Victims left behind in U.S. Agent Orange cleanup efforts – the Diplomat
Le Thi Mit is not quite sure what caused the severe physical and cognitive disabilities of his three youngest sons, born as a result of the “American War”. She also doesn’t know what caused the eerily similar conditions of her closest neighbor’s children. But she remembers seeing American planes spraying clouds of white defoliant and red napalm over the forest near her property in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, and she clearly remembers the destruction that followed.
Two of Mit’s sons have already passed away, but Mit and her husband, Loc, continue to care for their youngest son, Truong, around the clock, who cannot talk, walk or eat. Mit and Loc provide the best possible care to Truong, who is now 30, but limited by poverty and old age – both now 70, and the family is struggling to survive on the $ 75 they receive each. months in Vietnamese government benefits. They live in a simple rural house with a leaky roof and are worried about the coming rainy season. Most importantly, they worry about Truong. After their deaths, Mit asks, who will take care of him?
Mit and Loc are hardly alone. Many parents who gave birth to severely disabled children after being exposed to Agent Orange in wartime are now in their 70s or 80s and worried about the fate of their dependent adult children. While many Vietnamese provinces have home care centers, most centers are strapped for funding, and some have closed or only provide day services. Mothers like Mit are forced to hold on to a morbid hope: outliving their own children.
In recent years, the United States has increased its support for environmental cleanup in Vietnam, without going so far as to admit outright responsibility. In April 2019, nine US senators traveled to Bien Hoa, in southern Vietnam, to inaugurate the cleanup of nearly 500,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil and sediment at a former US air base. The United States has committed $ 300 million over the next 10 years for the project. Bien Hoa is the largest remaining dioxin hotspot in Vietnam, and the significant financial commitment by the United States to clean it up represents a highlight in the U.S.-Vietnamese collaboration on issues related to the legacy of the war. And yet, while many advertise US support for the Bien Hoa remediation project as hard-earned progress, others believe the human victims of Agent Orange have been left behind.
The United States provides $ 10 million a year to support people with disabilities in provinces heavily sprayed with Agent Orange during the war. But none of that money goes directly to families, and many Vietnamese observers see the $ 10 million as humanitarian and moral insufficient.
Ngo Xuan Hien, who works for Project Renew, an NGO working to resolve issues related to the legacy of war in Quang Tri province, is concerned about the impact of this economic stress on all parties. Without an increase in home interventions to ease the burden on aging caretakers, he said, people like Mit and Loc are unlikely to live longer. Hien is happy that the United States is increasing its commitment to cleaning up the environment, but believes the government should also focus seriously on the human impact of Agent Orange. “Okay, clean up the hot spot – keep going,” he said. “But people like Truong and his mother should also be taken care of.”
It’s hard to say for sure that the disabilities of Mit’s three children were caused by Agent Orange – Mit herself said she couldn’t be sure. But the area around his house in Quang Tri was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange during the war, and local residents were exposed to dioxin, a chemical linked to cancer in those directly exposed and to deformities and disabilities. of subsequent generations. Dioxin is often referred to as “the most toxic chemical known to man” because of the molecule’s ability to cause catastrophic damage at infinitely small concentrations. In large doses, dioxin causes immediate death. At lower doses, it can cause cancer, diabetes and other health problems in those directly exposed and disability, deformity and death in their children – and their children’s children.
In the 1990s, then PhD researcher Dr Nguyen Viet Nhan identified a group of families with several children with birth defects in Cam Lo district, where Mit lives. Yet while Nhan’s research found that families in some provinces heavily sprayed with Agent Orange had a higher rate of birth defects than families in less heavily sprayed provinces, Nhan is now quick to point out the limitations of Agent Orange. his study. While Nhan couldn’t help but think at the time that Agent Orange may have been responsible for the birth defects, he likens his uncertainty to the victim of a theft who has some idea who might be the thief, but no proof. The putative victims of Agent Orange, he said, are stuck in the realm of “maybe”.
Nhan noted that there had not been enough comprehensive epidemiological studies in Vietnam, complicating efforts to gather evidence to support the claims of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. The US government continues to assert that individual victims of Agent Orange cannot prove that their cancer or disability was caused by Agent Orange. And yet the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has paid billions of dollars in disability awards and benefits to U.S. Vietnam War veterans who manifest certain health issues associated with exposure to Agent Orange, including diabetes and some cancers.
Nhan favors a purely humanitarian approach and believes that a fixation on fault and causation is ultimately unproductive and detrimental to victims. But Nhan agrees that the scientific evidence supporting US compensation for US veterans should apply to Vietnamese victims as well. “We are all human beings,” he said. “What happened to the Americans will also happen to the Vietnamese people. The proportionate effects on the Vietnamese, he added, would likely be greater given that local populations have been exposed to Agent Orange for longer periods of time than the US military.
Vietnamese victims and advocates are keenly aware of what they perceive to be an unfair double standard in the United States’ attitude towards causation and accountability to American and Vietnamese dioxin victims. Le Van Dang, chapter chief of the Vietnamese Association of Agent Orange / Dioxin Victims (VAVA) in Quang Tri Province, is frustrated at the lack of compensation and support for Vietnamese victims. The fact that the United States has not yet compensated the victims is “unfair to people with disabilities caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam, ”he said. “We are well aware that American soldiers who served in Vietnam are already receiving compensation,” he added.
Recent jury awards of hundreds of millions of dollars to Americans who claim Monsanto’s Roundup – a backyard herbicide – caused their cancer have amplified Vietnamese frustration with the differential treatment of claims from American and Vietnamese victims. Roundup is made up of a different chemical mixture from Agent Orange, and American judges intervened reduce the amount owed by Bayer AG, which acquired Monsanto in 2018. But Vietnamese observers have taken note of the recent largely symbolic verdicts against Monsanto with some bitterness. Fifteen years ago, a U.S. federal judge dismissed allegations that Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange made against Monsanto and other companies that produced Agent Orange before Vietnamese victims could argue their case before a court. jury.
Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh, a career diplomat who served in the National Assembly of Vietnam, said that the fact that the American courts allocate more than one hundred million to a few Americans but “does not even concern the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese” with somewhat similar claims, is a “harsh reality that we must recognize”.
Pham Truong, director of VAVA’s international relations department, pointed to the lack of current US support for people with disabilities in Agent Orange-sprayed provinces citing recent Roundup awards. “Each person who brings a lawsuit can recover 80 million dollars”, he estimated, referring to the reduced amount a Californian judge awarded an American gardener with terminal cancer. “In the meantime, how many are there for the Vietnamese victims?” 10 million dollars per year, for 3 million Vietnamese affected.
For countless families like Mit’s, US government funding isn’t just about justice or fairness – it’s an urgent humanitarian need. The Vietnamese government makes payments to about half a million families affected by Agent Orange, but these monthly allowances, which are up to $ 150 for veterans and about half that amount for civilians, do not not enough to cover basic expenses – let alone ensure a dignified lifestyle. Mit and her husband supplement the money they receive from the government by growing green tea and black pepper. But even so, they struggle to earn the $ 200 per month they need to meet their most basic needs. Despite their age, Mit and Loc continue to work almost around the clock as caregivers and breadwinners.
The coming rainy season will only exacerbate the hardships of poor families struggling to care for disabled children. Mit’s roof is already leaking and Loc noted he might not withstand a typhoon. Hoang Thi Thê, another guard I met in central Vietnam, urged me to post something quickly. Thê’s late husband was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Quang Tri province during the war, and Thê continues to take care of their 42-year-old daughter Nga, who can hardly move and speak with great difficulty. Thê receives money from the government, but it is barely enough to cover food. Thê cannot afford the electricity and told me that her house, which is dark and damp, will almost certainly be knee deep in the next rains. At 81, she doesn’t know how long she will be able to last.
Sonya Schoenberger is a doctoral candidate at Yale Law School and a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford University. His reporting in Vietnam was supported by a grant from the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale.