Speaking Out Over Decades of Silence
by K. Oanh Ha, the California Report, KQED Radio
Listen to the audio here at vietnamreportingproject.org
California is home to many Vietnamese-Americans who fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam war. Over time, these soldiers developed cancers because of their exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. But while American-born vets can get medical care and disability compensation for their Agent Orange-related illnesses, America’s former allies get no such benefits.
Luc Nguyen is now a naturalized citizen, but in the 1960s he was a South Vietnamese soldier, working as a translator for the U.S. military. South Vietnamese soldiers frequently got Agent Orange on their skin and clothing when patrolling jungles that had been sprayed. Others were exposed when they sprayed agent orange by hand or helped transport and mix the chemicals.
Luc’s former American commander, retired 4-star general Louis Wagner, says there’s no question he and Luc were frequently exposed to Agent Orange. “We sprayed it with hand sprayers around our own compound, Wagner said. “Obviously when it was being sprayed, you’d breathe it, unless you had a respirator, which we didn’t.”
Both Wagner and Luc have been diagnosed with prostate cancer, one of the illnesses recognized by the Veteran’s Administration as Agent Orange-related. Seven years ago, when Luc’s doctors diagnosed him with both prostate cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, they gave him only months to live.
“The doctor said it was too late,” Luc said. “He said the cancer was at the last stage and had spread.”
Luc says he hadn’t seen a doctor earlier because he couldn’t afford it. When Luc got the diagnosis he was divorced, and living alone in a rented bedroom. His two sons had died when they tried to escape Vietnam by boat. Luc says he had nothing left in life.
“I just wanted to die,” Luc said. “I come here and I don’t have a home, my kids have died at sea. I’m very sad in my old age.”
It was a phone call from Wagner that motivated Luc to get treatment. “He just thought he’d give up.” Wagner said. “I spoke to him quite a while to convince him that he should undergo the treatments and that he could survive because I had .
The two men’s battles with cancer reveal the inequities between South Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers who often fought side-by-side. American vets who served on the ground in Vietnam are presumed to have been exposed to dioxin–a toxic chemical associated with cancers and found in Agent Orange.
Vets who have one of 15 diseases can qualify for disability compensation and medical care from the Veterans Administration. That’s not the case for South Vietnamese soldiers, said Ed Martini, a history professor at Western Michigan University, who’s writing a book about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“If you’re a South Vietnamese soldier, you’re a man without a country,” Martini said. “There’s no benefits system available to you. You can’t get the Vietnamese benefits, and you can’t get the American benefits.”
Last year, Vietnam vets received nearly $2 billion dollars in federal disability payments. Research institutions from the National Academy of Sciences to UC Davis have studied how dioxin affects the health of American-born vets. But not one of the studies has involved Vietnamese American veterans, and no one knows how many might be affected by Agent Orange.
Luc Nguyen says he feels like a second-class citizen.
“I paid a very high price,” he said. “I come here and the American government, the Veterans Administration–they say they don’t know me. And they don’t want to know about this issue. It’s clearly a betrayal.”
Many Vietnamese-Americans say they know former soldiers who have cancers or have died of cancer. But few speak of it. For one, it’s taboo to admit having cancer. And there’s political pressure within the community not to talk about Agent Orange.
Many are reluctant to say anything against the US government, who after all helped them defend their homeland. Demanding help for Agent Orange-related diseases is like siding with Vietnam’s communist government, against America.
San Jose resident Vicky Nguyen lost her adult daughter and husband–a former soldier–to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But Nguyen said she didn’t speak about it for years, not wanting to seem unpatriotic to the United States. “They brought us here,” she said. “I’m better off than those who stayed behind.”
But after Nguyen’s husband died, she got a $10,000 medical bill, and began to wonder how many other families were suffering like hers.
“No one was speaking up so I didn’t dare say anything either,” Nguyen said. “You put the noose around your neck, twist your mouth shut so you don’t say anything. But I am full of resentment.”
Now cancer-free, retired general Louis Wagner says the US has turned its back on its allies.
“These Vietnamese that served alongside us and are living in the US, I think there should be some compensation for them,” Wagner said. “They’re not going to get anything from Vietnam, we know that.”
Now, the plight of former South Vietnamese soldiers is attracting attention in Congress. Congressman Mike Honda, whose district includes San Jose, says he’s willing to meet with former South Vietnamese soldiers and their families to consider legislation that would extend them benefits.
“Nothing’s too good for our veterans,” Honda said. “That same attitude should be provided to the all the veterans we’ve created and those who have fought with us.”
One man who’d like to testify for that legislation is 38-year-old Trung, from San Jose. Trung and his brother both have cancers that are on the VA list of diseases associated with Agent Orange. Trung isn’t using his full name, because he doesn’t want the community to know about the cancer in his bone marrow. He says he’s bitter about the US neglect.
“I don’t think know they think very much of us now,” Trung said. “Even though we now pay taxes or become us citizen. I don’t know they care.”
After 35 years of silence, Trung and other Vietnamese-Americans are now beginning to demand equal treatment for the wounds of war that refuse to heal.
Reporter K. Oanh Ha received one of 15 international fellowships, allowing her to travel to Vietnam to find out how Agent Orange is affecting the land, and the health of former South Vietnamese soldiers and their families. Kat Snow edited the series.