By Oscar Avila, Chicago Tribune staff reporter

Dang Hong Nhut recalls how U.S. aircraft swooped over her village and dropped a foul-smelling white substance on the tree leaves. In the years since the Vietnam War, Nhut has had two miscarriages and two battles with cancer, which doctors blamed on Agent Orange.

Steve Nelson fought in the Army that released the defoliant. Decades later, the Chicago man wants to help bring justice to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, which contained the poison dioxin.

A non-profit group, in an unusual outreach campaign, is working with U.S. veterans to bring a Vietnamese delegation to Chicago to publicize the effects of Agent Orange. The group, Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, is asking for legal compensation from U.S. chemical companies that made Agent Orange and for support from lawmakers.

Nhut will be one of four speakers at a gathering Wednesday at Roosevelt University, part of a 10-city U.S. tour. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Congress Lounge at 430 S. Michigan Ave.

“I have lost the chance to be a mother. I have suffered so much,” said Nhut, 69, by telephone through an interpreter. “I think that we should hold people responsible for this.”

Nelson, who served two years in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry and is former president of Veterans for Peace, said the United States has a responsibility to the Vietnamese.

“We affected their lives and their future generations,” he said. “I just want them to know that many Vietnam veterans care.”

Nhut and other plaintiffs received a setback this year when a federal judge in New York dismissed a civil lawsuit against Dow, Monsanto and other chemical companies.

The judge wrote that the use of Agent Orange was never considered a war crime. The companies argued that the U.S. and Vietnamese governments should resolve the matter.

The group plans to appeal the ruling and might consider suing individual companies, said Merle Ratner, the campaign’s co-coordinator. The group estimates that Agent Orange harmed about 3 million Vietnamese.
The campaign has received much of its support from peace activists and liberal groups. But organizers also hope to tap into the strength of veteran groups, whose members experienced similar damage from the defoliant.

So far, the campaign has received backing from only the more liberal veterans groups, such as Veterans for Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

“The veterans can get really passionate about this. That’s important because they are a real constituency,” Ratner said. “We are finding a hidden wellspring of people who say this is just not fair.”

In her village of Cu Chi, Nhut said she saw children born without skin, without limbs, without sight.

“The American people should know about this,” she said.