Agent Orange Years Later

agent orange

Jim Rhodes with AO victim at the 2nd International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange, Hanoi (Photo: Nina Rhodes)

All last week I covered the Second International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin in Hanoi, Vietnam as a delegate from the United States and speaker. Usually after an event I can chicken peck on my keyboard and complete an article within a matter of minutes, an hour at most. However, this undertaking has been a horse of a different color — one filled with emotion, grief, anger, and tears with one delay after another.

This event was sponsored by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin. VAVA is a non-profit, self-supporting non-governmental organization founded in 2003 because of the increasing numbers of people in need of specialized services, especially second- and third-generation victims whose fathers or grandfathers were directly exposed to areas sprayed by the U.S. military. These victims not only included military forces from the north of Vietnam, but also U.S.-associated forces in the south, including many American armed forces personnel as well.

VAVA provides specialized treatment for victims unavailable in routine medical settings. VAVA also coordinates the efforts of foreign aid societies, volunteer services, assists in identifying “hot spots” and relocating families from those areas, and works with scientists and medical teams. To date, VAVA has grown into an organization of over 300,000 members.

VAVA also provides other essential services that are most urgent and critical. Many in America will not understand this, but those who have travelled to places like India, Tibet, and similar regions will understand this significance. There is a tendency for some people to view victims of any adverse circumstance as a recipient of “bad karma,” being punished for past sins or sins associated with one’s family, or simply “out of favor” with “god”. VAVA actively combats this social stigma and acts on behalf of those afflicted.

agent orange conference

Jim Rhodes interviewing the Veneguelan ambassador Jorge Rondon concerning Vietnamese AO victims. (Tran Viet Hung photo)

Part of the services VAVA provides for Vietnamese victims is the specialized construction of daycare facilities at the communal level. Such buildings can be built for about $28,000. VAVA also builds homes for victims. Utilizing a volunteer force, houses can be constructed for about $2,800. When possible, clients are identified for vocational rehabilitation and are given grants of about $200 to achieve this purpose. That amount seems rather small but funds have to be distributed within a large base of clients that are on the waiting list for services.

If you would like to assist a Vietnamese victim improve their life, you may contact the Embassy of Vietnam in Washington, D.C.; the Vietnamese Consulate in Houston, Texas; or you may contribute directly to VAVA through VietComBank (U.S. dollar account 00113.7086.3710, swift code BFTVVNVX) 31-33 Ngo Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Misconceptions and Urban Legends

One myth that just keeps coming up and apparently will never go away is the belief that “all U.S. veteran victims of Agent Orange” are “well compensated” and “receive the highest quality of health care” for these herbicidal poison related issues.

When you first hear this nonsense, it is somewhat amusing, but when you realize that some people actually believe this, it becomes rather annoying. In the U.S. government’s official publication “Agent Orange Review,” information on dozens of wonderful AO programs are highlighted. However, of the hundreds of affected veterans and children of Vietnam veterans that I personally know, I don’t know of one person that “qualifies” for any of those programs — including myself!

It is inconceivable for a foreigner to realize that the thousands of lawyers on the Veterans Administration payroll are not there to assist veterans but instead to legally find reasons to disqualify us from receiving services and benefits. The United States is good at starting wars and praising the military but at the same time abandoning and neglecting us after we become veterans. It is a national disgrace when Congress even considers balancing the national budget off the lives of those that bled and died for this country while at the same time treating corporate billionaires as ‘sacred cows.’ The Golden Rule of Congress seems to be “He who has the gold makes the rules!”

Additionally, the misinformation and disinformation utilized against us should be criminal. For instance in the 3 October 2010 edition of the “Montgomery Advertiser,” former secretary of Veterans Affairs, Anthony Principi, stated that “…Americans are losing faith in the VA disability compensation system…” Why? Apparently because the good-hearted VA system is paying out millions of dollars for “bogus Agent Orange payments…I have HEARD (emphasis added) there is one individual receiving Agent Orange benefits because he made a brief pause at the airport in Saigon waiting on a plane change.” Those of us involved in the system know this could never happen; however, such propaganda is consistently being utilized against us to paint us as ‘bad guys’ victimizing the poor government! Sadly, it is this type of story foreigners pick up on and believe.

The conference was opened on an optimistic note by VAVA president Nguyen Van Rinh:

“Our country has developed greatly since the war ended and the Vietnamese people have amazed the world with their ability to move beyond the painful past and look forward to a brighter future. Several wounds of war have been healed for both Vietnam and the U.S. as well as for other countries, but the wounds caused by Agent Orange are persistent…We hope that the Second International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange will have great significance not only for all of us here but also for those who are working for peace, an end to war, and for a future in which our planet can overcome the environmental peril it faces…”

agent orange conference

Margrit Schlosser (Swiss-Vietnam Association) delivers an address. (Photo Jim Rhodes)

President Nguyen Van Rinh then welcomed the “over 100 delegates” to the conference from “30 organizations in 25 countries;” but on a somber note he reminded us “with every passing day there are more victims who die, suffer more intensified sickness, poverty, despair, and misery not only for those who were directly exposed, but for many innocent children born after the war, not only for Vietnamese victims but also for victims residing in other nations including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, who directly participated in the war; people in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand who lived near the Vietnamese border; people in Canada, Latin America, and European countries, as well as other parts of Asia where Agent Orange was produced, tested, and store for use in Vietnam.”

Kelly Porter Franklin (kelly_franklin@telus.net) gave a report on the joint testing of Agent Orange in New Brunswick, Canada by U.S.-Canadian forces as early as 1952 and how field tested Canadian pilots assisted in the delivery of Agent Orange, on behalf of the U.S. military, into Vietnam during the 1960s.

Margrit Schlosser of the Switzerland-Vietnam Association questioned how it was legally and morally possible for Monsanto and Dow Chemical to have representative offices in Vietnam as “the evil legacy of Agent Orange has entered its fourth generation and the casualties have run into the millions.”

Bruce McPhie pointed out that in 1988 the Pentagon compiled a report linking Agent Orange to 28 life-threatening conditions including genetic birth defects and cancers:

“The U.S. Academy of Sciences has confirmed this…These effects were known at the time they were being sprayed but no one cared…An international conference in Stockholm in July 2002 asked the United Nations, the U.S. government and the chemical companies to take responsibility for dealing with long term consequences of these toxic chemicals; but, they have not…A conference conducted at Yale University in April 2003 concluded that in Vietnam the U.S. had conducted “the largest chemical warfare campaign in history”…The International People’s Tribunal of Conscience in Paris made its final judgment on May 18, 2009, concluding that the use of dioxin by the U.S. military in Vietnam from 1961-1971 was a war crime against humanity…Now, 50 years later, millions of innocent Vietnamese victims suffer to live and die with the horrible diseases caused by Agent Orange and the kaleidoscope of other toxic chemicals used. These victims are now into the 3rd and 4th generation, with no end in sight. What a shocking legacy to leave for the future…”

agent orangeHeather Bowser gave a presentation on life as a second generation Agent Orange survivor. Heather’s father was a Vietnam veteran and she was born without a right leg as well as several other difficulties.

But of all the speeches and presentations given, I was most moved with the words of young, deformed Vietnamese who told the gathering: “We have suffered all our lives but wanted to do something positive for humanity. As we will soon die we were fortunate to realize we could donate our bodies to medical science in hopes they could be used to prevent future sufferings from people like us.”

jim rhodesThis was a very emotional week for me. We have decided to remain here through December. I am blessed to be around victims as these and feel a moral obligation to do what we can for them; after all, this has been the only place I have ever received medical and traditional treatments for my Agent Orange conditions. Even though I was part of the veteran’s class action lawsuit against the chemical companies, the VA still maintains their standard line: “veteran has no conclusive proof that any of his medical conditions are directly linked to herbicidal poisons.” There must be a special place in Hell for these people.

See my presentation at the Second International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange/dioxin here!

James Rhodes

Published by the LA Progressive on August 17, 2011
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