Part 4 in a series by Myra MacPherson, adapted from an article published in Consortium News February 16, 2015:
Valley of A Luoi. Kan Lay, 55 years old, and her son, Ke Van Bec, 14 years old, physically and mentally handicapped, posing to show to the world the effects of chemical weapons such as agent orange.
Image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
We travel further south, to Nha Trang. This fashionable resort mecca — with high-rise hotels, turquoise bay and sandy beaches — is in wild contrast to another world that tourists do not see. We visit a spotless home filled with family mementos; photos everywhere, stuffed toys near a Buddhist shrine. Lying flat on a brightly colored mat are two sisters with horribly twisted limbs, spines too weak for them to sit up, ravished by Agent Orange birth defects, carried to them genetically through a Vietnamese soldier father.
Their mother, with a smiling face and pleading eyes, moves them to a wall and props them up. Their bodies are so small that they look far younger than their ages. One is 30 and her sister is 20. An awkward silence envelops the room as visitors stand, helpless.
Don Blackburn, another Vietnam Veteran who works non-stop to aid Agent Orange victims, plunks himself down between the two, as casually easy as a comforting friend. The sisters smile gratefully at him. Their father has left the family and the mother is frantic with worry about who will care for her daughters when she becomes too old or ill.
It would be hard to underestimate the damage Agent Orange dioxin caused. Between 2.1 million to 4.8 million Vietnamese citizens were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other poisonous chemicals, according to the American Public Health Association. Agent Orange poisoned the soil where Vietnamese grow crops, the rivers and streams where they fish, and created cancer, illnesses and birth defects, now into this younger generation.
From 1961 to 1972, U.S. aircraft sprayed poisonous herbicides, until this lush country looked as grey and denuded as the moon. In all, more than 19 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed over 4.5 million acres of land.
Americans who view the Vietnam War as an ancient event stare in shock when visitors returning from this country tell them that the dioxin affects children born today.
American veterans who suffer from Agent Orange diseases have had to fight governmental denial and scorn, some recognition of related illness and compensation, although often inadequate, has finally happened. However, the United States still refuses to attribute diseases, illness and defects among the Vietnamese to Agent Orange.“It is hypocritical for the U.S. to place this unnecessary burden of proof on the Vietnamese while it does not do so for its own veterans,” says Palazzo, who works here with Agent Orange victims. He cites
international and Vietnamese studies linking dioxin to health and birth defects here.
The United States bristles at Vietnam claims that half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many as 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange. There is no measure to prove they are Agent Orange victims but some studies estimate that the rate of birth defects here in Vietnam has quadrupled since the war, and that most of them occur where Agent Orange was sprayed or stored.
Myra MacPherson is the author of the Vietnam classic, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. She has continued to lecture and write about Vietnam and veterans.