Restoration: Writing a new chapter in Vietnam’s Agent Orange saga

Peter Abatiell with a child at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. (Stephen Abatiell / photo)

Peter Abatiell with a child at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. (Stephen Abatiell / photo)

By STEPHEN ABATIELL
CORRESPONDENT

As I sit on a tiny plastic stool across the table from my father, I have to hold back a smile as he fumbles hopelessly with his chopsticks. We are packed into tin tables that have spilled out onto the sidewalk, right to the curb. Pho bo, Vietnam’s favorite noodle soup, is warm and comforting in the midst of the buzz of Hanoi street life.

My father, Peter Abatiell Jr., earned the rank of specialist 4 with the company C, 2nd battalion of the 8th cavalry regiment of the 1st cavalry division. He was in Vietnam from the end of 1970 through 1972.

For me, this odyssey began 20 years ago at the dinner table in Rutland. My mother would roll her eyes as my father launched into another Vietnam story. She had heard them hundreds of times, but for me they were exotic and important, and they left me full of wonder.

“We had stopped for a break, I was sitting on my helmet, writing a letter, and the machine gunner was lying on the ground in front of me doing the same. Our weapons were within arm’s reach. We froze when we finally heard them coming.”

A reproduction of a Vietnamese Agen Orange propaganda poster. (Kate Richards / illustration)

A reproduction of a Vietnamese Agen Orange propaganda poster. (Kate Richards / illustration)

I try to imagine this scene, deep in the Vietnamese jungle. One moment you are writing to your family “back in the world,” assuring them that you are safe, and then the moment is gone and you are back in your war. What lies in the space between you and your M16?

“They came around a large rock, chatting quietly to each other as they walked. They didn’t see us through the jungle until they were close, then they froze. They were boys like us, 17 or 18. They didn’t want to die either … Very slowly they stepped backwards, out of sight behind the rock.”

This is the only story I ever heard from my father where he encountered “the enemy.” The legend of Vietnam’s horrors is vast in our culture and I always assumed he had darker stories that he wasn’t prepared to tell his family.

It turns out that the true danger my father faced was not in a firefight at the end of a rifle. It would appear that he was incredibly fortunate. However, something else was lurking in that jungle besides young Vietnamese soldiers. The biggest danger my father faced in Vietnam is a silent, slow killer.

“At night, we were usually bedded down in defoliated areas. I guessed that it was just convenient. We used to joke that even a mosquito didn’t fly by us … I never really thought of the seriousness of it. I was young and innocent.”

My father was not exposed to bombs and village massacres in Vietnam, he was exposed to a chemical called 2,3,7,8-TCDD — dioxin, an unintended byproduct of the Agent Orange mixing process and one of the most toxic substances mankind has ever created.

Agent Orange was the primary defoliant used by the United States during the Vietnam War and was heavily contaminated with dioxin. During Operation Ranch Hand, U.S. forces sprayed nearly 80 million liters of herbicides over Vietnam to clear away the ancient three-storied jungles where the Northern forces may have been hiding. By the end of the war, U.S. forces used much of this chemical defoliant directly on food crops believed to be supporting North Vietnamese soldiers. Dioxin may take 15 years to degrade in surface soil. Sub-surface soil remains virtually unchanged over time. There are many places in Vietnam that still have high levels of this chemical 40 years after its use.

My father has survived one cancer linked to Agent Orange by the Veteran’s Hospital, and a second suspicious cancer that cannot be confirmed. He fathered three healthy sons, and is lucky to have had capable medical care. He is lucky to have survived the war; lucky to have survived his cancers; and lucky to have healthy children. Not all have been so lucky.

In Vietnam, an estimated 7 million people have health problems linked to dioxin exposure — almost 1 million of them children; children who, like me, have a parent or grandparent that was exposed to Agent Orange, but who have suffered more serious health effects because of the persistence of the chemical in their environment. These children, half a world away, are my brothers and sisters in this chemical legacy.

The author and his father with their class at the Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi. (Stephen Abatiell / photo)

The author and his father with their class at the Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi.
(Stephen Abatiell / photo)

We arrive at the Vietnam Friendship Village by taxi. We are in an outer neighborhood of Hanoi — a maze of narrow streets. The driver has to stop and ask for directions a few times. For us, it’s uncomfortably humid, but Miss Ha doesn’t seem fazed in her business suit as she leads us into the VFV’s official receiving room. The room is decorated in the Soviet style common to Northern Vietnam, with ornately carved wooden chairs lining the walls. We sit to await the director.

The Vietnam Friendship Village is a testament to international friendship, peace and the ability to heal. Established in 2002 by U.S. veteran George Mizo before he died from his own Agent Orange-related illnesses. He opened the center with the North Vietnamese officer responsible for a firefight that killed his entire platoon. Old war enemies creating a vision of hope.

Director Dung arrives after a few minutes. He politely welcomes us to the village as Miss Ha, his secretary, translates. Mr. Dung is a veteran of the war. Like my father, he was teaching in 1970 when he was drafted into the war. Old war enemies living a vision of hope.

The next morning we begin our classroom volunteering. We will spend the next two weeks helping out in Classroom 2. My father and I have both had experience working with students, but this will be our first time working with special needs students. Over the year leading up to our journey, we have been reading stories of physical and mental disabilities suffered by the children of Vietnam. We are not sure what to expect. Our fears quickly melt away when we are greeted by the smiling faces and loving embraces of the 13 students in our classroom.

The students of our class are all at a similar academic level. Most are learning to count to 10 and simple addition. The days are broken up with a vocabulary and sign language lessons in the morning followed by language and math workbooks until a play break. After lunch and a midday nap, there is usually singing and stretching exercises, more workbooks or arts and crafts. The school day often ends with a song for beloved Uncle Ho Chi Minh.

It is a typical elementary school day and, as the oldest students of the class, may father and I quickly learn some useful vocabulary, as well as how to count. The students are hungry to learn and to show off their knowledge. The physical and mental challenges the students face is apparent in the 20-year age difference of our class. The youngest student Hai is six years old, and although Lien looks still to be a child she is 26 and struggles to legibly form her numbers.

Dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant. POPs are carbon-based molecules that mimic a variety of natural chemicals in our carbon-based bodies. Dioxin attaches to our cells causing a cascade of chemical responses. These chemical responses are manifested physically in many different ways. As we travel through Vietnam the people we meet live with unique effects from their Agent Orange exposure. Some were born without limbs; some have hydrocephalus and will die young. Our friend Long Cahn is an intelligent, thoughtful, 29-year-old, who stands just shy of four feet tall.

While Long was a student at the Friendship Village, he developed an interest in computers. A few years ago, he told his new American friend Suel Jones about his dream for higher education. Jones made Long’s wish come true by raising the money for his two-year IT program. Now Long is back volunteering at the Friendship Village, teaching the students computer skills.

My father shares in this spirit of volunteerism that is so alive and well in Vietnam today. While my father was volunteering at Rutland Regional Medical Center, he collected donations before our trip. With donations from the hospital volunteers and the Abatiell family, we have established a small grant program with our friend Long Cahn of the Friendship Village. Our grant this year will send two girls to their first year of high school, one young man will have help to start a small shop when he leaves the village and another student will have support with his first year of university.

Peter Abatiell with a North Vietnamese veteran. (Stephen Abatiell / photo)

Peter Abatiell with a North Vietnamese veteran. (Stephen Abatiell / photo)

We spend the next few weeks traveling around Vietnam meeting other families that have been touched by Agent Orange. As we travel, my father is always welcomed as a brother by the Vietnamese veterans. There is a collective feeling that the past is past and better days are ahead. There is still much work to do to clean the dioxin from the soil, and to care for the people who have been exposed.

The Danang and Bien Hoa airports were active U.S. military bases during the war in Vietnam. Most of the Agent Orange was produced and stored in these two sites. The toxicity has persisted. On Aug. 9, 2012, Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense and the U.S. government partnered to begin cleaning the Danang site. The top 6 1/2 feet of soil will be removed and heated to more than 600 degrees F, at which point the dioxin will break down into carbon dioxide, oxygen and other compounds that pose no risks to public health. The process is estimated to cost $44 million with the vast majority of funding coming from USAID.

We are told the cleanup site in Danang is too dangerous for us to visit so we continue south to Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of South Vietnam.On our first morning in Ho Chi Minh City, my father and I take a taxi to the Office of Controlled Information to meet our government assigned press officer. We imagine a curt tight-lipped woman wearing a bureaucratic suit who will surely censor our next interviews for content. But Ms. Linh is a sweet, young woman dressed casually in a hip T-shirt and jeans. After our introductions, the three of us head off to the Tu Du women’s hospital.

Residents of the Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. (Stephen Abatiell / photos)

Residents of the Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. (Stephen Abatiell / photos)

Hoa Binh Village is a residential annex of the Tu Du hospital. Linh leads us through the dormitory area. She translates for us as we speak with doctors and caregivers. What strikes us about Tu Du is the severity of peoples’ conditions. Where the Friendship Village is primarily a school, Hoa Binh Village is a care facility. There are many children born without limbs, and at least one small child born without eyes. I have a gathering feeling of helplessness while I sit with a teenage boy who looks like all of his skin has been charred and is flaking off, pus matting up his hair. Yet even in this place, we find hope.

The corridor houses a photo wall of fame, where many of the ward’s residents are honored for their achievements. Many have persisted through their education and graduated from university. One young athlete has become a decorated swimmer — a feat accomplished without his lower legs or half an arm. We visit, sing, and play songs on the ukulele trying to best bridge our cultural and language differences.

But despite everything I had seen thus far in my journey, nothing could have prepared me for the room of jars.

At the end of the corridor, we are led into a lab. Jars line the walls, floor to ceiling. Jars containing people, some jars containing only parts of people, like what appears to be a fully developed radius and nothing else. Their mothers or fathers were exposed to dioxin, and they have been preserved for research. There are empty jars on the lowest shelf, waiting to be filled.

I don’t need to be a scientist to understand what this research means to me. As a civilized society, we must learn to live within the bounds of the Earth’s natural systems, and end our chemical war on the Earth. We must not fill those empty jars.

Huy shows his strength at the Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi. (Stephen Abatiell / photo)

Huy shows his strength at the Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi. (Stephen Abatiell / photo)

Perhaps the most surreal moment of my life happens as we leave the Tu Du hospital and the room of jars, and sit down for iced coffee at the neighborhood restaurant. The San Francisco-themed, Haight Ashbury wall murals are reminiscent of the student protests my father missed when he was flown from the San Francisco airport on a Pan Am flight to Vietnam 40 years ago. Against this backdrop, I hear the conviction in his voice as he reflects on the fact that our country has gone largely unaccountable for the human suffering still present in Vietnam today.

“We can’t continue to do stuff like this. Even using the chemicals for our vegetables is so dangerous; we don’t know what’s going to happen, second, third generation in our country. We have to start being aware of this and saying no, we can’t continue to do this.”

The children at the Vietnam Friendship Village and the Tu Du Hospital have been swept up in the story of chemical warfare. With any luck, we will be able to continue our scholarship program for the Friendship Village next year, and help create the space for some children of VFV to write the next chapter of their own story.

For the past 40 years, Vietnam and Agent Orange was something that “happened” to my family. This shadow of Vietnam left me feeling victimized and helpless. By going back to Vietnam, we began a new chapter of our own creation. Now, our Vietnam stories around the dinner table are about the friends we’ve made, the children who have touched our hearts and what is left to do in the future — not what has happened in the past.

Stephen Abatiell is a freelance journalist and Rutland native living in Northern California. To find out how you can help, email him at sabatiell@naturebridge.org.