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Santa Fe New Mexican
April 16, 2006
Section: Neighbors
Page Number:29

Making amends

Santa Fe Vietnam veteran seeks accountability for Agent Orange use

By Kay Lockridge
For The New Mexican

 

 

    This is a story about hope and redemption, about people from very different worlds coming together to try to make a better world for all. Joan Duffy was a young, patriotic Air Force nurse in Vietnam 36 years ago. She returned for the first time last month at the invitation of the Vietnamese government to speak at an international conference on Agent Orange. What she found both horrified and enthralled her.

    “It was the trip of a lifetime,” Duffy says with passion. “I hadn’t expected it to be so hard, however. It was a very hard trip for me emotionally.

    “Vietnam is so different a place that I felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. The Vietnam I knew was a nightmare, engulfed by war, chaos and disorder. The Vietnam I knew is gone; I’m glad it doesn’t exist anymore.”

    The Philadelphia native joined the Air Force six months after receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing at the University of Detroit Mercy. She was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas for a year. In 1969, she was sent to Vietnam.

    “I did not volunteer, but I didn’t object,” Duffy says. “I believed in the war and that we (the United States) were doing the right thing” in Southeast Asia. “Plus, I was told that if I went (to Vietnam), my younger brothers would not be drafted and sent to Vietnam.” (Neither brother was drafted. Duffy notes that both received college deferments as the war went on.)

    She spent what she calls one hellish year at the Air Force hospital at Cam Ranh Bay, northeast of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on the South China Sea. Duffy recalls, with irony, that her base — like all American bases in South Vietnam — was sprayed with Agent Orange twice a day to clear the surrounding area of foliage that could hide the enemy.


Courtesy photo Joan Duffy spent a year in the Vietnam War as an Air Force nurse. Her concerns about Agent Orange used in the war began more than 25 years ago.

    Following her one-year tour of duty (November 1969 to November 1970), Duffy returned to the United States and was dismayed by the reception that returning Vietnam troops received from Americans. She was spat upon and reviled, although she had never killed anyone (she was armed, as were all medical personnel in the war zone) and had helped save both American and Vietnamese lives on the battlefield.

    In the meantime, her views on the war changed, and Duffy moved to England to protest American involvement in Vietnam. She married an American and had a daughter, Claire, who now lives in Australia.

    Upon her subsequent return to the United States in 1974, Duffy embarked on a career in medical communications, principally writing educational materials for physicians, nurses and patients, at various pharmaceutical companies in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. She also spent four years as an educationalseminar planner for major corporations.

    Duffy and her daughter moved to Santa Fe in 1998 after vacationing here and visiting a fellow Vietnam nurse who had relocated to the City Different. She joined the Santa Fe chapter of Veterans for Peace just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

    “I had seen letters to the editor about the organization in The New Mexican, and I contacted the local president, Ken Mayers,” Duffy says. She soon joined the war’s protesters every Friday from noon to 1 p.m. at the intersection of St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road.

    Her concerns about the effects of Agent Orange on both Americans who served in Vietnam and the Vietnamese people began more than 25 years ago. She notes that three of the five nurses at her base, Duffy included, have suffered various forms of cancer since that service. What concerned her more was that her daughter began showing Agent Orange side effects in her immune system when she was 8. Duffy’s grandson suffered bowel malformation, since repaired, a condition that various medical studies have related to Agent Orange exposure.


 Kathy De La Torre/The New Mexican Duffy at home in Santa Fe with four of her five dogs, one of which she says is a ‘foster dog.’ The former Air Force nurse was among the five members of Veterans for Peace who attended a March conference on Agent Orange in Hanoi.

   With her background in medicine and pharmaceuticals, Duffy educated herself on Agent Orange and became an activist on the subject. She has testified on the subject before Congress and spoken extensively before concerned groups and the media.

    The “trip of a lifetime” to Vietnam and the International Conference of the Victims of Agent Orange resulted from her activities and concern. The invitation came from the government of Vietnam on behalf of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange in cooperation with the Veterans Association of Vietnam and the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations. The host country paid all her expenses in Vietnam — including visits to Ho Chi Minh City and Wei, the old imperial city — while she paid for her transportation to and from Vietnam. Veterans for Peace of Santa Fe will reimburse 75 percent of that expense, Duffy says.

    The conference itself received extensive international coverage, with reports by Reuters and the Associated Press both quoting Duffy’s speech to the gathering. She was one of 12 speakers and the first American to speak (after introductions by conference organizers) on the first day of the two-day conference in Hanoi March 28-29. Other female speakers included a Parliament member from New Zealand and a social activist from France. England, Canada, Australia and South Korea also had representatives at the conference. Five members of Veterans for Peace represented the United States.


 Courtesy photo Duffy and fellow Santa Fean Ralph Steele study conference materials during the two-day gathering in Hanoi on Agent Orange. Steele served as an Army helicopter gunner in Vietnam.

   More than 150 participants agreed the second day to a statement demanding that the United States government and American chemical companies, specifically Dow Chemical and Monsanto, be held accountable for health problems in South Vietnam resulting from the use of Agent Orange there and to “pay compensation equal to their liability.”

    In January, a South Korean appeals court ordered Dow Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co. to pay $65 million in damages to 20,000 of that nation’s Vietnam War veterans for exposure to defoliants such as Agent Orange. Legal experts said it might be impossible for the South Korean veterans to collect damages because of problems of jurisdiction and the amount of time that has elapsed since the war.

    A U.S. appellate court is expected to rule later this month on the dismissal of a class-action suit in federal court on behalf of millions of Vietnamese who charged the United States with war crimes for using Agent Orange.

    The United States has accepted responsibility for several cancers suffered by American servicemen; however, because there were many fewer female veterans serving in Vietnam (mostly nurses), the studies have focused on cancers suffered mostly by men. The government has not studied the effects of Agent Orange on female personnel who have developed ovarian and breast cancers.

    Duffy says her goals — creating alliances with people from other countries and holding nations and corporations accountable for their actions in hopes of preventing future “Agent Orange-type weapons” from wartime use — were accomplished at the conference. She also visited four children’s hospitals during her 10-day stay in Vietnam.

    “Agent Orange … is a weapon of mass destruction,” Duffy says. “It continues to kill and maim in South Vietnam because it has settled in the ground. Children and grandchildren and beyond continue to be born with the worst physical and sometimes mental deformities you can imagine.

    “It says something about the Vietnamese people that they fight to save deformed infants and provide as positive a life for them as is possible. But they (the Vietnamese) need our help financially to do this.

    “I believe most Americans are pretty fair-minded and would not go out to deliberately hurt innocent people, especially children,” Duffy adds. “And, if we find that we did harm innocents, we will make amends. The biggest thing is to help these children.

    “We can’t change what happened 40 years ago, but we can do the right thing now and help these children of war … and, perhaps, save those yet to be born,” Duffy says with conviction. “I feel driven to help the children. I had no idea of the impact they would have on me; I had no idea how bad it would be for them. Thirty million Vietnamese are affected by Agent Orange, and it continues to hurt the children.

    “It was tough for me emotionally and physically, but I’m glad I went,” she says. “And it’s good to be home.”

Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign | info@vn-agentorange.org | P.O. Box 303, Prince Street, New York, NY 10012-0006