Agent Orange victims: The war continues in the bodies of Vietnamese

CHICAGO — Vietnamese survivors of Agent Orange, one of many poisonous chemical defoliants used by the United States during the Vietnam War, are still seeking justice, 30 years later.

While U.S. veterans have won partial compensation for their exposure to the deadly toxin, Vietnamese victims have not received a single cent of compensation or humanitarian aid from the U.S. government or the chemical companies that produced the defoliant, despite their numerous requests for aid.

Taking a new tack, Vietnamese citizens decided to sue the chemical companies directly. Although they received a setback this year when a federal judge in New York dismissed their civil lawsuit against a group of companies, they now intend to sue them individually.

“The Vietnamese have received nothing, zero, nada,” said Merle Ratner, national coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign. “Enough is enough, it’s time for justice and people need to be held accountable.”

Ratner was joined by three Vietnamese survivors of Agent Orange at a meeting at Roosevelt University here Nov. 30. The event was part of a 30-day national speaking tour sponsored by Ratner’s group and supported by peace and justice groups. Chicago sponsors included Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the university’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice.

“I come here to speak about my story, and many others who are living miserably,” said Dang Thi Hong Nhut, 69, from Ho Chi Minh City. Dang suffered multiple miscarriages from exposure to Agent Orange during the war. “As a woman and mother I share the pain to end wars that cause suffering. It is an honor to be here speaking to you about our experiences and stories, to help us for fairness and justice.”

Ho Sy Hai, 61, from Thai Binh, suffers from chronic hepatitis, ulcers, enteritis and prostrate cancer from exposure to the toxin. An army truck driver during the war, Ho remembers how he was sent to the South as a soldier along the Ho Chi Minh trail, an area that was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange by U.S. military aircraft. He noticed that the trees had no leaves and thought it was the dry season.

“While we were having our meals, planes came over us dropping the chemical spray,” Ho said. “We used the water to drink and ate the fish in the pond.” As a result, he said, today many of his countrymen are dying and many have serious health problems. Yet “compared to other victims,” he said, “I’m healthy enough to be here to express an inspiration of hope.”

Today, an estimated 3 million Vietnamese suffer the effects of Agent Orange. The use of the chemical, which contains dioxin, a human carcinogen, has caused birth defects in hundreds of thousands of children in Vietnam and the U.S. who are second and third generation descendants of those who were exposed to it decades ago.

Agent Orange has also had deadly consequences for Vietnam’s natural environment, with the long-term poisoning of soil and crops.

Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, Hercules, Uniroyal, Thomson Chemicals and other companies produced the chemicals during the war. They disavow responsibility for the ensuing problems, arguing that the U.S. and Vietnamese governments should resolve the matter.

According to the Peace Accords signed in Paris in 1973, the administration of Richard Nixon promised to contribute $3 billion toward healing the wounds of war, and to post-war reconstruction of Vietnam. However, the U.S. government has done nothing to make good on this commitment.

The current tour is intended to educate people about the suffering caused by Agent Orange, build solidarity between the U.S. and Vietnam, as well as achieve justice for the Vietnamese victims of the chemical by promoting and supporting their lawsuit. Ratner’s group can be reached at www.vn-agentorange.org, and a petition supporting justice for the Vietnamese survivors can be found at www.petitiononline.com/AOVN.

Dr. Nguyen Throng Nhan, 72, former president of the Vietnam Red Cross and a leader of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, said, “Vietnam is poor, the companies are rich, and the victims have no choice but to file a lawsuit against the manufacturers. Tens of thousands have already died.”

Although it’s been 30 years, he said, “The war continues in the bodies of Vietnamese victimized by Agent Orange.”