By Sergio Barreto, Chicago FreeSpeechZone

Ho Si Hai began serving as a truck driver for the People’s Army of Vietnam in 1965. He was 31 at the time, and he had no choice in the matter; North Vietnam had imposed universal military conscription five years earlier.

Hai spent most of his time driving along what Americans call the Ho Chi Minh trail – a network of dirt paths and gravel roads connecting North Vietnam to South Vietnam through the jungles of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. “When I first came to the trail, I was surprised to see trees with no leaves,” Hai said through a translator. “I thought it was because of the dry season. Then I saw planes spraying chemicals on the forest.

The U.S. military began using herbicides in Vietnam in 1961 and expanded the practice in the year Hai was conscripted. The official goal of the program was to deny cover to the enemy by getting rid of foliage. By the time the operation ended in October 1971, Vietnam had been doused with 19.4 million gallons of chemicals. About 60 percent of that consisted of a colorless, dioxin-laden compound that was transported in barrels bearing orange labels and came to be known as Agent Orange.

Today that name inspires fear, but Hai was oblivious to the forces bearing down from the sky as he worked and essentially lived along the Ho Chi Minh trail until 1969. During that time, he and his fellow conscripts drank water and ate fish from local streams. “Many times while we were having our meals, planes came over us dropping the chemical spray,” he said. “Many comrades had diarrhea and respiratory problems.”

After the war, Hai returned to his home village and married a woman who had worked as an army communication assistant along the trail. Their first two attempts to have children ended in miscarriages; the third time around they had a baby girl. “We thought we’d finally be able to have some happiness,” Hai said. The girl died of cancer at the age of five.

The couple managed to have three other children. Two of them are deaf and blind, and one is mentally impaired. Hai said other children of villagers who were exposed to dioxin were born deformed or with missing limbs. At age 61, he has diabetes, chronic hepatitis, ulcers, enterolitis and prostate cancer; his wife has diabetes and blood cancer.

Dang Nhut had a similar story to tell, albeit from a female point of view. Nhut said she gave birth to a healthy son before being heavily exposed to Agent Orange while fighting in Southeast Vietnam in May 1965. She developed a skin rash, but the extent of the damage didn’t become apparent until 1973, when she suffered two miscarriages. In 1977 she was able to carry a child for five months; it was stillborn and seriously deformed. She made another attempt in 1980, miscarried again, and was advised by doctors to stop trying.

Nhut said her husband was also exposed to Agent Orange and died in 1999 from intestinal cancer that metastasized to the lung and the liver. She had part of her intestine removed due to a tumor in 2002 and underwent surgery for thyroid cancer the following year. But having lived to be 69, Nhut considers herself lucky.

“My health still allows me to come here to speak about my situation, and to represent other victims who are living in even worse situations,” Nhut told a standing room audience at Roosevelt University three weeks ago. “It is an honor to be here speaking to you about our experiences and stories, and [asking you to] help us fight for justice and fairness.”

Hai and Nhut stopped by Chicago during a short U.S. tour intended to drum up support for a class action lawsuit filed by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) against the manufacturers and suppliers of the chemicals sprayed on Vietnam. The suit was dismissed earlier this year by the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York. VAVA filed an appeal and launched the survivors tour in an attempt to take its fight to the court of public opinion.

VAVA Vice President Dr. Nguyen Nhan spearheaded the delegation. A former Minister of Health and president of the Vietnam National Red Cross, Dr. Nhan has conducted or commissioned several studies on the effects of Agent Orange on the local population. The studies showed that the rate of birth defects in Vietnam is much higher than in other countries, Dr. Nhan said; they also showed that the overall rate of health problems is higher in the areas where chemicals where sprayed. “We found no discrepancy between the effects on soldiers and civilians,” he added. U.S. authorities don’t consider these studies valid.

VAVA has compiled a registry of about three million suspected Agent Orange victims in Vietnam but may never be able to come up with a definitive figure. “Thousands have died, and thousands are still being born with defects,” Dr. Nhan said. The environmental damage is also difficult to quantify. The chemicals destroyed an estimated 3 million hectares of forest, according to Dr. Nhan. Dioxin doesn’t dissolve in water and remains in the environment longer than most toxics. “In many areas only grass grows,” Dr. Nhan said. “Scientists estimate that reforestation in some areas may take 100 years.”

Many Americans may find it difficult to empathize with former enemy fighters, but Dr. Nhan pointed out that part of the tragedy of dioxin is that the compound couldn’t distinguish between friend or foe. The delegation was meant to include a third victim whose visa was denied by immigration authorities: 22-year-old Nguyen Muoi, who has spina bifida. His father was exposed to Agent Orange while fighting in the South Vietnamese Army.

* * * * *

Dioxin, a catch-all term for hundreds of different chemicals, became a household name in America during the 1970s. Many Vietnam veterans who came down with cancers, neurological disorders and other conditions were quick to place the blame on exposure to defoliants during wartime.

But it wasn’t until 1991 that Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, and the legislation only provided compensation for veterans who were diagnosed with three conditions, including a type of bone cancer and a rare form of blood cancer.

“As a nation at war, the U.S. government compelled a number of companies to produce Agent Orange under the Defense Production Act,” according to an Agent Orange background page on Dow’s Web site. The page goes on to say, “War damages people, lives, and the environment. Nations, and the militaries of nations, are responsible for war. The U.S. government and the Vietnamese government are responsible for military acts in Vietnam and the use of Agent Orange as a defoliant.”

Kids’ ages: 12, 15, 17 and 22. Mother: “They can’t speak and can’t walk, only Lam (left) a little bit. They can understand what people say, crawl and they can see, but not clearly. They can eat by themselves.”

In 1984, Dow and the other Agent Orange manufacturers reached a $180 million settlement to end a class action lawsuit on behalf of the 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam and their families.

“The manufacturers feel that in 1984 they took part in a good-faith settlement aimed at healing and bringing closure to this issue,” according to Dow’s Web site. “Any future issues involving Agent Orange should be the responsibility of the respective governments as a matter of political and social policy.” The page makes no mention of the Vietnamese victims.

According to Dr. Nhan, the Vietnamese government tried to discuss the effects of Agent Orange during the 1973 peace talks with the Nixon administration and got nowhere. “We have tried to address the issue through humanitarian channels,” he said, adding that he personally brought up the issue with President Bill Clinton during a visit to Hanoi in 2000 but failed to secure a commitment to action.

After three decades of frustration, VAVA decided to try a new tack, approaching American attorneys about the possibility of a class action. A National Lawyer’s Guild team took up the cause and filed suit on January 30, 2004, against the companies that manufactured Agent Orange for the military between 1961 and 1971, as well as their subsidiaries.

The suit was designed around the Alien Tort Claims Act and stated that use of defoliants during the conflict in Vietnam violated international law and constituted a war crime. The complaint sought “many damages for personal injuries, wrongful death and birth defects and … injunctive relief for environmental contamination and disgorgement of profits” arising from “products liability-negligent and intentional torts, civil conspiracy, public nuisance and unjust enrichment.”

The unusual nature of the suit generated a significant amount of publicity. The companies fought the litigation vigorously; they argued, among other things, that the case violated the separation of powers of the state, and that a victory by the plaintiffs would infringe of the nation’s ability to wage war. The U.S. Department of Justice submitted a brief supporting those claims.

Dao Duy Thanh, age 12. His father, who was in the People’s Army of Vietnam for 5 years, died of blood cancer in 1998. Mother: “Thanh can’t speak and walk, only sit and lie down. He can’t eat by himself, can’t understand people and has difficulty in breathing. He can hear and see a little.”

The case was tried by Judge Jack Weinstein, who oversaw the 1984 settlement on behalf of the American servicemen exposed to dioxin. On March 10, 2005, he dismissed the VAVA lawsuit on the grounds that although the chemicals sprayed on Vietnam were toxic, their use didn’t qualify as chemical warfare and was thus not in violation of international law.

VAVA quickly filed an appeal, and oral arguments are scheduled to be heard in the week of April 10, 2006. “The decision by the Brooklyn judge is irrational and prejudiced,” Dr. Nhan said. “The corporations are rich, and Vietnam is poor. We continue our case because we have confidence that there are people who believe in justice and are fighting for justice in America.”

A national coalition of veterans, Vietnamese-Americans leaders and activists of every stripe came together as the lawsuit was underway. The coalition was formally launched on February 28, 2005, under the moniker Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign. After the suit was dismissed, the coalition came up with the idea of bringing dioxin survivors to the U.S. to share their stories.

Merle Ratner, the campaign’s coordinator and a paralegal with the New York Coalition for Peace and Justice, was the first speaker on the Chicago leg of the tour. “This campaign started when Vietnam veterans, veterans from other wars and people fighting for social justice said, enough is enough,’” she said. “People my age and older paid for that Agent Orange, and we are saying, ‘no, you can’t do this with our money.’” She vowed that the campaign will continue regardless of the outcome of the appeal. “It may take street action, community organizing … this is not a symbolic campaign. We intend to win it.”

Chicago is the home base of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), and during the rest of the event local veterans and the Vietnamese delegation took turns sharing their thoughts and experiences. “The real human cost has yet to be established on the country the U.S. dumped all this crap on and walked away from,” said Bill Davis, one of the national coordinators for VVAW. The use of defoliants in Vietnam was “as bad as the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo,” he went on, “and the fallout may be worse than Hiroshima.”

Davis, who served in Southeast Asia from 1968 to 1970 and is also a chief steward for the International Association of Machinists, let his labor colors fly as he criticized the nation’s leaders for failing to acknowledge responsibility toward Vietnamese dioxin victims. “The government’s idea of helping [Vietnam] is, ‘we’ll bring our factories in, pollute some more, and exploit your people for cheap labor,’” he said.

Barry Romo, another VVAW national coordinator, took a more conciliatory tone. He served as a platoon leader from 1967 to 1968 and labeled this face-to-face meeting among people who once fought each other as an opportunity for healing. “If more than 30 years after the last shot was fired [Vietnam] still has babies born with birth defects, women who can’t have children … what kind of war was it?” Romo asked, trembling and struggling to control his emotions.

The four million Vietnamese who are believed to have died during the war represent a “blood debt” America has yet to come to terms with, Romo said. “This blood debt means that we owe the survivors some time, some action,” he added, asking the audience to contribute to the cash-strapped VAVA campaign and vowing to hold more events to raise awareness of the issue.

Recalling a phone call he received a few days earlier from a sobbing new widow, Romo pointed out that American Agent Orange victims have yet to get their due. The woman said her husband had been on full disability due to dioxin poisoning. “She asked how to get [her] husband’s name on the wall in Washington. I told her you can’t. Then she really started crying. I told her they won’t recognize Agent Orange victims as casualties of war.”

Nick Egnatz, a VVAW member who wasn’t scheduled to speak, asked for some time on the mike to share a recent startling realization. “I never considered myself a [dioxin] victim in any way at all until I got a call about this event,” he said. But after taking some time to research the effects of the chemical, he began to question whether there is a link between his service in Vietnam and the fact that his wife had three miscarriages.

Egnatz managed to have nine children, so if he was touched by Agent Orange the consequences were fairly minimal. But that won’t keep him from taking up the Vietnamese victim’s cause. “We have to pay all our debts,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot since this summer to stop this insanity going on in Iraq, and now I’m going to do a lot to stop this other insanity.”