by Karin Zeitvogel
Jul 16, 2010
WASHINGTON (AFP) At 23, Tran Thi Hoan dreams the dreams of a
typical young woman: find a good job, start a family and, as a native
of a country long ravaged by war, live in peace.
But Hoan is a victim of Agent Orange, the herbicide laced with
dioxin-tainted defoliant that was sprayed across huge swaths of
Vietnam between in the 1960s and early 1970s, and she fears that she
could pass on the poison that saw her born without legs and with a
withered hand to her children.
So she's let go of part of her dream.
"Maybe my children will be disabled like me. So I don't believe I can
get married," Hoan told AFP after she became the first Vietnamese
victim of Agent Orange to testify before the US Congress.
"I'm worried," she added quietly.
Hoan had just read a three-page testimony in English to US lawmakers
in a packed hearing room.
"I am not unique, but am one of hundreds of thousands of people whose
lives have been marked by our parents' or grandparents' exposure to
Agent Orange," she said.
"I was born as you see me: without legs and missing a hand."
But in spite of her handicap, and in spite of her fears that nobody
would want her as a wife, Hoan old the packed hearing called by
Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, a veteran of Vietnam, to try to
determine how to meet the needs of Vietnam's victims of Agent Orange,
that she was "one of the lucky ones."
"I'm missing limbs, but my mental functioning is fine," she said.
Some Agent Orange victims do nothing but sleep, she said. Others fall
ill with a slight temperature change. Still others die young, at age 10.
"Many babies, children and young people live lives of quiet agony.
They are trapped in bodies that do not work. Their brains remain in
infancy even as their bodies grow."
The American Public Health Panel estimates that some 77 million
liters of herbicides, including 49.3 million liters of Agent Orange
containing dioxin-contaminated defoliants, were sprayed over 5.5
million acres (2.23 million hectares) in what was then South Vietnam
by the United States military.
The aim was to destroy the densely wooded hiding places of the North
Today, Agent Orange and dioxin, which is known to increase the risk
of cancer, immune deficiency disease, and reproductive and
developmental disorders, still contaminates the land and water of Vietnam.
Vietnamese medical doctor Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong told the hearing
that studies she has conducted have found that up to 4.1 million
Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange during the war and
more than three million have suffered its effects.
Babies are exposed through their mother's breast milk. Others have
been exposed by living in or near contaminated areas called
"hotspots," such as Danang, where the United States had a base during the war.
The United States, which reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam
15 years ago, is funding a program to "remediate" dioxin at Danang,
or burn it at ultra-high temperatures of 350 degrees Celsius (662
Fahrenheit), which causes it to vaporize.
Not doing anything would mean dioxin, which has a half-life of 100
years -- meaning it will take 100 years for it to fall to half its
initial strength -- would still be tainting the land and people's
lives next century.
"My gosh," said Faleomavaega, "We'll all be dead and it'll still be there."
Though Hoan's life has been marked by an event that happened decades
before her birth, she insisted Agent Orange victims have to look to
"We can look at the past and see the consequences of war, but we
don't want to stay in the past. We have to look to the future and see
what we can do," she told AFP.
And she added another wish to her wish-list.
"We want those responsible for the terrible consequences of Agent
Orange to hear our pain and respond to us as humans," she said,
speaking not only for Vietnamese victims but for "the children and
grandchildren of Americans who were exposed to Agent Orange and who
are suffering like us."
In the audience, a veteran of the Iraq war cried. Another applauded quietly.
One of the chemical companies that made Agent Orange, Dow, says on
its website that manufacturers were compelled by the government to
produce the herbicide.
In 2007, Dow said there was no evidence to link Agent Orange to
Vietnam veterans' illnesses.
And last year, a US embassy spokeswoman in Hanoi said there has been
no internationally-accepted scientific study establishing a link
between Agent Orange and Vietnam's disabled and deformed.