This article is the last of a five-part series on Agent Orange. If you missed the first four parts of this series you can read them at:
On August 10, 1961, U.S. forces started their toxic chemical spraying in Viet Nam. Forests and crop fields were left bare and desolate by herbicides with such colorful names as Agent Orange, Agent Purple, Agent Blue and Agent White. Almost 50 years later the land is producing again. Fields of rice wave in the afternoon breezes and hillsides are again covered with trees giving cover to animals and insects that for so many years had no place to forage for food. It is easy to forget that, within the beauty of nature regaining its presence in Quang Ngai Province, the poisons remain. Some streams with crystal-clear water support no fish and many fields of rice are thin and yellowish in color. Most sadly, children continue to be born with severe mental and physical disabilities.
For those of us living half-a-world away it may be easy to pick up a good book or turn on a television show and pretend that the war in Viet Nam never happened, but for the people of Viet Nam, the reminders of those tragic years of unnecessary violence are always in front of them, not just in their memories but in the lives of the many people suffering the effects of unexploded ordnance and herbicide poisons.
How do we bring healing and happiness into this sorrow? Perhaps we cannot. The healing and happiness that is so vital to all of us may, instead, come from the victims themselves.
Mr. Ho Quy Cay is now 72 years old. He joined the North Vietnamese army in 1953 and moved south according to the requirements of the Geneva Agreements of 1954 to await the elections which would reunify the country in 1956. When these elections were blocked, the war began.
In 1961 Mr. Cay went back south where he lived in the forested mountain areas as a soldier. He met his wife there and they were married in 1969. Both Mr. Cay and his wife were affected directly by the spraying of Agent Orange. As the years went by, they had six children together. Four of these children suffered serious mental and physical damage, probably the result of Agent Orange poisoning. Three of the children died and the fourth, now 33 years old, has the mind of a small child and requires constant care.
Mr. Cay himself suffers severe health problems which are almost certainly toxin-related. Recently he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The U.S. Institute of Medicine has determined that respiratory cancers as well as Hodgkin's disease, lymphoma, prostate cancer and type 2 diabetes can be the result of exposure to Agent Orange. When the Quang Ngai Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) was established in 2005, he was invited to head the office and its activities. Despite health problems and responsibilities to care for his own daughter, Mr. Cay accepted the invitation. He says that despite being old he took on this responsibility because he has empathy for the victims of Agent Orange and wants to help them in some way. Almost all of the VAVA staff in Quang Ngai are retired army officers and most suffer the effects of toxin poisoning.
Every afternoon after work Mr. Cay returns home to take his daughter for a ride around the city. Only after having this time together with her father will she sleep at night. If he works late, she waits until he returns home to spend time with her.
All day, Mr. Cay's wife is busy taking care of their daughter: washing, feeding and pleasing her. They have tried many ways to help her. "We have taken her to Hanoi for operations and brought her to many different hospitals," he said. "But nothing seems to help her."
Regardless of the difficulties Mr. Cay and his family face, he remains dedicated to helping other victims of Agent Orange and of building bridges across the oceans for friendship and solidarity with people in America. He seeks not only healing for his daughter and other people who have lost their mental and physical capacities because of the war, but he also seeks healing of the relationship between the people of Viet Nam and the United States. Even though Mr. Cay is a victim of Agent Orange, he works as a healer.
We tend to feel sorry for victims. The word itself suggests powerlessness and even hopelessness. Victims are people we need to help and save. This concept was recently challenged by a friend in India who said, "We must see in the victims the power to bring reconciliation and healing." Mr. Cay and so many other victims of Agent Orange are good examples of this. If we allow them, they can help bring healing to us and to our world. We must go to the victims to find our own healing. As we share with them in their healing process, we too are healed, and as we are healed, the world experiences healing. Is this not what the cross calls us to?
On August 10 of each year, the day that herbicide spraying was first used against the people of Viet Nam, the victims of Agent Orange/dioxin hold Memorial Day celebrations throughout the country. Art exhibits, drama performances and music concerts bring laughter and joy to communities. Through this celebration we can go to the victims themselves to seek the power and vision needed for healing to come to this world. I invite you to join with them, and allow the victims to become our healers.
(An excellent short film on the effects of dioxin can be seen at <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJxb7CY13uc>.)