At 23, Tran Thi Hoan dreams the dreams of a typical young woman: find a good job, start a family and, as a native of a country long ravaged by war, live in peace.
But Hoan is a victim of Agent Orange, the herbicide laced with dioxin-tainted defoliant, that was sprayed across huge swathes of Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, and she fears that she could pass on the poison that saw her born without legs and a withered hand to her children.
“Maybe my children will be disabled like me. So I don’t believe I can get married,” Hoan said, after she became the first Vietnamese victim of Agent Orange to testify before the US Congress.
Hoan had just read a three-page testimony in English to US lawmakers in a packed hearing room.
“I am not unique, but am one of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been marked by our parents’ or grandparents’ exposure to Agent Orange,” she said. “I was born as you see me, without legs and missing a hand.”
Hoan told the packed hearing called by Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, a veteran of Vietnam, to try to determine how to meet the needs of Vietnam’s victims of Agent Orange, that she was “one of the lucky ones.”
“Many babies, children and young people live lives of quiet agony. They are trapped in bodies that do not work. Their brains remain in infancy even as their bodies grow,” Hoan said.
The American Public Health Panel estimates that some 77 million liters of herbicides, including 49.3 million liters of Agent Orange were sprayed over 2.23 million hectares in what was then South Vietnam by the US military.
Agent Orange contaminates the land and water of Vietnam.
Vietnamese doctor Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong told the hearing that her studies have found that up to 4.1 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange during the war and more than three million have suffered its effects.
Babies are exposed through their mother’s breast milk. Others have been exposed by living in or near contaminated areas called “hotspots,” such as Danang, where the US had a base during the war.
The US, which reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam 15 years ago, is funding a program to “remediate” dioxin at Danang. Not doing anything would ensure dioxin continues to destroy people’s lives into the next century.
“My gosh,” Faleomavaega said, “We’ll all be dead and it’ll still be there.”
Hoan says that Agent Orange victims have to look to the future.
“We can look at the past and see the consequences of war, but we don’t want to stay in the past. We have to look to the future and see what we can do,” she said.
“We want those responsible for the terrible consequences of Agent Orange to hear our pain and respond to us as humans,” she said, speaking not only for Vietnamese victims but for “the children and grandchildren of Americans who were exposed to Agent Orange and who are suffering like us.”
One of the chemical companies that made Agent Orange, Dow, says on its Web site that manufacturers were compelled by the government to produce the herbicide.
In 2007, Dow said there was no evidence to link Agent Orange to Vietnam veterans’ illnesses and last year, a US embassy spokeswoman in Hanoi said there has been no internationally-accepted scientific study establishing a link between Agent Orange and Vietnam’s disabled and deformed.