Editor’s note: This commentary is by Susan Hammond, who is the executive director of the War Legacies Project, a Vermont based-organization that provides comprehensive support to families heavily affected by the long-term impacts of war in Southeast Asia. She wrote this last week while in Vietnam with Sen. Patrick Leahy and others.
In April 1970, my father went to Vietnam for his second tour in the Army Corps of Engineers. My siblings and I were just old enough to watch the war on TV, but most of the time the Vermont hills restricted the signal, so we remained blissfully ignorant of what was happening. My dad came home safely, or so we thought.
Forty-four years later, it is his daughter who is heading back to Vietnam. Like my father I will land at the former Da Nang U.S. airbase, now a major commercial airport. And my visit is directly related to the war. It ended nearly 40 years ago, but it still affects my family and hundreds of thousands of American and Vietnamese families.
When I first went to Vietnam in 1991, curious about the land that took my father away, I found a very poor country, still with many bombed-out buildings and war invalids begging on the streets. But I also found a postwar generation eager to pick up the pieces and move forward. It was a country on the verge of great change and I wanted to be part of it.
I returned to Vietnam in 1996 to study Vietnamese. I was amazed at the changes in just five years. Office towers, luxury apartments and hotels were replacing the shattered buildings. The new “Dragon” economy was booming, erasing most remnants of the war.
About this time, Vietnam returned to my father: he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. We now know that this is one of the many devastating health and environmental effects that can be attributed to Agent Orange, the herbicide U.S. forces used in Vietnam.
I have spent most of the past 15 years addressing the impacts of Agent Orange. More than 12 million gallons of herbicides contaminated with dioxin, a known carcinogen, were sprayed in Southeast Asia during the war. The Vietnamese estimate that it affected the health of up to 3 million people, including several hundred thousand children who were born with disabilities.Hundreds of thousands of U.S. Vietnam veterans and their families have also been affected.
The hard fact now is that more than two dozen dioxin “hot spots” remain at former U.S. military bases where the herbicides were stored and handled. Many are places where people walk every day. They are still exposing those born long after the war to dioxin.
For many years, the issue of Agent Orange in Vietnam was too politically charged to touch. The Vietnamese were afraid people would think the whole country was contaminated. The U.S. government thought Vietnam’s claims of damage were a propaganda ploy. The blame game derailed action on both sides.
I began to try to raise awareness about the situation and did what I could to help families caring for people believed affected by Agent Orange. Slowly, others joined the effort, including the Ford Foundation’s Vietnam country director, Charles Bailey, who took on this issue when no other donors would. Ford-funded research established that dioxin contamination was limited to former U.S. bases and outlined a remediation plan.
In late 2006, President Bush visited Vietnam and agreed with President Triet that addressing the Agent Orange residues “would make a valuable contribution to the continued development of their bilateral relations.” It will come to no surprise to Vermonters that much of the progress since then has been due to Sen. Patrick Leahy. He has ensured U.S. funding “for the remediation of Vietnam conflict-era chemical storage sites, and to address the health needs of nearby communities.”
That is why I am in Vietnam again. Along with Leahy and Vermont’s Rep. Peter Welch, I will witness the “power-up” moment in which a U.S.-built plant starts heating dioxin-contaminated soil at Da Nang to 635 degrees F, breaking the toxin down into harmless molecules. By 2016, the site will no longer threaten the nearby population. By then, work will also have started at the Bien Hoa base and, with luck, at other contaminated sites.
Thanks again to Sen. Leahy, the U.S. has begun to provide assistance to affected people in Vietnam. Some U.S. funding gives “direct assistance for disabled persons in areas that were heavily sprayed with Agent Orange or are otherwise contaminated with dioxin.” One USAID project serves people in Da Nang with disabilities “regardless of cause” and has helped several hundred children go to school or receive physical therapy. Dozens of people have been helped to start a small business or get vocational training.
Progress on this issue was made possible when all sides agreed to drop the blame game and just address the human need. But much remains to be done. Many children and young adults with severe disabilities live in rural areas with limited access to services. Their families struggle to survive, unable to both work and care for them. Thanks to our donors, my organization and its Vietnamese partners help provide medical care, prosthetic limbs and scholarships, or livelihood training in things like animal husbandry, but it’s not enough. This is the population U.S. funding needs to reach.
Those who have been affected in Vietnam are not asking for much, just acknowledgement that they have been harmed by Agent Orange, in the ways that hundreds of thousands of American veterans like my father were harmed.
I will applaud as the dioxin remediation project starts up in Da Nang, and I will thank Sen. Leahy for all he has done to get us to this historic moment. But the United States needs to do more on the human health side of the problem for our own veterans and for those in Vietnam who have been affected. It is time for the real healing to begin.