Fixing what the U.S. broke in Vietnam

Four decades after war, MCC U.N. Office director advocates for Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange

Mar 28, 2016 by and

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While volunteering in Vietnam in the late 1960s as a conscientious objector to the war the U.S. was waging there, Doug Hos­tet­ter saw firsthand the effect of Agent Orange, a dioxin-contaminated herbicide the U.S. military used to kill vegetation.

Tran Thi Hoan, born without legs and with an atrophied hand because of her mother’s exposure to Agent Orange, speaks at an interfaith chapel service at the Church Center for the United Nations.

Tran Thi Hoan, born without legs and with an atrophied hand because of her mother’s exposure to Agent Orange, speaks at an interfaith chapel service at the Church Center for the United Nations. — Mennonite Central Committee

In 1968, the U.S. military had dropped Agent Orange on a target considered enemy territory, but a strong breeze blew the herbicide to the hamlet of Ky Phu.

A teenager from that village, who was part of Mennonite Central Committee’s literacy program that Hostetter started, invited him to visit Ky Phu.

He saw ducks whose feet had turned white from swimming in contaminated water and would soon die. He talked to villagers, making a list of livestock that died after exposure to the herbicide.

Hostetter said he took a detailed list of the damages to a U.S. colonel who was responsible for a program that would reimburse Vietnamese people for livestock or homes accidentally destroyed by the U.S. military. The colonel dismissed the list, claiming that Agent Orange was not harmful.

“The farmers of Ky Phu were never reimbursed for their losses,” said Hostetter, who is now director of MCC’s United Nations Office.

Throughout the 41 years since the war ended, Hostetter has continued to support efforts to get compensation for people whose lives are still impacted by Agent Orange.

He now understands just how devastating Agent Orange was to U.S. veterans and to Vietnamese people whose exposure to the chemical through contaminated water, land and discarded supplies continued long after the war ended.

In visits to Vietnam since 1969, Hostetter has met hundreds of children with genetic defects and other health issues linked to their parents’ or grandparents’ exposure to Agent Orange.

One of the ‘lucky’ ones

One of them is Tran Thi Hoan, whose mother was exposed to Agent Orange, after which Hoan was born without legs and with a seriously atrophied hand.

She and other people associated with MCC’s partner, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, or VAVA, came to the U.N. in December to spread awareness about the continued suffering of people affected by Agent Orange.

Now a computer science professional in Ho Chi Minh City, Hoan said she is one of the “lucky” among people affected by Agent Orange because she had good health care and education. Many others “just lie in the bed. They cannot understand anything,” she said.

She thanked MCC for its work with VAVA, providing therapeutic day care and cows for families in Quang Ngai Province who need time and money to support a family member living with an Agent Orange-related disability.

Members of the VAVA delegation asked people at a public meeting to urge U.S. legislators to support health care for the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese still dealing with the health effects of Agent Orange. Later they also met with a representative from the U.S. State Department and individual legislators to ask for this support.

Delegation members asked legislators to support House Resolution 2114, which would require the U.S. government to help pay for medical and chronic care services, nursing services, vocational employment and medical equipment for those affected by Agent Orange.

“It took many years of struggle to get the U.S. government to recognize the American veterans who were spraying Agent Orange, cleaning up the planes or even working in the depot where the planes were cleaned,” Hostetter said. “Now 14 different maladies are covered by the U.S. Veteran’s Association if you were exposed to Agent Orange. Unfortunately, that was limited to U.S. military personnel.”

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