As war memories fade, Vietnam still battles Agent Orange legacy


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Tang Thi Thang baths her disabled son Doan Van Quy outside their family home in Truc Ly, in Vietnam's Quang Binh Province April 11, 2015. Doan Van Quy's ather, a soldier who served on 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns during the Vietnam war, said he lived in several areas that were contaminated by Agent Orange. Two of his sons were born with serious health problems and the family and local health officials link their illnesses to their father's exposure to Agent Orange. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
Tan Tri doesn't know a thing about Agent Orange. But doctors say he lives with its effects every day, when he crawls off his wooden bed and waits for someone to feed him. He is 25.
His mother Vo Thi Nham was exposed to Agent Orange when U.S. forces showered the chemical across swathes of Vietnam half a century ago to the destroy jungle cover of its wartime enemy.
Nham believes it's the reason her son was born physically and mentally disabled.
"Other people around here were affected by Agent Orange, too, but it was really bad for us," Nham said at her home in Danang, central Vietnam. "At least they can walk - he can't."
Tri, slumped on the concrete floor at her feet, chimed in.
"I can walk with my arms!", he said, correcting her.
The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago this week and its memory is fading among its young population.
But Agent Orange is the enduring legacy it cannot forget, with children of a second postwar generation still being born with deformities which their doctors believe are linked to the defoliant.
Some three million Vietnamese have suffered from fatal diseases, disabilities and illness after coming into contact with Agent Orange, according to the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA).
Today deformities are visible everywhere. In the streets, beggars carry children with swollen heads or unnaturally bent limbs. Bodies are twisted, some are born without eyes.
A Reuters journalist this month travelled from north to south Vietnam and documented lives of many disabled people whose relatives doctors say were exposed to Agent Orange.
One former soldier, Do Duc Diu, said he buried 12 of his 15 children after they died as infants. He has graves prepared for two daughters who are sick and may not live long.
A former soldier Do Duc Diu is kissed by his disabled daughter Do Thi Nga as his wife sits at the doorway of their house in Quang Binh Province in central Vietnam April 11, 2015. Twelve of his fifteen children died from illnesses that the family and their doctors link to Do Duc Diu's to Agent Orange. Do Duc Diu served as a North Vietnamese soldier in the early 70s, in areas that were heavily contaminated by Agent Orange. He only found out about the possible dangers of Agent Orange before his last child was born in 1994. He said that if he had known about the possible effects of Agent Orange he would not have had children. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
Complex legacy
Le Dang Ngoc Hung, 15, lies taciturn on a bamboo mat most of the day, his listless eyes and mouth drooping. Hung cannot walk and has the delicate skin of a newborn because he rarely ventures outside.
"It was sad," his mother, Le Thi Thao, said recalling when she discovered his disability. "But he is my son, so of course, I have to take care of him."
Agent Orange is complex, its long-term impact much debated and subject to legal cases by Vietnam and American veterans.
U.S. studies have found heightened risks of prostrate, lymphocytic leukemia and melanoma in exposed servicemen, but similarly with the impact of dioxin on postwar generations of Vietnamese, research indicating strong links has also cited complexities in making conclusive determinations.
The United States is fast becoming an important ally for Vietnam, but Agent Orange remains a source of friction.
Washington allocated $43 million in 2012 to clean land contaminated by dioxin from the estimated 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed in Vietnam from 1962-1971, but many Vietnamese say that's not enough.
Some American veterans are sympathetic, like Chuck Palazzo, who has devoted years of his life to working with Vietnamese to fight the stubborn vestiges of Agent Orange.
But he's unsure if they're winning the battle.
"Does it get better or does it get worse?" he said. "It's a grind. And you have to keep at it. We just have no idea how long this is going to last."

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