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Madison Quakers Agent Orange Projects in Vietnam
By Mike Boehm
Reprinted from Winds of Peace newsletter #12.
In March, 2005, the Madison Quakers implemented their first project to help the victims of Agent Orange. Agent Orange, along with Agents Purple, Pink, Blue, White and Green, were defoliants used in Vietnam during the war. Agent Orange was by far the most heavily used herbicidal spray during the war. These defoliants contained dioxin a highly toxic chemical which caused severe birth defects and high rates of cancer in those exposed to it - the Vietnamese people and American soldiers, and our allies.
For those of us who have followed the debate over Agent Orange all these years, we have seen a very familiar scenario-cries for justice which go unheard, complete denial of responsibility by the US government and the corporations which produced Agent Orange, anger unleashed and uncontrolled. And this reaction is only in response to the mistreatment of American soldiers; the effects of Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam have been virtually ignored by the parties responsible.
While it is vitally important that awareness continues to be raised about the need to address our responsibilities concerning the after-effects of spraying the herbicide Agent Orange on our soldiers and on innocent Vietnamese civilians, it is also important that the anger and grief we all feel about the victims of this abuse not devolve into pointless, mindless rage, as so often happens.
So, consistent with our approach to the massacres at My Lai and elsewhere, we have chosen to take the path that bypasses recrimination and anger and instead focuses on what we can do for the people in Vietnam affected by Agent Orange.
We began to do so in 2005 with the family of Mrs. Nguyen Thi Ha from Tinh Giang village, one of the villages with a loan fund program funded by our organization. Their household consists of three women-grandmother, mother (Mrs. Ha) and daughter. The husband of Mrs. Ha was sprayed with Agent Orange during the war. When the war was over, they married; and, when he realized he had sired a child with severe birth defects and that his wife was losing her hearing, he ran away. He has not sent any money for support and in fact has never been heard from since.
I spoke to Mrs. Ha's mother when I visited because Mrs. Ha by then had become completely deaf. She showed me around their "house"—mud walls, dirt floor and thatch roof. Then she introduced me to her granddaughter, who was 15 years old at the time but looked to be about 9 or 10 years old. She can only respond to stimulus such as light or noise; other than that, she has no sentience. One of the medical problems she has is an insatiable craving for water, and so she consumes enormous quantities of water all day long. Her grandmother told me that she spends a large portion of her day just boiling water for her granddaughter. And, of course, as a consequence of drinking so much water, her granddaughter is urinating constantly. Her mother and grandmother didn't know what more they could do for her. In a house of mud, where can you put a child like this? They have put her on a plastic chair with slots in the seat next to a door so she can have some light and fresh air. Mrs. Ha and her mother must work in the fields every day to be sure there is enough food for the family. They can't be with her all day so this little girl sat in her urine all day, day after day after day, her feet caked with mud made from her urine.
Our response was to fund what the people of Vietnam call a "compassion house" for the family of Mrs. Ha. These compassion houses are made of durable brick and cement walls, cement floor and tin roof.
There is no solution to the effects of Agent Orange. The genetic damage is done and cannot be undone. But we can provide relief for these families and that is our goal. For the first time in their lives they are safe; safe from monsoon rains and wind, safe from insects and snakes. Safe. And for the first time in their lives they don't feel so alone because they know now that someone cares.
A meeting with the newly formed Vietnamese governmental organization, the Organization for the Victims of Agent Orange, this year confirmed the building of compassion houses as the most important aid that can be given to victims of Agent Orange. As of October, 2006, we have had constructed two more compassion houses for victims of Agent Orange and we will be constructing many more in the near future.
As of 2006 each compassion house cost $900.
Mike Boehm is the Chair of the My Lai Peace Park. He served in Cu Chi from 1968-1969. He is a member of VVAW.