Agent Orange and Vietnam’s Forgotten Victims

Danang, Vietnam – At 46, each year of misery seems to have etched new wrinkles around Tran Thanh Dung’s angry gaze.

When he was child in the early 1970s, Tran says he witnessed U.S. soldiers shoot his parents — both of whom were communist Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. Bent on revenge, he joined the guerrilla group within hours.

To this day, Tran weeps over the memories of bloodshed and the hellish cries of his dying friends. But one bizarre memory will haunt him forever. “The American airplanes came right toward me and dropped a mist in the jungle, and the next day, the trees were dead,” he recalled. “We weren’t scared. We were confused.”

Thanks to that experience, his son has been unable to walk since birth.

Tran was sprayed with dioxin, codenamed by the military Agent Orange — an herbicide that the U.S. Army used to kill off shrubbery in central Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s, so the Viet Cong would have no place to hide.

The defoliant is known to cause a myriad of birth defects in the children of those exposed. Today, Tran’s 18-year-old son suffers from a spinal disorder called spina bifida, an ailment Tran’s doctor said was caused by his contact with dioxin four decades ago.

“It makes all of us sad, our family and the Vietnamese people,” Tran said, adding that he wants the U.S. government to reimburse the families of Vietnamese soldiers for the effects of the spraying. “The problems of war will never leave us.”

During the Vietnam War, the United States sprayed up to 18 million gallons of Agent Orange around Vietnam, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.

The Vietnamese government, meanwhile, estimates that as many as 400,000 Vietnamese have died from illnesses related to exposure to dioxin, such as cancer. It also claims that up to 500,000 children have birth defects, such as spina bifida, because their parents were exposed.

The U.S. government insists the direct spraying of Agent Orange onto people — like in Tran’s case — cannot be linked to any illnesses in Vietnam. It does admit, however, that when the defoliant seeps into local water and food sources, people can get sick.

“The United States Government advocates the use of sound science,” said Jim Warren, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Hanoi, referring to an alleged lack of evidence for a link between certain illnesses and dioxin exposure.

Critics point out that this claim rests on an inconsistency: that former American soldiers who suffer from illnesses related to Agent Orange are eligible for veterans’ benefits.

Even though critics say the U.S. remains sticky on that one point, others say it’s making progress. In 2007, the U.S. government and the Ford Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit, began funding a clean-up effort at Danang airport, a brutally contaminated site in central Vietnam.

During the 1960s, pilots stored dioxin at the airport, which then leeched into the local water supply and soil. Farmers have been unable to grow certain crops for decades. But a 2009 assessment by a Canadian contractor determined the clean-up reduced human exposure “significantly.” The main bulk of the cleaning project is expected to start this year.

Still, that doesn’t wipe away the existing human toll that dioxin has created. Thanks to the contamination at that airport, the city of Danang and surrounding countryside are thought to have among the most dangerous dioxin levels in all of Vietnam.

About 5,000 people in Danang might be ill from exposure to dioxin, and about 1,400 of them are children, according to the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, a Vietnamese NGO that runs two rehabilitation buildings for disabled children. Those are significant numbers for Danang’s total population of 752,000.

For an organization that runs the only center for handicapped children in the city — housing 100 children while turning away the other 1,300 — the issue is that it doesn’t get the funding it deserves, said Nguyen Thi Hien, the group’s president.

“We need far more help from foreign donors,” she said, adding that she’s disappointed the U.S. “is not putting enough funds directly to helping the victims.” (USAID allocated $1 million of its initial $3 million aid package to helping victims.)

Some groups have already taken matters into their own hands, but without much success. In 2007 a U.S. appeals court in New York upheld a 2005 ruling by a judge to throw out a dioxin suit filed by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, based in Hanoi.

The group claimed in the lawsuit that several American chemical companies which produced Agent Orange during the war, including Dow, Monsanto, and Diamond Shamrock, were liable to reimburse victims for their suffering. But the appeals judge ruled the U.S. government had intended to use dioxin on foliage, not humans, and therefore its deployment did not meet the definition of “chemical warfare” under international law.

“This is a very sad situation,” Nguyen said.

The parents of afflicted children have similar complaints about inaction. “The [Vietnamese] government has done a lot to help us, but overall our country just doesn’t have enough money,” said Huynh Dang Eu, 41, who did not fight in the Vietnam War but says she was exposed through a local water source.

Her 10-year-old son, who also suffers from spina bifida, lies on a rug all day, arms and legs contorted in all directions. “The [Vietnamese] government gives us $30 a month to take care of him,” she says. “The hospital is an hour away.”

She goes on. “My husband and I have to work on the farm every day. We can’t hire a caretaker. When we get old and die, our child might have nowhere to go.” she said. “We’re poor, and I don’t think the American government realizes it, or even wants to know about this. So, do you think we’re being taken care of enough?”