Among the lush green fields of rural Dong Hoi in Northern Vietnam, down gravel roads furrowed with potholes, we come to a stop outside a crumbling home, a rusty wheelchair languishing on the front porch. As we’re ushered inside, a lamp is suddenly flicked on, flooding a cramped, dank bedroom with light. Accustomed to hours lying alone in the dark, his body wasted and worn, 33-year-old Thuan flinches at the light then smiles wearily as we walk in.
“By the age of 24, he couldn’t move himself at all,” says Lai of her son, Thuan. “So he’s been lying on the bed for eight years. He can do nothing. He can’t even hold a candy to eat.” An empty mattress lies beside Thuan, a painful reminder of his brother, Truong, afflicted with the same condition and who died a few years ago in his mother’s arms when he was 23.
Looking anxiously at her bedridden son, Lai explains, “When Thuan was small, he was able to crawl like normal children but he couldn’t walk. When he was 15, he could sit in his wheelchair and help me with the cooking but then when he was 24, his kidneys caused him so much pain that he couldn’t get out of bed. He’s been like this ever since. The doctors say he doesn’t have much longer.”
When I stroke his face, he lets out a contented sigh and a smile radiates across his face. I’m struck at how a simple touch can mean so much to this man, waiting patiently at death’s door.
In Ho Chi Minh’s Go Vap Orphanage, 1200 kilometres south, lies three-year-old Truc, born with hydrocephalus – an abnormal enlargement of the brain cavities, commonly seen in Agent Orange cases, and caused by a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid. While it can be managed with surgery, hydrocephalus can lead to brain damage or death if left untreated.
As I’m brought into the ward Truc shares with 11 other sick children, he rests in his cot staring at me, a frightened look on his face. Unable to say a word, a tear slowly forms and falls across his cheek. As I go to carefully wipe it away, I’m surprised by how taut his skin is – a result of his condition. His terrified eyes latch on to mine; another tear forms and falls. He cannot raise his own hand to wipe it away.
Thirty years apart in age and yet impaired by disabilities from the same cause – Agent Orange – Thuan, Truc and hundreds of thousands of others across Vietnam are testament to the struggles people suffer every single day since the spraying of the toxic defoliant during the Vietnam War. Now, 40 years after the war’s end, the effects of Agent Orange are no less prevalent, nor harrowing – claiming younger victims as each year passes.
Named Agent Orange after the coloured stripe on the barrels it was stored in, the US Army sprayed approximately 80 million litres of the herbicide over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam, from 1961 to 1971. Dubbed “Operation Ranch Hand”, Agent Orange was used to defoliate forests, to “smoke out” and weaken the Viet Cong by decreasing their food supplies.
According to the Zumwalt report for the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Agent Orange was an approximately 50:50 mixture of the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The latter was found to contain the contaminant TCDD (dioxin), which is one of the most toxic known chemicals.
Unearthing the truth
Dr Wayne Dwernychuk, an Agent Orange specialist and retired senior scientist and advisor with Hatfield Consultants, which provides environmental services, conducted extensive research on the impact of toxic defoliants in Vietnam for more than 15 years. He explains how reports began to emerge from Vietnam stating that in areas where Agent Orange had been sprayed, birth defects and an array of health problems were becoming commonplace.
Rejected as “communist propaganda” by the US, herbicide manufacturers were in fact “aware of and conducting studies on its toxic effects” says Dwernychuk. Evidence indicates “that those in charge of the programme (ie the US government) were aware of the potential consequences of Agent Orange exposure, and the claim of ignorance by the US military was unfounded”. To this day, the chief manufacturers of Agent Orange, Monsanto and Dow Chemical, fail to admit to any wrongdoing.
Spraying continued for almost a decade until the summer of 1969 heralded a change. Firstly, newspapers in Vietnam began reporting on the increased rates of birth defects in the regions sprayed with Agent Orange. Secondly, results of a study were released that showed dioxin could cause birth defects in some laboratory animals.
The White House subsequently ordered a partial curtailment of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam in October 1969 and as supplies slowly dwindled, aerial spray missions ended on January 7, 1971. Herbicide 2,4,5-T was later banned in the ’80s because this was the component of Agent Orange which contained dioxin.
In the aftermath of the war in 1975, up to 4.8 million Vietnamese people had been exposed to Agent Orange, causing 400,000 deaths. The Vietnamese Red Cross says local studies have shown that as many as a million people now have disabilities or other health problems associated with Agent Orange – approximately 100,000 of them being disabled children. Meanwhile, dioxin remains in the ecosystem.
Studies have shown that dioxin remains at “alarmingly high concentrations in soils, foods, human blood and human breast milk in adults and children” who live near former US military bases. This exposure can lead to a host of ailments, according to the Zumwalt report, including many types of cancers, birth defects, skin disorders, auto-immune diseases, liver disorders, psychosocial effects, neurological defects and gastrointestinal diseases.
Back in Dong Hoi, in the musty room that Thuan withers in, a man tenderly strokes his head. This is Doc Bernie Duff, one of a number of revered US veterans of war who have returned to Vietnam to help those still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. He has made numerous visits to Thuan, each time giving his poverty-stricken mother Lai much-needed food and funds to help make ends meet.
A gentle giant, Doc served his 12-month tour of duty in 1960, “from my 19th birthday to my 20th,” he says. “I was aware of Agent Orange being sprayed but none of us knew what it did to humans,” he adds.
In 2008, he and wife Bao Anh organised an Agent Orange fundraising walk from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi (about 1700 kilometres). “We knew it would be a challenge,” he says, “but we thought we could do it.” Over 57 gruelling days through blistering heat and torrential downpours, the couple visited countless Agent Orange-affected families, joined by anywhere from a handful to a few hundred supporters at a time.
News articles began surfacing about their Orange Walk and soon they were recognised on the streets. “A lot of people would stop us on the road and donate out of their pocket. Agent Orange victims are sometimes treated like lepers but most people weren’t looking for a handout – they just wanted us to acknowledge they had a problem and to give them a hug,” says Duff. “There were countless people who were in a very bad way. They were just lying on the floor in their homes, they had twisted arms and just weren’t here mentally.”
Duff and his wife continue to look after Agent Orange families to this day, regularly making trips around the country, building homes for those who need them and donating funds received from friends.
Charitable donations help children like 16-year-old Thao in Cu Chi, who’s had two operations paid for and is now waiting for funding for another. Unable to walk unaided, his legs bound from birth, he practises twice a day on his father’s makeshift rehabilitation walkway.
A quiet, timid boy who’s never been to school because of his disability, Thao sits beside his 15-year-old able-bodied brother, Hieu. Their grandfather fought in the war. “When I see my brother like this, I feel sorry for him”, says Hieu, “I help him at home, sometimes I feed him and we play marbles together around the house.”
Thao only has one wish. “I just want to be able to walk,” he says quietly.
As in Thao’s case, it’s common for Agent Orange illnesses to skip siblings and even entire generations within the same family. “There could be a particular genetic make-up on a particular child that makes them more prone, whilst others may not necessarily have that high level of propensity to disruption [of their genetic material],” says Dwernychuk.
One thing is clear – if there’s to be a promising future for Vietnam’s children, dioxin needs to be eradicated from the environment and the food chain.
With clean-up operations at dioxin hot spots currently underway, access to contaminated sites should also be controlled and food products from there tested – but these are long and costly processes. “Countless more generations could be affected in the future,” warns Dwernychuk. “It’s impossible to know how long it will take to remove dioxin from the generation line.”
That may be so, but among the desperately sad stories from the war are glimmers of hope – the survivor’s stories and promises of a brighter future.
Seven-year-old Mai sits on the lap of her doting grandmother, Ngoc, a nurse who served on the battlefield from 1966 to 1970. At age three, Mai was diagnosed with cancer, thought by doctors to be linked to Agent Orange. “Many of the children who were with her in the hospital have died now,” explains Ngoc. “Mai had chemotherapy which weakened her body and she could barely eat. You see, her hair’s grown back now but she used to be bald.” Four years on and Mai has made a remarkable recovery and is now cancer-free.
“I sacrificed my youth to gain back freedom for our country,” says Ngoc. “But now … Mai being healthy and growing up normally is all that matters to me.”