written for Millionaire Asia, 2012

The Orange Pain

As an American in Vietnam, there exists a quiet symbiotic relationship to the people, its culture and the land. Discovering the Vietnamese society still suffers from the aftermath of the American-Vietnam War tears my heart into opposing directions.

It is easy to witness the war’s heavy footprints. A major reason is the Agent Orange herbicide mainly sprayed in Central Vietnam. This herbicide contains dioxin at deadly levels affecting anyone with constant exposure to it.

The American soldiers sprayed 75 million litres onto the Vietnamese land, destroying forests, farm vegetation and wildlife. The Americans called this “Operation Ranch Hand”. The handlers of these drums also got very sick upon their return from duty. Both Americans and Vietnamese suffer from cancers and birth defects as a result. Many unaccounted for died and yet still a greater number suffer invisibly from its effects.

The remnants of war are very clearly laden in Vietnam’s people and land. The dioxin remains in the soil and ultimately changes the ecosystem within the central highlands. Imagine: Bottom feeders eat the soil contaminated by dioxin, which in turn are eaten by worms, and finally, the ducks and fish will eat the worms. Over time, this cycle causes the dioxin to remain in the fat of these animals, making them toxic when humans finally eat them. This means they are ingesting an enlarged amount of dioxin.

Its chemical compound is a carcinogen which is linked to causing cancer, birth defects, skim malformations, reproductive system disorders and immune abnormalities, as far as we know. The U.S. government does not take fault for the Vietnamese or American veterans suffering.

The ugly truth

The number of Vietnamese soldiers affected by Agent Orange is much higher. The estimate is approximately three million people including the children and grandchildren of the veterans, two generations since the war. The Vietnamese affected can have children without brains, limbs, eyes or malformed organs. These birth defects were uncommon and unfamiliar to the Vietnamese, until the war ended. Then a trend of these births surfaced.

On top of that, the veterans fell ill and began acquiring all kinds of cancers. The one common strand all these victims have were that they lived or fought in areas where highly concentrated spraying of Agent Orange herbicide occurred. Although the Vietnamese people are resilient and want to make-do with the fate handed to them, the burden of taking care of the sick is great, especially when households bear many disabled children.

There is a lot to be done that can prevent birth defects that will continue to happen until someone re-foliates the soil. Currently, there has not been a mass action to clean up the contaminated soil. This should be a priority. In 2007, President George W Bush pledged USD300,000 to the Vietnamese government for research and to implement a clean-up of the Da Nang airbase where the Agent Orange drums were stored. President Obama in 2010 delivered the pledge. However, a mere USD300,000 is nothing more than an initial step; more would be needed to clean up all contaminated areas. This is a project that needs urgent attention.

Beyond cleaning up, there are also steps that the Vietnamese can take to prevent birth defects. For example, a common birth defect observed in babies affected by dioxin is Spina Bifida. It is known that folic acid helps counter this physical defect. Since it is cost effective, this would be an affordable and obvious choice that can give children more wholesome lives.

Before this step can be taken however, a prenatal care system must be in place for the mass populace who lives outside the cities, who have nomonetary funds or resources. Another example of prevention is the OGCDC (Office of Genetic Counseling & Disabled Children) in Hue, which is headed by Dr Nguyen Viet Nhan. He performs open-heart surgeries for younger children who may not be able to sustain themselves without these procedures. These surgeries range from 5-15 million dong (USD300-800). OGCDC’s success over the years now attracts over 30 donor organisations and individuals who support the cause.

Prevention of any illnesses is ideal. What happens to the victims who already have defects such as muscular dystrophy, malformed limbs, or dysfunctional organs, but have functional mental capacities? Victims sometimes only need rehabilitation of their joints or simple surgery before they can utilise majority of their limbs, but since their minds are sharp, they can still learn.

Join together

The Friendship Village, started by an American Vietnam War Veteran, is a facility in Ha Tay province (15km from Hanoi) that provides this kind of care. It is a self-sustaining environment that has a small farm providing crops that feed the “village” residents. There are also onsite classes for residents with the mental capacity to learn and work. There are computer classes as well as craft classes. These classes attempt to equip residents with the basic knowledge to be self-sufficient.

For the children who have no capacity to learn, they attend classes that are more like day care. These classes provide a space for the victims to remain active, interact with others and belong in a community. Impressed with the village, the South Korean Veterans Association based in Seoul, together with the Vietnamese government, plan to build a similar friendship village in Da Nang so that the poorest victims from the central highlands will have somewhere to go.

For children victims that are severely disabled with extreme cases of cerebral palsy or hydrocephalus (excess fluid in the brain), they would reside at home to be cared for and nursed by family members or they would be at a place like Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City under the directive of Dr Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong.

She was one of the first doctors who identified that the growth in birth defects after the war was not symptomatic of nature’s doing. Something unnatural had caused this surge in deformities. Dr Nguyen decided that babies who died at birth due to birth defects should be preserved to find the root cause of the malformation and offer proof of what chemical warfare had created. In part, their deaths would not be in vain. This part of the hospital is called the Hoa Binh Peace Village and was started by concerned Japanese citizens on the affects of Agent Orange. The victims here are namely patients who need care from nurses and doctors. However, they also have physical therapists to assist less severe cases.

There are residents that will never have access to these aforementioned resources since they live remotely. The only thing that can be provided for them is learning how to help them better cope with the situation. The same goes for war veterans that suffer from different kinds of serious maladies like cancers, chronic pain, massive migraines, amongst others. For example, giving them access to medical care and attention would be a priority. Helping them find a way to make a sustainable living would be another goal if possible. Some of these veterans already received minor monetary help from the government. The key is to find out what they need to make their already hard lives easier.

I am an American and I love the American idealism. That does not make me naive of the daily lives of others. I am very aware that the United States does not always commit the best actions. Yet, I believe this naiveté is necessary to motivate hope and change in the masses.

Through thorough study and collaboration, humans can overcome most hardships when transcending cultural lines together. All the good things that are happening in Vietnam now to ease this atrocity stem from collaborative efforts between other countries and Vietnam. It is hard to do something when humans know nothing. However, it is even harder to do nothing once humans know what can be done.

For the children who have no capacity to learn, they attend classes that are more like day care. These classes provide a space for the victims to remain active, interact with others and belong in a community.