers that are not and probably will never come to me. Is there anything, anyway to salvage a shred of decency from this hell, any rectitude at all?
Not really, because the pain does not die, the memories do not die and because after war, dead soldiers do not come back to life. But once you have become intimately aware of this war, once you have looked into the eyes of victims, seen the cost of this ongoing evil, you have to do something.
A special thanks to the QSI International School of Hai Phong whose administration and families donated a majority of the funds collected for the Hai Phong victims of Agent Orange.
Agent Orange Record (agentorangerecord.com) A comprehensive look at agent orange and the effects on both the Vietnamese and Americans.
Penlive – The 40 Year War (www.penlive.com/protect 2014/agentorange/ Tells the story of several veterans and their lives post Vietnam.
Vietnam Reporting Project (vietnamreportingproject.org/2011/1/agent-orange/-vietnams-last-battle
Aspen Institute (aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/agent-orange/cleaning-dioxin-contaminated/soils