posted on September 05, 2008 12:28
I’ve been both touched and engrossed by the interviews I’m doing as time allows lately for the Irish Times,
on the continued suffering of millions of Vietnamese who came into contact with Agent Orange during and since the war that finished, more or less, in 1975. These are the civilians and fighters – and their children - who came in contact with the millions of barrels of this nasty dioxin sprayed on Vietnam to burn jungle vegetation and make the flushing out of Vietcong guerillas easier.
In Hanoi the reconciliation between US and Vietnam is complete, judging by the noisy group of adopters clutching Vietnamese babies at the Thang Long water puppet theatre on Dinh Tien Hoang Street. Couples from Florida to Nebraska rock the wiry haired babies to silence while the dragons, frogs and ducks are dragged along the water by puppet masters concealed behind a curtain while musicians play scores on traditional gong drums and reed flutes.
But behind the smiles for American civilians there’s a battle to get US chemicals companies like Dow and Monsanto (which manufactured Agent Orange) to compensate more than 3 million Vietnamese living with the after affects. The local the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA
) has been a fighting a class action law suit against the chemical companies all this year in American courtrooms: when Judge Jack Weinstein ruled against them in the Brooklyn District Court they went to the Court of Appeals – rejected again – and now place their hopes in a Supreme Court ruling expected in October.
Trouble is time is running out for many of the victims. Certainly for Dang Hong Nhut, who remembers skin rashes and diarrohea when fighting in southeast Vietnam. These were followed by numerous miscarriages in 1973 and 1975 before in 1977 she gave birth to a deformed still-born child. Her husband, also exposed to Agent Orange, died of intestinal cancer in 1999. She’s since then had intestinal and thyroid tumours removed to avoid succumbing to cancer herself.
Locals aren’t the only ones seeking justice. US veterans who were in battlefields sprayed with agent orange now work with VAVA. One of those I talked to, an Irish American veteran called Bernie Duff led a volunteer team in orange t-shirts from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi to raise funds and awareness about the ongoing after-affects of agent orange. Parachuted into Vietnam as a 19 year old soldier, Duff developed skin cancer caused by being under planeloads of dioxin-heavy agent orange.
This year in Quang Binh province he recalls visiting a homestead that lost 12 of 15 family members to the after-effects of Agent Orange. Support has been forthcoming from NGOs worldwide. Veterans from Australia, New Zealand and south Korean – who in Cold War solidarity fought alongside the Americans in Vietnam – are also seeking compensation. The Koreans lately won a case against the chemical companies that made Agent Orange, but its unlikely to be enforced.
American politicians gave into years of veteran activism in 1991 to pass the Agent Orange Act which, while never acknowledging that Agent Orange was responsible for their ailments, ensures that the illnesses are seen as service related and hence covered by veteran healthcare.
But the Act makes it very hard for the children of veterans to be covered. This is very significant since Agent Orange syndrome has tragically manifested itself in the mangled torsos and oversized heads of millions of Vietnamese kids. The only illness covered by US veteran cover is spina bifida. The trouble is it may not manifest itself till much later.
Here’s what Duff says: “It has gone on without anyone doing anything for so long that it is way overdue for someone to do something now.”More ...