In a small commune in South Viet Nam's Cu Chi district, the family of 21-year-old Tran Anh Kiet struggles with the problems of daily living. His feet, hands and limbs are twisted and deformed. He writhes in evident frustration, and his attempts at speech are confined to plaintive and pitiful grunts. Kiet has to be spoon-fed. He is an adult stuck inside the stunted body of a 15-year-old, with a mental age of around six. He is what the local villagers refer to as an Agent Orange baby. (<http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3798581.stm>)
When wars come to an end, the suffering does not. Unexploded ordnance often lies hidden under the ground or lodged in bamboo groves. Poisons sprayed over the countryside still move through the food chain, creating serious health problems for villagers. Being unintelligent, these bombs and poisons do not know that the war is over. They continue to carry out their deadly work even decades after the last shot was fired and friendships renewed between people who were once enemies. It is usually the poor and the rural folk who continue suffering from this ongoing, unwanted and too-often ignored, tragic remnant of war.
Although the war in Viet Nam came to an end in 1975 and the United States and Viet Nam have become friends, villagers continue to face the scourge of one of the sad legacies of that conflict--poisons dumped on their land by the United States more than 30 years ago. The most infamous of these poisons is Agent Orange, used to defoliate forests and jungles. About eighty million liters (approximately 20 million gallons) of this deadly concoction were used over Viet Nam during ten years of America's war there, contaminating water and plant life. It is estimated that about 10% of Southern Viet Nam was affected by this and other powerful defoliant poisons. About 14% of the area affected was farmland. Agent Orange contains one of the most virulent poisons known--a strain of dioxin called TCCD. This dioxin has filtered into the food chain of the local populations and continues poisoning them even today with impunity.
The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates that there may be as many as 150,000 children like Tran Anh Kiet who today are facing serious birth defects because their parents were exposed to Agent Orange. They are the third generation to suffer from this violence and there is little hope that the next generations will fare any better. These are children who were not even born when the United States claimed Viet Nam to be an enemy threat. They are the silent victims of an ongoing war that we Americans have tried to push out of our memories and responsibility. And, with the help of the courts, we can keep them out of sight and out of mind.
In 2004, three Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange decided to take their case to a U.S. court. They alleged war crimes against Monsanto Corporation, Dow Chemicals and eight other companies involved in the manufacture of Agent Orange. They demanded compensation to all victims of the poison and a budget to clean up the Agent Orange "hot spots" in Viet Nam that continue to destroy life. In 2008, the U.S. courts threw out their case. They have vowed to continue their struggle with the help of American organizations who recognize the need to work toward true healing.
For American soldiers affected by Agent Orange, things have been only slightly better. Since the 1980s, they also charged Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Diamond Shamrock with responsibility and finally obtained a $180 million settlement in 1984, with most affected veterans receiving a one-time lump sum payment of only $1,200.
American veterans of the Vietnam War were seeking recognition of Agent Orange syndrome, compensation and treatment for diseases that they and their children suffered from; many exposed to Agent Orange have not been able to receive promised medical care through the Veterans Administration medical system, and only with rare exceptions have their affected children received healthcare assistance from the government.
Vietnam veterans and their families who brought the original Agent Orange lawsuit stated 25 years ago that the government "is just waiting for us all to die." They alleged that most of those still alive would succumb to the effects of toxic exposure before the age of 65. (<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange>)
After years of icy relations, the United States normalized their relationship with Viet Nam in the 1990s. But justice for the victims of Agent Orange has yet to be addressed. We still try to keep them out of sight and out of mind. But they do exist and they are our brothers and sisters even if we don't know their names or see their faces. They do have names and faces, like the family of Nguyen Van Dung.
Nguyen Van Dung, 38, and his family live just outside the old American air base in Da Nang, central Viet Nam. They have lived here since 1990. Dung used to bring home fish he caught in Lotus Lake which catches runoff water from the old base area when it rains.
At about age two, his daughter began manifesting grotesque health problems. Now seven, Nguyen Thi Kieu Nhung's shin bones curve sharply and appear to be broken in several places, as though smashed with a hammer. Her right shoulder bone protrudes unnaturally, stretching her skin. She has only two teeth, her right eye bulges from its socket and she has sores on her face. She can't walk; she can only slide around on her rear end.
When her mother, Luu Thi Thu, changes her daughter's shirt, Nhung screams in pain. "If they had acted before, we wouldn't have been exposed," Thu said. "I'm angry, but I don't know what to do. I go to the pagoda twice a month to pray that my daughter will get better." Her doctors say she won't.
We have been called by Christ to "love our neighbors as we love ourselves." Surely that command has a special meaning as we relate to our wounded neighbors in Viet Nam.