Nguyen Duc My, 27, is studying embroidery in the hope of getting a job.
His classroom is in the Vietnam Friendship Village, a 20-year-old rehabilitation center for Vietnamese war veterans, their children and grandchildren, who are affected by exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed across Vietnam by U.S. forces, now understood to damage humans across generations.
My, his teachers told me, has better mental skills than many of his classmates, did well in a computer class, and now is the best student in embroidery. Do you expect to get a job once finished here, I asked?
“Difficult,” he said, “because I’m physically disabled, too.” My has palsy.
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My is a reminder of the progress that’s been made here with respect to Agent Orange – and what’s left to be done.
Going back after 10 years
It’s been 10 years since I first reported about Agent Orange here. I returned last month to see what, if anything, has changed. It struck me then, as it does today, that Agent Orange is the cruelest remnant of the Vietnam War.
Agent Orange is a defoliant. U.S. forces sprayed 13 million gallons of the stuff across about 10 percent of this country between 1961 and 1971, in the belief it deprived enemy forces of cover for troop movements and supplies.
Dioxin, the active ingredient in Agent Orange, is highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones, according to the U.S. EPA.
A half-million U.S. veterans, including 24,000 in Georgia, have been tested by the Veterans Administration for certain cancers and other diseases related to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Some are treated. Others receive monthly compensation.
For decades, the U.S. refused treatment or compensation to the children or grandchildren of veterans exposed to Agent Orange, because scientists were not convinced the defoliant caused “transgenerational effects.” But studies by the Institute of Medicine and others later concluded that such effects are “considerably more plausible than previously believed.” So, now the VA also treats and compensates the children of women (and a few men) who were exposed to Agent Orange and whose children were born with severe birth defects.
Far more Vietnamese veterans and civilians were exposed to Agent Orange, and the ground in many parts of the country was so contaminated as to be uninhabitable. And, today, the U.S. is spending tens of millions of dollars to clear the ground.
An incinerator at what once was the U.S. air base at Da Nang is heating two feet of dirt to temperatures approaching 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit in order to destroy the dioxin. It’s one of a half dozen “hot spots” the U.S. government intends to remediate.
But what of the people harmed?
There is nothing from the U.S. government for victims, either veterans, their children or their grandchildren. So, who stepped up? U.S. Vietnam veterans, who have returned to Vietnam as humanitarian-aid workers since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations.
One of them is the late George Mizo, an Army veteran from New England who was gung-ho about the war, but grew disillusioned and, once discharged, became an anti-war activist. Beginning in 1992, Mizo raised funds among like-minded U.S. vets to build what became the facility I visited last month.
The Vietnam Friendship Village is a 6.6-acre facility providing therapy and medical care for 100-120 children with a variety of mental and physical conditions, as well as education and vocational training, village officials say. About 40 adults also receive residential treatment services.
“The horrible experiences during the war,” Mizo said at the opening of the Village in 1998, “and the suffering of everybody on all sides inspired me to do something that would be a living symbol of peace, reconciliation and hope.”
Mizo died in 2002, in part from complications of exposure to Agent Orange, village officials report.
Volunteers augment the staff. I met a crew of physical therapy students from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “They just appreciate anything we do,” said Alicia, 20, who was finishing up her first week in a vocational class that teaches flower making. “The attention, the connection, getting closer with someone who cares about them.”
An organic garden that is tended by patients and helps feed them was funded by John Berlow, a U.S. citizen who “was struck by the lack of easy access to fruits and vegetables free of pesticide residue,” and raised the money to build it. Today, the garden produces 3.5 tons of food.
The Vietnam Friendship Village is not the only rehabilitation center for victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government and donors from mostly European countries have opened 12 Peace Villages across the country including one in Hanoi, which I visited 10 years ago.
The Thanh Xuan Peace Village is where I first encountered the disabled children of Vietnamese veterans, sometimes referred to as the “last ghosts” of the war. Most of them were mentally deficient. Some could hear, but not understand. Several had no eyes. The medical director I interviewed, a Vietnamese doctor, was so angry with what he called U.S. government indifference, that he strained to be civil.
A student with a good chance
The Vietnam Friendship Village emphasizes self-sufficiency. Come for two-to-four years, improve mental, social and vocational skills, then find work.
Bui Thi Hoa, 28, another student I met, thinks she has a good chance to find work and become independent.
I met Hoa in sewing class, where she was attaching the collar to a cashmere jacket she’d sewn. She’s the “best in class,” her teacher told me.
Hoa has spina bifida, which keeps her from moving around as she would hope, but it’s not a limitation behind the sewing machine.
That, and her smile of an optimist.
Greenman publishes the travel site www.36hoursincolumbus.com. He is the former president and publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer and is the Carter Professor and Chair in Journalism Emeritus at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.