International Agent Orange Day, August 10, is a call to address the present-day consequences of the war in Vietnam, which ended more than 40 years ago. It took decades for the U.S. government to recognize the legacy of cancer, nervous system and circulatory disorders, and birth defects left behind by the application of the defoliant to the jungles of Vietnam. “Agent Orange is a humanitarian concern that we Americans can do something about,” said Charles Bailey, who worked with the Ford Foundation and Aspen Institute to move the American government beyond its years of denial.
“Much has been done,” Susan Hammond affirmed, “but much remains to do, whether the cause is Agent Orange or war or trauma or lack of resources.” Hammond directs the War Legacies Project, a nongovernmental organization that has been working at the grassroots level in Vietnam for over a decade.
Santa Barbara’s Catholic Church of the Beatitudes is tackling the consequences of war and Agent Orange, in a small but significant way, by supporting the work of Dr. Nguyen Viet Nhan, dean of physiology at the Hue University of Medicine and Pharmacy. Our contributions provide physical therapy for children and families in remote and impoverished villages of Central Vietnam.
The Human Cost
August 10 is the day 55 years ago when concentrated doses of defoliants and herbicides, often referred to collectively as Agent Orange, were first sprayed on the forests and fields of Vietnam to destroy the enemy’s protective cover and reduce their food supplies. Though the United Nations banned the use of these chemicals under its Geneva Convention on Chemical Weapons in 1969, it wasn’t until 1971 that the United States ended its spraying program in Vietnam.
By that time, 24 percent of the upland forests and 36-50 percent of the coastal mangroves had been sprayed, according to US military records. The area comprised 12 percent of the fields and forests of what then was called South Vietnam.
From 2.3 million-4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to the spray, a Columbia University study determined, as were Laotians and Cambodians, military personnel from the U.S., Australia, Korea, and New Zealand, and workers worldwide who manufactured and transported the chemicals.
Estimates of the number of people around the world affected by the chemicals — more exactly, by TCDD dioxin, a contaminant found in the majority of the chemicals sprayed — vary from several hundred thousand to over a million. In Vietnam, localized residual “hot spots” remain toxic to this day and continue to expose the present generation.
The Ongoing Work
“It is vital to both celebrate the success so far and to spotlight the need to significantly further expand official American assistance to Vietnamese children and young adults with disabilities linked to dioxin,” said Charles Bailey, who continues to visit Vietnam and foster dialogue between nations on the issue of Agent Orange.
Though some controversies remain, thanks to 40 years of international dioxin research and a 25-year-long study of the research by the Institutes of Medicine, U.S. veterans, who were once sent to the VA psychiatric ward if they linked their symptoms to Agent Orange exposure, are now eligible for compensation. Australians, Canadians, Koreans, New Zealanders, and Vietnamese, too, are all now eligible for compensation by their respective governments. A full list of the diseases for which U.S. veterans may currently be compensated can be found at www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/conditions/.
In Vietnam, the mangrove forests have been restored. Work has begun to decontaminate the soil round three former U.S. military bases, where dioxin levels remain toxic. The Vietnamese government has established criteria for identifying victims of Agent Orange, and a nationwide network, the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), has begun to address some needs.
Since 2007, the U.S. Congress has appropriated $170 million to tackle Agent Orange issues in Vietnam, Bailey said, with three-fourths going to clean up dioxin contamination at the former Da Nang Air Base, and the other fourth to fund disabilities programs, “regardless of cause.”
More needs to be done. Forester Phung Tuu Boi, who has been inventorying the effects of Agent Orange since 1974, works to develop alternative incomes for people whose way of life depended on the upland forests. He talks of lateritized soils where nothing will grow and increased erosion and flooding across 28 river basins.
Wayne Dwernychuk, senior consultant to the Canadian Hatfield group, which did the earliest research on persistent dioxin contamination of the soil, notes that while three of the major U.S. bases are being decontaminated, no one is yet talking about work on the two dozen other hot spots remaining.
Merle Ratner, codirector of the Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, calls for support of a bill currently before three House committees, the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015 (HR2114), sponsored by Barbara Lee, with 25 cosponsors.
And there is still a great need for direct service to the poorest people in remote villages, say Hammond and others who work at the grassroots.
A Grassroots Clinic
Dr Nguyen Viet Nhan was a physiology professor at Hue Medical College 20 years ago, completing his PhD study on the link between selected birth defects and exposure to Agent Orange. Though he found high numbers of children with birth defects in areas that were heavily sprayed — 10 percent of the children, compared to the expected 3 percent — he also encountered suffering among the children and their families that was unfathomable.
“We don’t need to know about the past,” he remarked at the time. “The war is behind us. We know a lot about dioxin already. What we need now is knowledge to help these children and their families.”
Dr. Nhan spent the next two decades organizing a school for blind students, a craft shop for deaf workers, the Office of Genetic Counseling and Disabled Children, and, most recently, an early intervention treatment center for very young children with disabilities. He has enabled thousands of children to get specialized medical care by securing small and large donations from foreigners and Vietnamese alike. In the process he has gained a reputation for integrity and direct service to poor patients.
Santa Barbara’s Beatitudes community has partnered with Dr. Nhan to help provide physical therapy to families from remote villages. A child and a caregiver can receive transportation to Hue, housing and food, and three months of therapy for the child and training for the caregiver for as little as $130. At the end of that time, the caregiver can continue the work at home and has skills to share with the rest of the village.
The Beatitudes community also hopes to be able to help Dr. Nhan with funding for staff at at least one of the four new sites he has recently established. He has the physical plant, but needs to recruit more physical therapists and aides. “Beatitudes is about making a difference in people’s lives through gift and presence,” explained Jeannette Love, a priest serving the community. “Our simple financial offering will be used to teach children and their caregivers lasting and life-changing therapy.”
Another member of the Beatitudes community, Tom Heck, is a Vietnam-era veteran and musician. He speaks of his contribution as a matter of justice. Calling the widespread use of Agent Orange in Vietnam “a disastrous situation,” he acknowledges the discomfort of pointing “the finger of guilt at ourselves.” He helps Dr. Nhan, nonetheless, saying, “This injustice needs restoration.”
To help the Church of the Beatitudes contribute to Dr. Nhan’s work, please send a donation made out to Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, with “For Dr. Nhan” in the subject line, to Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, c/o Carol Murray, Treasurer, 1480 Theresa Street, Carpinteria, CA 93013.