Vets Return to Nam: A Pledge for Agent Orange Victims

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Veterans Return to Vietnam:
Pledge to win justice for victims
of wartime Agent Orange flights
by Mike Ferner
Passersby wouldn't have noticed anything unusual about the six people on a tour of a small rehab facility recently -- but three things lifted the occasion from the mundane into the realm of the truly moving.  The facility served people suffering from exposure to Agent Orange; the facility was located in Hanoi; Paul Cox, the leader of the group, fought with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam.

"Vietnam Friendship Village" is a rare place.  Opened in 1998, it provides respite, rehabilitation and training for some 190 people annually, out of some estimated 3 million Vietnamese who suffer the ravages of dioxin and Agent Orange, according to Vietnamese government figures.  Physically, emotionally and spiritually, Vietnam Friendship Village is a true oasis, but 12 years later it's beginning to show its age.     

"Is this as good as it gets in Vietnam for taking caring of people poisoned by Agent Orange?" one member of the team queried Cox.

"I'm afraid so," the Californian responded.

If Friendship Village is as good as it gets, one can only pray that the next place on the delegation's list was as bad as it gets.  The only way to even inadequately describe Tran Thi Dao's son and her home is to say they are the very definition of misery.

A standard double bed takes up nearly half the floor space in this one-room, 120 sq. ft. structure.  You may want to read that again.  A standard double bed takes up nearly half the floor space in this one-room, 120 sq. ft. structure.

The son, Tran Van Hai, is 27 years old.  He is just .8 meters "tall."  He weighs 17 kg.  He can't walk and spends his days sitting on the neatly-made bed, under a single light bulb hanging from an extension cord.  The corrugated steel ceiling doubles as a roof.  He was quiet today, but his mother said he often gets frustrated and angry, his crossed eyes fill with tears and he throws things.

Tran's mother cannot work because he has to be watched constantly.  She said she does some gardening in a plot not much bigger in area than her house, located three feet from the front, and only, door.  She described her 6 year-old granddaughter, born to Tran's older brother, as thin and very weak, attending kindergarten as much as possible.  "She looks ok but has intestine problems," the grandmother said, with a face lined by permanent sadness.   

Her husband does not live with them.  "He went south to work," she said, "but he can't make enough to be any support."  During the war he was soldiering in the south for two years before he found himself in Quang Tri Province in 1971.  His personal version of being in the wrong place at the wrong time found him beneath a U.S. Air Force C-123 on one of thousands of flights, spraying Agent Orange to "deny the enemy cover."  The defoliant, contaminated with deadly levels of dioxin, is a known carcinogen and teratogen

Other members of the delegation, all members of Veterans For Peace, are Susan Shnall, a former Navy nurse who tended wounded soldiers during the Vietnam war at a California Navy hospital, Michael Uhl, a former Army counter-intelligence officer who served in Vietnam, Ken Mayers, a former Marine Corps major who served in Vietnam and Geoff Millard, an Army National Guard soldier who served in Iraq.

The veterans are in Vietnam for two weeks to visit people suffering from Agent Orange exposure, members and leaders of the Vietnamese Agent Orange Victims Association (VAVA), public health workers and officials of the Vietnamese government.  They are gathering information to make the case to the U.S. government that the Vietnamese people should be compensated for the pain and suffering endured as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange.



Ferner is a former Navy hospital corpsman and president of Veterans For Peace. 
He is a member of the VFP delegation to Vietnam. 
 
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