San Francisco Chronicle
24 March 2003
new casualties of Agent Orange
Shadows of Agent Orange
Third generation of Vietnam victims
Bensinger, Chronicle Staff Writer
Giang, Vietnam -- Five-year-old Phuong looks out at the world through
huge, sad eyes as she wiggles her shoulder deeper into her mother's
attempt to hide is not just shyness. Phuong has already learned
that strangers are less interested in her sweet face, her gold earrings,
her cheerful cotton dress than in her left arm -- a useless stub
that ends just below the armpit.
other arm is normal, if you overlook the hand with only three fingers.
So are her legs and feet, though she has only nine toes. When her
mother tries to show visitors the deformities, Phuong cries uncontrollably.
three decades after the Vietnam War ended, Agent Orange has reached
the third generation, and Phuong is another casualty.
half of Vietnam's 82 million people were not yet born when the last
U. S. helicopter lifted off from Tan Son Nhat Air Base in the frantic
days of April 1975. For most of the others, trying to make their
way in this poor but vibrant nation, that time is part of their
past, not an issue in their daily lives.
Son Nhat, once a U.S. military hub, is now a busy international
airport with duty-free merchandise for sale. Parts of the Ho Chi
Minh Trail, the supply route that crossed hundreds of miles of mountains
and jungles, have been incorporated into the north-south highway
being constructed down the western edge of the country. Farmland
in central Vietnam is scarred with huge bomb craters, some used
now to raise catfish.
if war is just one prism through which the history of Vietnam can
be viewed, it still refracts occasionally on the present and the
future. Agent Orange continues to claim victims. Land mines pock
swaths of the countryside. A generation of middle-aged Vietnamese
women lack husbands in this family- oriented culture.
A DAILY REALITY
the residential treatment center where Phuong shares a sunny, aqua-
painted room with three other youngsters, Agent Orange is a daily
reality. All of the 30 boarders and nearly half of the 100 day students
are suffering from its effects: twisted or stunted limbs, bodies
covered with tumors, some blind or deaf children, others with faces
in perpetual pain.
the war, Phuong's grandfather was in the demilitarized zone in central
Vietnam when U.S. planes dumped defoliants on the region in an attempt
to deny cover to North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas.
Now, she and the other boarders are attended by parents learning
how to care for their disabled offspring at home. The least afflicted
children will be taught trades such as embroidery or handicrafts.
COST IS PROHIBITIVE
Nguyen Thi My Hien, a retired pediatrician who raises money for
the center, said it would cost an unaffordable $2,000 per child
for complete batteries of tests to establish the connection between
their conditions and Agent Orange. But the incidence of afflictions
matches wartime bombing patterns, she said, even in cases like Phuong's
that skipped a generation.
government is scrambling to find resources for dealing with Agent
Orange, dioxin and other defoliants, including medical care and
environmental cleanup. Contributions from abroad, local businesses,
nongovernmental organizations and some sympathetic governments --
though not the United States -- finance individual projects.
U.S. government is really in denial about Agent Orange. The official
policy is not even to discuss it," said Chuck Searcy, the Hanoi
representative of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the group
that built the memorial wall on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
chemicals dumped across much of Vietnam during the war were teratogens,
cause birth defects in the offspring of those affected, said Dr.
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, who served as a battlefield surgeon in Vietnam's
successive wars to oust the French and the Americans.
who lost her own son in January to cancer she links to Agent Orange,
an obstetrician/gynecologist after the war and began seeing deformed
babies in her practice.
the affected populations will stop being able to reproduce, she
said, adding that she suspects the worst is not over: "Many
strange illnesses are continuously arising."
the former war zones, lives are lost and bodies shattered to the
left- over rubble of war. Between 1975 and 1998, the last year for
which figures are available, an estimated 38,000 people were killed
and 67,000 maimed by buried land mines and unexploded ordnance.
says the estimates are quite low," said Searcy, the memorial
fund representative, who also oversees a pilot mine removal project
in Quang Tri Province under the auspices of Asian Landmine Solutions,
which raised the $249, 000 to launch it. The project, in the Triet
Phong district, is training Vietnamese deminers and educating local
residents about danger zones and the risks to "hobby deminers"
looking for scrap to sell.
Vietnam military is in overall charge of demining, Searcy said,
but it does not have enough trained deminers or equipment to accomplish
a national cleanup without outside help. If villagers report possible
bomb or mine sites and nothing happens, he warned, people will stop
being vigilant -- but, with the army's resources overstretched,
"there's not always somebody who can come get it."
far, the Triet Phong project to set up local demining teams has
been successful, Searcy said. The hope is to expand the model elsewhere.
"The Vietnamese wisely like to do things in a small way first,"
he said. "They like to have a small success rather than a big
date, donations for various nonmilitary demining efforts have come
from individuals or international nongovernmental organizations.
Only a trickle of cash and equipment for demining and ordnance disposal
has been received from the U.S. government, Searcy said.
cited a study showing that the three provinces that comprised the
demilitarized zone could be cleaned up for about $1 billion over
five or six years. "The Vietnamese can do it -- they just need
equipment and training," he said.
Hue, a city linked in memory to the January 1968 Tet offensive,
a war widow named Nguyen Thi Van and her friend Le Thi Suong exchanged
recollections of their days in the "long-hair army" --
women who worked carrying documents, transporting food and weapons,
helping wounded soldiers escape, digging tunnels, sometimes even
them and many of the 30 or so other members of the Lonely Women's
Club - - part social club, part support group, part micro-credit
establishment, sponsored by the Vietnam Women's Union -- war marked
their lives forever.
this family-centered society, all are single. Some are widows, others
are stigmatized by the wartime hardships they endured. Some never
found mates because so many potential husbands died on the battlefield.
Some broke the social taboo against unwed motherhood.
Thi Van supports herself and her son making brooms and raising animals.
She said she is weak, the result of torture endured when she was
imprisoned for two years by the South Vietnamese army. Le has headaches
and faints often, conditions she linked to her exposure to Agent
Orange. One of her four adult children is affected by the chemical
as well, she said.