by Russell Max Simon, Albuquerque Journal

An estimated 3 million to 5 million Vietnamese are currently reported to be suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, according to U.S. government estimates.

Two of them, Ho Sy Hai and Dang Thi Hong Nhurt, were at El Museo Cultural in Santa Fe on Saturday to tell their story and build support for a victims’ rights organization that is seeking compensation for the effects of Agent Orange from U.S. chemical companies. Both spoke through a translator to a group of about 30 people.

Sy Hai, a truck driver on the Ho Chi Minh trail for the North Vietnamese Army, said he was exposed to Agent Orange multiple times over the course of three years during the war.

“We were young soldiers, and we were living on natural animals. Vegetables, animals— all were contaminated by this spray,” Sy Hai said.

Sy Hai returned to his village after the war to get married and start a family, but his wife’s first two pregnancies— she had also been exposed to the chemical— ended in miscarriages. Sy Hai now has three kids, two of whom he said are deaf and dumb. The third has a serious mental disorder.

Both Sy Hai and his wife suffer from diabetes, and Sy Hai still suffers from tumors and ulcers.

In 2004, he and other members of a victims’ rights group called the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin filed a class-action lawsuit in New York requesting compensation from chemical companies that were involved in making the chemical, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto. But in March, a district judge dismissed the case.

The judge wrote in the case that the random poisoning of a large number of people was a side effect of the deforestation of a battleground, did not qualify as a crime against humanity— as VAVA claimed it was— and did not violate any treaty to which the United States was a signatory at the time.

The case is on appeal to the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Agent Orange was used extensively in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, at which time its use was banned because it contained an extremely harmful chemical called Dioxin.

It’s the Dioxin, VAVA argues, that is responsible for birth defects, mental disorders, high instances of cancer, polio, ulcers and a host of other health problems among millions of Vietnamese.

American veterans of the Vietnam War who were affected by Agent Orange have received monetary compensation in the past as the result of lawsuits and continue to receive money from their veterans’ benefits.

In addition to Sy Hai and Thi Hong Nhurt’s stories on Saturday, the audience was shown a vivid and haunting 15-minute video that detailed the birth defects of Vietnamese children born of parents who were exposed to the chemical.

The event also featured a healing ceremony performed by Ralph Steele, a helicopter gunner during Vietnam who helped spray Agent Orange. After the war Steele studied to become a Buddhist monk.

He said the ceremony was a step toward reconciliation.

“We were just doing our job, or trying to do our job, as kids,” said Steel, who was 19 at the time.

Steele draped white silk blessing scarves over the Vietnamese’s necks, prostrating himself at each of their feet. He then crumpled up a photograph of him in his helicopter before an Agent Orange run. He lit it on fire and put in a bowl on the floor.

Later, he and Dr. Nguyen Trong Nhan, former president of the Vietnam Red Cross and spokesman for the group, clasped hands while Steele chanted and the photo burned.

Afterward, an audience member asked Nhan why he and the other victims weren’t more angry about the issue. Nhan and the others were a model of politeness and gentility throughout the event.

“It is part of our character,” Nhan responded. “We are proud of being a nation of tolerance. As a county that has undergone 30 years of war, we want only peace.”

The group, whose trip has received coverage in the Vietnamese press, has already visited New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, but Nhan said he hasn’t seen any big crowds.

“I understand it’s not easy to pull a crowd, but we have deep respect for those who come to see us, and we have trust that as the first listeners to our story that you will share it with others,” he said.