News Column

US, Vietnam Deal With Agent Orange

Nov. 8, 2012

Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

A jungle raid in January 1962 in which U.S. helicopter pilots ferried South Vietnamese troops to attack soldiers from the North was one of America's first major operations in the Vietnam War.

This year, the U.S. government and war veterans are commemorating the war's 50th anniversary. In Vietnam, people remember other dates.

Among the anniversaries they marked this year for "America's War," as it is known here, was the anniversary in August of the U.S. Army's first use of the herbicide Agent Orange.

The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of the herbicide over forested terrain in Vietnam to kill leaves and plants and deprive the enemy of cover to conceal fighters. Vietnam's state broadcaster called it "the largest chemical warfare campaign in the history of humankind."

Vietnam claims the herbicide caused dozens of illnesses in millions of Vietnamese, from cancer to infertility to heart failure and birth defects. The United States has said there is no proof the traces of dioxin have done this, and it refused for years to discuss the issue.

As the hard feelings between the two countries have softened, so, too, has the U.S. stand on Agent Orange. The United States recently began a $43 million joint project with Vietnam to clean up the site of the former American air base in the central port city of Danang where Agent Orange was loaded onto helicopters and planes for spraying.

"Agent Orange remains among the most sensitive issues in U.S.-Vietnam relations," says U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear. "U.S. engagement has succeeded in changing the tone of dialogue," and joint work has strengthened relations, he says.

About 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died in a decade-long war to prevent communist North Vietnam from conquering the Republic of South Vietnam. The war ended in 1975 with a victory for the North and defeat for the United States, whose troops abandoned the country two years beforehand.

Lingering health claims are not all that was left unresolved between the two sides in the war's aftermath.

The United States has spent millions of dollars searching for the remains of 1,500 of its servicemembers declared missing in action during the war. Vietnamese families saw about 300,000 soldiers go missing in action.

Today, some families resort to spirit mediums to find their loved ones. Nguyen Huy Cueng, 67, says he consulted a psychic who prayed in a soft voice and invited his brother's spirit into her body. Then she sketched the location of his grave.

"She's found over 900 bodies, and the government supports her," he says, clutching a worn map that marks the spot where the psychic said his brother lay after being killed in combat in 1967.

The lack of government help in his long quest has not caused Cueng to turn against the Communist Party, of which he is a member.

"Vietnam has had to prioritize economic development," he says. "There's a lot to fix in Vietnam, but that doesn't mean our one-party system is wrong."

For years, the U.S. Embassy has funded support in Vietnam for people with disabilities, regardless of cause. The U.S. Congress has appropriated $63 million to help Vietnam locate spots where Agent Orange was used, assess environmental effects and help with cleanup.

Among the projects will be an environmental assessment of the former Bien Hoa base in the south, Shear says. Although Vietnam says Agent Orange has caused diseases, the United States maintains that scientific evidence does not exist to show the ailments were caused by unintentional traces of dioxin in Agent Orange.

At 103 Military Hospital in Hanoi, Maj. Gen. Hoang Manh An has been treating those who say they are sick from exposure to Agent Orange.

"Millions of victims have received no treatment to date and are in dire need of help," he says. "Most of them are very poor and can't afford transportation to hospital."

An has been treating patients using the "Hubbard method," a detoxification program of sauna sessions, exercise and vitamins named for Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. An says patients "feel happier and healthier." There is no scientific evidence it works.

Tens of thousands of U.S. veterans were also exposed to Agent Orange. Many claim they, too, were sickened by the dioxin in the herbicide, saying Parkinson's, heart disease and lung cancers were brought on by it. The evidence is problematic.

"Virtually every aspect of the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam is infused with uncertainty," says "Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange and U.S.-Vietnam Relations," a report by the Congressional Research Service in Washington.

Apart from the herbicide controversy, the United States is working on other fronts to help Vietnam overcome leftover hazards of the war.

Unexploded bombs and land mines are a constant danger. The United States is funding a $1.6 million effort to clear the province of mines.

The U.S. efforts to smooth the relationship have won some converts.

"I hated Americans when I was young," says Tran Thi Nguyen, 30, a waitress in Hanoi's old quarter, recalling TV documentaries and the stories of older relatives. "I feel better about America now. They now know what happened before was bad, and now they try to fix it."

(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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