Four million Vietnamese still suffer after-effects of the U.S. military’s defoliant Agent Orange

Vietnamese citizens Dang Thi Hong, Dr. Nguyen Trong Nhan, and Ho Sy Hai want the U.S. to pay $3.2 billion in reparations to those exposed to Agent Orange and their descendants. Imprisoned during the war, Dang later suffered three miscarriages and a stillbirth. Photo by Suzanna Finley.

by Cydney Gillis, Real Change

It’s been more than 30 years. But Ho Sy Hai is fighting to get a U.S. court to address his injuries.

At 64, Ho has a prostate tumor, diabetes, and intestinal ulcers. He says he and his wife have had four children: a daughter who died of cancer at 5, two sons who are deaf and dumb, and a third son who has a mental disorder.

All of it, Ho says, is the result of being sprayed with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. military dropped some 13 million gallons of the dioxin-laced herbicide on South Vietnam to defoliate forested areas used by the Viet Cong. Today, Ho and other Vietnamese citizens are trying to sue Dow, Monsanto, and other U.S. makers of Agent Orange in an effort to support more than four million dioxin victims in Vietnam — many of them deformed children and grandchildren born to veterans.

Victims such as Ho and Dang Thi Hong Nhut — who were in Seattle Dec. 5 on an 11-city tour organized by the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign — say the United States owes them $3.2 billion in reparations promised in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.

Given the difficulty of suing the U.S., however, the victims are attempting to sue the manufacturers, in part on the grounds that they knew Agent Orange contained deadly levels of dioxin — a liability argument based on the Alien Tort Claims Act.

In March, a judge in New York rejected the claim, which is now on appeal. In the meantime, Ho, Dang, and Dr. Nguyen Trong Nhan, former director of the Vietnam Red Cross, are in the United States to win support for their cause.

At the time Ho was exposed to Agent Orange, between 1966 and 1969, he was a truck driver for America’s enemy, the North Vietnamese Army, making supply runs south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Dang, who was first exposed in 1965, was a member of the Viet Cong. After the South Vietnamese government arrested her in 1966, she spent nearly seven years in an infamous prison in Con Son known as the “Tiger Cages.” During her imprisonment, she says she received no medical treatment for the rash and diarrhea caused by the dioxin.

Before the war, Dang, 68, says she gave birth to a normal, healthy son. Afterward, she had three miscarriages and a stillbirth of a seriously deformed fetus.

“ I never expected that the chemical could have stayed with me that long,” Dang says.
She has since had two tumors removed and says she worries about what will happen to her and other victims of Agent Orange.

“ Around me there are many friends whose situation is worse than mine,” Dang says. “They have to take care of deformed children. Therefore, they cannot earn a decent living.”

Merle Ratner, a tour organizer with the New York-based Agent Orange relief campaign, says more than 300,000 Vietnamese children suffer spinal and other deformities, including enlarged heads and missing limbs.

“ This is just the beginning of this case,” Ratner says. “We think the case will be won in court, but ultimately it will be won due to public pressure” — perhaps including a boycott.

“ Dow Chemical makes every household product known to humanity,” Ratner says. “If they don’t do the right thing as a good corporate citizen, it will cost them dearly.”