Agent Orange: Helping Vietnam Heal

In April 1970, my father went to Vietnam for his second tour in the Army Corps of Engineers. My siblings and I were just old enough to watch the war on TV, but most of the time the Vermont hills restricted the signal, so we remained blissfully ignorant of what was happening. My dad came home safely, or so we thought.

Forty-four years later, it is his daughter who is in Vietnam. Like my father I landed at the former Da Nang U.S. airbase, now a major commercial airport. And my visit is directly related to the war. It ended nearly 40 years ago, but it still affects my family and hundreds of thousands of American and Vietnamese families. When I first went to Vietnam in 1991, curious about the land that took my father away, I found a very poor country, still with many bombed-out buildings and war invalids begging on the streets. But I also found a postwar generation eager to pick up the pieces and move forward. It was a country on the verge of great change and I wanted to be part of it.

I returned to Vietnam in 1996 to study Vietnamese and teach. I was amazed at the changes in just five years. Office towers, luxury apartments and hotels were replacing the shattered buildings. The new "Dragon" economy was booming, erasing most remnants of the war.

About this time, Vietnam returned to my father: he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. We now know that this is one of the many devastating health and environmental effects that can be attributed to Agent Orange, the herbicide U.S. forces used in Vietnam. I have spent most of the past 15 years addressing the impacts of Agent Orange. More than 12 million gallons of herbicides contaminated with dioxin, a known carcinogen, were sprayed in Southeast Asia during the war. The Vietnamese estimate that it affected the health of up to 3 million people, including several hundred thousand children who were born with disabilities. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. Vietnam veterans and their families have also been affected. For many years, the issue of Agent Orange was too politically charged to touch. The Vietnamese were afraid people would think the whole country was contaminated. The U.S. government thought Vietnam's claims of damage were a propaganda ploy. The blame game derailed action on both sides.

In the late 1990s I began to raise awareness about the situation and did what I could to help families caring for people believed to be affected by Agent Orange. Slowly, others joined the effort, including Charles Bailey who at the time was the Ford Foundation's Vietnam Country Director. Ford took on this issue when no other donors would. They funded research that determined that dioxin contamination was limited to about two dozen former U.S. bases. Places where people walked every day that were still exposing those born long after the war to dioxin. Ford outlined a remediation plan that enabled the US and Vietnam to develop a common language to discuss this issue and break the dead-lock.

In late 2006, President Bush visited Vietnam and agreed with President Triet that addressing the Agent Orange residues "would make a valuable contribution to the continued development of their bilateral relations."

As a Vermonter I am proud that much of the progress since then has been due to Senator Patrick Leahy. He has ensured U.S. funding "for the remediation of Vietnam conflict-era chemical storage sites, and to address the health needs of nearby communities."

That is why I am in Vietnam again. On April 19th I witnessed Senator Leahy and his bi-partisan Congressional delegation "power-up" the U.S.-built plant that will heat dioxin-contaminated soil at Da Nang to 635° F, breaking the toxin down into harmless molecules. By 2016, the site will no longer threaten the nearby population. By then, work will also have started at the Bien Hoa base and, with luck, at other contaminated sites.

It is also due to Senator Leahy that the US has begun to provide assistance to affected people in Vietnam. One USAID project serves people in Da Nang with disabilities "regardless of cause" and has helped several hundred children go to school or receive physical therapy. Dozens of people have been helped to start a small business or get vocational training. I was happy to hear Senator Leahy state in Da Nang last week that the US wants to improve services to people with disabilities in Vietnam "including what may have been caused by Agent Orange." Unfortunately, the US Embassy is not yet willing to make this distinction. Progress on this issue was made possible when all sides agreed to drop the blame game and just address the human need. But much remains to be done. Many children and young adults with severe disabilities live in rural areas with limited access to services. Their families struggle to survive, unable to both work and care for them. Current US government funding is not reaching this population and is not targeted at those with disabilities that the Vietnamese believe "may have been caused by Agent Orange". Local and international organizations are trying to fill in this gap. Thanks to our donors, my organization and its Vietnamese partners help provide medical care, prosthetic limbs, scholarships, or livelihood support, but it's not enough. However, the numbers of Vietnamese with profound disabilities in need of services are within reach of a comprehensive US funded response working in partnership with local Vietnamese organizations. Those who have been affected in Vietnam are not asking for much, but they are asking for acknowledgement that they have been harmed by Agent Orange, in the ways that hundreds of thousands of American veterans like my father were harmed. Leahy statement in Da Nang goes a long way towards moving the US towards that acknowledgment.

Following the ceremony, Sen. Leahy and his wife Marcelle visited the home of two young boys with physical and developmental disabilities. Forty-four years after the end of the war this was the first visit by a high level US government representative to an Agent Orange impacted family in Vietnam. I am hopeful it is not the last. I applaud the dioxin remediation project in Da Nang and thank Senator Leahy for all he has done to get us to this historic moment. But the United States needs to do more on the human health side of the problem for our own Veterans and for those in Vietnam who have been affected. It is time for the real healing to begin.

Susan Hammond is Executive Director of the War Legacies Project, a Vermont based-organization that provides comprehensive support to families heavily affected by the long-term impacts of war in Southeast Asia. Susan has worked closely with the Aspen Institutes Agent Orange in Vietnam Program. A previous version of this commentary appeared in Vermont Digger.