Agent Orange, the Gift That Keeps on Giving

Last year, decades after dumping 20 million gallons of the toxic chemical Agent Orange all across the Vietnamese landscape, the US pledged to contribute $400,000 USD to partially fund a new study on the topic. What a relief! I’m sure that uncertainty regarding the outcome of this study is the only thing preventing the US from offering substantial assistance to people like May and Song, the articulate but impoverished parents of four disabled children, each conceived in the years following their father’s sojourn in an area which earlier had been heavily doused with Agent Orange.

Finally, almost forty years after another young man emerged from a defoliated jungle with a bizarre skin condition to father a son with strange, canoe-shaped feet before he, himself, succumbed to cancer, the US will know what should be done to make amends. Sixteen years after that man’s son produced a daughter of his own, afflicted with the same canoe-shaped feet, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world is finally getting down to the business of deciding whether or not it might have an obligation to help families like these. I have to wonder how the results of that million dollar study will ultimately benefit the generations of individuals and families afflicted with birth defects and early cancer deaths, who live in the poverty that still lingers following decades of US-imposed embargo, superimposed upon years and years of war. Will the proposed $14 million project to isolate a patch of dioxin-soaked ground at the Da Nang airport bring them any solace?

I’ve been tagging along recently with a group of American college students affiliated with the SUNY Brockport Vietnam Program as they make their Thursday morning home-visits to families of disabled children here in Da Nang. The students are studying to be social workers, so they do what they’ve been trained to do: they sit down with families and ask them questions. Then they listen.

Two weeks ago, we sat and listened to the diminutive mother of the canoe-footed girl tell us how sad she was that her daughter, a serious and dedicated student, could not attend high-school. The school, she said, was too far to walk to, and the mother was not able to balance her daughter safely on the back of her bicycle in order to take her there. (Her daughter’s canoe-shaped feet not only prevented her from walking without wooden crutches, but also made it impossible for her to pedal a bicycle herself.) A kind friend who lived next to the school, she said, had offered to let the daughter stay with her so that she could more easily attend school but, alas, that was impossible.

“Why is that?” asked a student.

“Because,” confided the mother, “my daughter cannot stand without her crutches and so cannot shower and attend to her ‘personal hygiene’ without my help.”

Being the only physical therapist in the room, it fell to me to suggest that, perhaps, the girl might sit down on a plastic chair when she showered and that, if a hole were cut in the seat of the chair, it might allow her to attend to her own hygiene when she used a typical “hole-in-the-floor” Vietnamese toilet.

The mother’s jaw dropped and the father beamed. As we departed, they each pumped my hand vigorously, smiling broadly. What had happened? Somebody sat down and listened to their story and made a simple suggestion. And, because of that, a sixteen-year old, third-generation victim of Agent Orange might go to high school.

We didn’t need a million dollar study. All it took was a few American college students and one middle-aged American PT, listening to one family’s story. Why is that so damned difficult? We didn’t even have to buy the plastic chair.

Virginia Lockett is an American physical therapist who, along with her husband and teen-aged surfer son, has opted out of life in America and chosen to live and work in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Read other articles by Virginia, or visit Virginia's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. D.R. Munro said on May 1st, 2008 at 6:25am #

    My uncle was killed roughly five years after he got back from Vietnam by cancer caused by his exposure to Agent Orange. He got no support from the military or government.

  2. Jacoby said on May 1st, 2008 at 12:36pm #

    Maybe Charlie should have thought about that before becoming a communist.

  3. David Karlsson said on May 1st, 2008 at 8:42pm #

    Why are we expected to believe that someone born 40 years after her grandfather maybe (repeat, maybe) was exposed to Agent Orange had a birth defect caused by that? With zero evidence of exposure, zero evidence of any relationship between dioxin and “canoe feet”, why should we believe any of this? Be a little more skeptical, don’t believe everything you’re told. Do a little research, find out what the birth defect is and what causes it. For all you know it’s something completely different and avoidable if you’d just stop trying to blame everything on the U.S. to make yourself feel better.

  4. Amal said on May 2nd, 2008 at 2:02am #

    Jacoby: “Maybe Charlie should have thought about that before becoming a communist.” China is a communist country, yet the U.S. bows down and kisses their feet. perhaps Jacoby should have thought about his comments before becoming allies with a communist country.

  5. Phil said on May 4th, 2008 at 9:16am #

    same old thing admit nothing ignore all. The Same Government and country we fought for have been ignoring the blue water navy and are now fighting us in court. many have died, and many are dying, from a list of aliments put together by the same government and country . I thought we would be taken care of, Guess Thats where i made the mistake, (thinking) VA has made Promises And Commitments of taking Care Of Us (Veterans, Blue water Included ) and They Have Foresaken US.

  6. Len Aldis said on May 8th, 2008 at 3:18am #

    The tragic consequences of Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam are still to be seen years after the use of the chemical was stopped in 1972, and will continue for many years yet. Thankfully there are people like the American Students who are helping those affected in overcoming – as much as possible – their disabilities caused by Agent Orange.

    The comments by Jacoby and Karlsson are to be expected from people who clearly do not know, or perhaps do not want to know the damage done by the US, and not only to the Vietnamese, but also to their own servicemen and women and their children.

    I suggest they both contact the US veterans suffering from Agent Orange who are still campaigning for justice for themselves and their families, as are the Vietnamese.

    Len Aldis
    Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society