30 years after the fighting stopped in Viet Nam, Agent Orange still wages war
VIET NAM: You’ll note that in this article Viet Nam and Ha Noi are both spelled out in two words, as opposed to the Americanized spellings Vietnam and Hanoi. We maintained this spelling at the request of the author. “Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language, and all its words consist of one syllable,” Edward Tick says. “When I write about Viet Nam, I use the original spelling as much as possible to restore cultural integrity and return a little of what we have taken through Americanization of the globe. It is small but it counts.”
Viet Nam’s endlessly rolling flatlands covered with rice paddies glow an emerald green. The Mekong Delta, stricken with killer floods for the past six summers, is a floating nest of variegated green vegetation. And the mountains of the Central Highlands, with their steep slopes and narrow, snaking highways, are covered with green weeds, scraggly bushes, or quick-growing trees.
This lush living carpet stretches from one end of Viet Nam to the other. But it is deceptive. After one recent visit to Viet Nam, I reported the Delta’s opulence to an American veteran, a “river rat” who had patrolled the muddy Mekong in his deadly boat. “That’s what it first looked like when I arrived in ‘65,” he said. “By the time I left a year later, it was nothing but a wasted moonscape.”
Between 1962 and 1971, in an effort to expose guerrilla forces hiding in forested areas, the United States military sprayed 11.7 million gallons of an herbicide known as Agent Orange on Viet Nam. By Vietnamese count, 4.5 million of 25.5 million acres of forest and 585,000 of 7 million acres of cultivated land were destroyed. The Central Highlands were hit particularly hard: The timberlands, once thick with 120-foot trees, were reduced to matchsticks; the jungles were left muddy and barren.
Viet Nam has made urgent efforts to reclaim and restore its land at the cost of $120 to $200 per acre—a vast sum for an impoverished country in which the per capita income is only about $480 a year. The Vietnamese plant fast-growing but nutrient-sucking eucalyptus trees from Australia on barren mountains away from farmlands. These prevent further erosion and are harvested to make paper. Peasants and cooperatives plant tea, coffee, pepper, and other cash crops. Now plantations, tree farms, or spreading scrub weeds instead of impenetrable jungle constitute the Vietnamese earth’s green swath.
While the environmental ruin wrought by this wartime tactic remains a subject of great concern, the Vietnamese are especially haunted by Agent Orange’s effect on their physical health. Over the years, heavy rains in Viet Nam have washed much of the defoliant through the ecosystem and out to sea. But according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, dioxin—which is contained in Agent Orange and is linked to cancer and birth defects—can get lodged in human DNA and be passed from generation to generation. No one knows when or even if it can ever be cleansed.
From north to south, from Ha Noi to the Delta, families have had to endure Agent Orange’s tragic legacy. In Hoi An, on the coast of the South China Sea, Do Thanh Son, a marble worker in his mid-20s, had to quit school to support his elderly parents and his older brother, who developed normally until age 3, then disintegrated until he “became mad.” Farther up the coast, in the ancient imperial capital of Hue, famous for the brutal battle portrayed in the movie Full Metal Jacket, Tu Ai, a woman in her 20s, tells her neighbor’s story: The family’s father was infected by Agent Orange during the war. Later he married and had seven children, all of whom who were “strong, intelligent, and attending school.” Each child, upon reaching the mid-teens, “became foolish.” One by one they lost their ability to read, speak, and finally to perform everyday functions. The aging, heartbroken parents had to keep these loved ones in wooden cages while desperately struggling to earn a subsistence living and seek “repair.”
In Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, and all the other major cities and towns of the south, children like these dot the sidewalks, begging as they walk on their hips, crawl, or push themselves on makeshift carts—their useless limbs dragging, dangling, or slung over their shoulders. In rural villages, where the vast majority of the country’s 82 million citizens live, families and neighbors loyally tend to these dependent, impoverished children who, with no medical or rehabilitative resources, often spend their lives on tiny cots, in their mother’s arms, or carried in a sling.
In November 2000, the Ha Noi-based Research Center for Gender, Family, and Environment in Development concluded that children in families affected by Agent Orange can suffer “skin rashes, severe personality disorders, memory loss, enlarged head, organ and metabolic dysfunction, missing or abnormal reproductive organs, miscarriages, cancers, numbness, hearing loss, child deaths, birth defects.” The center also fears that such effects may “have no time limit” and calls survivors born long after the end of the war “victims of time-delayed violence.” The Vietnamese refer to these children, who are scattered across the cities and countryside, as Tre Em Bui Doi: the dust of life.
There is one place, though, where these children are not dust: the Hong Ngoc Humanity Center in Sao Do, a town nestled in the verdant stretch of rice paddies midway between Ha Noi and the Gulf of Tonkin.
As a psychotherapist, I have been working with Viet Nam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder since 1979. In May of 2000, I co-led, with Professor Steven Leibo, our first journey of reconciliation to Viet Nam. Now, annually, I escort groups of veterans, vets’ wives, siblings, and children, Amerasian young adults, professors and teachers, protesters, activists, adventurers, and students through the battlefields, Buddhist shrines, cemeteries, schools, and healing centers of Viet Nam. We meet with Vietnamese veterans who fought the Japanese, French, Chinese, and Khmer Rouge Cambodians as well as the Americans. We seek to encounter the Vietnamese people and culture as they are, to discover what they feel about war and about us. We seek to discover what has become of them since what they call the American War ended. We seek to build a personal and lasting reconciliation, peace, and friendship within ourselves and between our people and countries that were once, wrongly and tragically, enemies.
On that first journey, north and south, both in cities and along the countryside, we met countless people without arms or legs, or whose bodies were deformed, or who had developed strange mushroom-shaped tumors on their scalps, faces, arms, and legs. We arrived at the Hong Ngoc Humanity Center just a month after the 25th anniversary of our war’s end. At the time, the Humanity Center was a long warehouselike building containing a sheltered workshop for 270 disabled children, who made and sold silk needlework, hand-sewn garments, and intricate carvings out of stone and wood. Ranging in age from the early teens to mid-20s, these young Vietnamese were either deaf and mute or physically disabled or both. One girl had no legs below her mid-thighs and wobbled as she struggled to walk. A boy with only an upper torso pulled himself along the floor on a makeshift wooden platform.
I spent much time talking with Van, a young man with a strikingly handsome face, a beatific smile, and eyes blazing with intelligence. Instead of fingers and toes, though, he had twisted, craggy claws (and these only after surgical repair). Van told me he was born in the immediate area, as were all the residents at Hong Ngoc. No Agent Orange had been sprayed this far north. But his father, a soldier in the south, had fought in the white-powdered jungle. After Van was born disabled, his parents wished to have one normal child, because in Viet Nam adult sons not only carry on the family name and heritage, they care for parents in their old age. A second child was born with identical deformities. Then another. After a fourth similarly disabled child was born, Van’s parents gave up. He was the only one lucky enough to find a place at the Humanity Center.
Shocked by what I was hearing, I turned to my guide, assistant director Nguyen Thanh Diep. “Don’t worry,” he said. “There are not so many children like this in Viet Nam. Now only about 35,000 children like this are born every year.”
I have returned to Hong Ngoc for extended visits every year since that first visit. In 2002 my group was greeted again by Diep and another teacher, Doan Xuan Huan, both 27. They explained that while there were 185 teens in the center, 60 percent of whom were deaf and mute, only 5 percent now suffered from Agent Orange-related disabilities. As my group toured, I met many students, dressed in clean white shirts, silently sitting or gossiping as they labored over their sewing frames. I saw no disabilities that, like Van’s, would shock the uninitiated. It appeared that in one year’s time the center had been transformed into a school and workshop for the deaf.
When my group left to tour the picturesque Ha Long Bay, I remained behind and Diep explained that the center had been forced to change its emphasis because there was no work, training, or government support available for children disabled by Agent Orange. And since it had proven difficult to teach wood and stone work to the most severely disabled children, the center had reluctantly sent some of them home.
I asked whether any of the deaf-mutism was caused by Agent Orange. I was also curious where the remaining children affected by Agent Orange were working. Making sure no tour buses were in sight, my friends asked a few students who had been out of sight to join us. First two, then three students limped over. One had shins shaped like flat plates standing on their sides. A second had a severe humpback. A third had hands and feet shaped like hooks. Others kept appearing. I asked Diep where they had been. “I must minimize Agent Orange reports to tourists because Americans and other nationalities do not want to see or hear of it,” he explained. “We receive no government funding and are dependent on selling our products. We cannot afford to lose customers because they don’t want to see our students.”
“But this is more than 5 percent of your population with Agent Orange disabilities right here,” I said as more handicapped students gathered around us.
“Five percent is the number of medically proven Agent Orange disabilities,” he replied.
We were surrounded by more young adults than I could count, all with twisted or misshapen bodies, all patient, friendly, willing to tell me their stories.
Tap, age 21, had severe hand and foot deformities, and a younger sister at home had the same disability. Their father had been born in 1958 near the Laotian border in an area that was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange.
Dang, age 19, had a humpback with severe upper spinal deformities. Her father, now 48 years old, fought with the North Vietnamese army in the heavily sprayed south and now suffered from red, crusty eyes and skin rashes.
Without definitive medical or genetic testing, Diep said, no officials or family members claim dioxin poisoning, mainly because money and resources for performing such tests don’t exist. In families with only one or two disabled children, no causal connection is claimed. Only when most or all of the children in a family have similar disabilities is Agent Orange cited as a factor. As a result, the number of afflicted children probably far exceeds official estimates.
Doan Xuan Tiep raised enough money to open Hong Ngoc Humanity Center in 1993 and take in 40 children. The former soldier is now director of the center, which receives no government funding but still manages to expand steadily, thanks to donations and the sale of goods produced by residents. Hong Ngoc now has enough school, work, and dormitory space for about 300 residents.
In addition to its main building with work and sales facilities and a cafeteria, wings contain residential living quarters: tiny rooms that house between 8 and 20 residents and are lined with bunks two or three beds high. Trunks crowd the little available floor space, and every patch of exposed wall is decorated with photos of family members or fading magazine pictures.
Some students arrive having previously been cared for like babies, their disabilities compounded by lack of exercise and movement. The staff provides physical therapy, practice, and training every morning. Thuy, for instance, learned to walk for the first time after having been at the center for only a few months. He was 20 years old.
The center is not only a refuge for the children of war. Dinh, age 55, has worked there since 1996. He was a truck driver on the Ho Chi Minh Trail from 1968 until the war’s end, hauling supplies from the north to the south. He was wounded during B-52 raids over Laos and exposed to Agent Orange there and along the border. “The grasses died. The trees died. The ground was flattened. We had to get our food and water from the forest that remained and many of us got infected,” he says.
Though he was disabled from his service, he remained in the military until 1990. Then he received two years of reeducation. “I came here to help other handicapped people,” Dinh explains, “because there are so few good chances for the handicapped in a country as poor as Viet Nam.” About the suffering caused by the war he said, as do most Vietnamese, “I do not think Americans made the war, but were forced to obey their government. It was a very hard time for everybody.”
The Vietnamese are not alone in their suffering. On my most recent reconciliation journey to Viet Nam, in May 2004, two American veterans traveling with me were afflicted with Agent Orange-specific disabilities.
Lynn Kohl worked as a nurse in the Central Highlands during the war. “When I gave birth to my daughters, I did what I thought was best—I breast-fed them,” she reports. “I did not realize that Agent Orange is stored in fatty tissue [including breasts], and so my daughters received megadoses. In addition, both girls were born with medical and other problems associated with AO. One father was a vet, the other was not, discounting the Veterans Affairs theory that AO is transferred through sperm. They’re suffering because of this, and my guilt has been tremendous. The VA refuses to address these problems and the M.D.’s I’ve gone to—and there have been many—have said things like, ‘She’s spoiled, you’re an overanxious mother.’ Or they knew nothing about AO and said if it did exist it wasn’t their problem, it was a government problem! How can you fight that?”
Jim Helt, now 63, was an Air Force officer during the war. “I was exposed to Agent Orange during my yearlong assignment at Bien Hoa Air Base,” he explains. “After my return home, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer; I believe it was related to exposure to Agent Orange. Later I became diabetic. I do not fit the profile of a diabetic and believe it is related to Agent Orange exposure. It took decades for the VA to recognize diabetes as an outcome of Agent Orange exposure.”
Robert Cagle, another veteran who was traveling with us, has several friends who suffer like Kohl and Helt. He speaks of one colleague who, “like me, was a grunt who humped through the bush for a year.” Fifteen years ago he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (even though there’s no history of the disease in his family), and now he has faulty heart valves (which has also been linked to Agent Orange). “Over the years I have met numerous people who have suffered such effects,” Cagle continues. “My heart goes out to them as I see the damage it has done to their lives and their insignificance to our government, which caused this to happen.”
Veterans who return to Viet Nam to achieve reconciliation often realize that the fate of Americans and Vietnamese are now one, our people united as victims of the same suffering caused by modern war.
No one knows how long the dioxin in Agent Orange lodges in the DNA or how many generations will inherit its effects. In Viet Nam, severe disabilities that have been blamed on the defoliant are appearing in a second generation since the war. Last year in Hong Ngoc’s province, which has a population of 1 million, over 300 cases of extreme disability were discovered.
The Hong Ngoc Humanity Center is a haven from poverty, helplessness, and despair. Its three centers now serve about 500 disabled people, and thanks to its entrepreneurial spirit, and help from friends abroad, it is expanding its reach. Its residents count themselves lucky, since some 3 million disabled young people are living all over Viet Nam.
“My generation will never be free of suffering,” concludes Dinh, the 55-year-old vet who drove a truck on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “But we can work together for the future and for our grandchildren, to make sure they never see war again.”
Assistant director Nguyen Thanh Diep agrees, pointing out that Hong Ngoc means Rosy Jade. “We chose this name for our center because our people are not the dust of life. No matter how disabled, our children are precious gems. Vietnamese people know who the gems are.”
Edward Tick is director and senior psychotherapist of the Sanctuary: A Center for Mentoring the Soul in Albany, New York. He is known for his groundbreaking work with Viet Nam veterans—as well as veterans of World War II, Korea, El Salvador, Lebanon, the first Gulf War, and the present war in Iraq—suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The author of The Practice of Dream Healing (Quest, 2001), he has two books forthcoming this year: The Golden Tortoise: Viet Nam Journeys (Red Hen, April 2005) and War and the Soul (Quest, November 2005).