US congress opens third Agent Orange hearing

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Inquiry follows wave of Agent Orange interest in wake of Senators' visit


Tran Thi Hoan, 23, with her friends at Peace Village in Ho Chi Minh City's Tu Du Maternity Hospital, a home for Agent Orange victims. Hoan, who was born without two legs and a hand due to her mother's dioxin exposure, is testifying about the plight of Vietnamese Agent Orange victims at the US House of Representatives this week.

The United States House of Representatives is set to hear the testimony of the first Vietnamese Agent Orange victim to ever speak on capital hill this week.

Tran Thi Hoan, a 23-year-old 2nd generation victim told Thanh Nien Weekly her testimony on July 15th would focus on the agonies she and her peers have suffered, "and the aspirations of Vietnamese Agent Orange victims to be fully redressed by the US government and chemical companies."

Hoan's testimony coincides with a rising tide of US interest in Vietnam and its estimated 3 million Agent Orange victims. Hoan was born without a hand and both legs, which doctors have attributed to her mother's exposure to Agent Orange.

According to an article written by Charles Bailey, Director of the Ford Foundation's Special initiative on Dioxin/Agent Orange: "Between 1961 and 1971, the US sprayed close to 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over 10 percent of what was then South Vietnam." Bailey added that the chemicals contained Dioxin, defined as a "persistent organic pollutant that even in tiny amounts (parts per trillion) can seriously harm the health of anyone exposed and potentially their offspring and future generations."

Nearly 50 years later, members of the US government are stepping forward and taking ownership of the act.

"We as a country and a government formulated this policy of using this chemical toxic substance to supposedly fight the war in Vietnam only to find out that the consequences were just unbelievable," Congressman Eni Faleomavaega (D -Am. Samoa) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Faleomavaega used the words "chemical warfare" to describe the US spraying campaign.

The Congressman was stationed with the US Army in Nha Trang from 1967-68. He summoned the first congressional hearing on Agent Orange that included the US-Vietnam dialogue group in 2008. He called another in 2009. In this third hearing, members of the House will come face to face with the consequences of the spraying.

"When I see these children in the hospital there in Vietnam who are deformed, it's almost like being exposed to nuclear radiation in a way," he said.

Rep. Faleomavaega is the second US official in two weeks to acknowledge a direct moral obligation on behalf of the US government to increase aid to Vietnamese Agent Orange victims.

The Samoan Congressman was unaware that a group of three US Senators had visited Vietnam last week and toured Agent Orange treatment centers in and around Da Nang.

During the delegation's visit, the Tuoi Tre newspaper reported that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Ia.) expressed a desire to raise the current allotment of $3 million to $20-30 million.

"[What] I want to do is to get the money for the compensation for the same illnesses here as we are doing in the US," he was quoted as saying.

In an e-mail, Sen. Harkin's staff said they could not commit to a specific number. "Sen. Harkin is working hard to increase funding," a spokesperson said.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and AL Franken (D-Minn.), who accompanied Harkin to Vietnam last week, declined repeated requests for comment on the nature of their trip and plans for future action.

During the fiscal year of 2007, Congress approved $3 million for Vietnamese Agent Orange victims. The amount was approved again in 2009 and 2010.

"This 3 million is just pittance," Rep. Faleomavaega said. "I really hope that we're gonna see what we can do to increase our efforts."

Both Harkin and Faleomavaega independently praised the work of the Ford Foundation, a charitable organization that has worked to develop a $300 million clean-up plan with the US Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. The plan requires funding largely by the US government money that has yet to arrive.

"I don't know where this is going to end up," said Rep. Faleomavaega. "I'm just doing the best I can. Hopefully there will be members who will see the rightness of the issue and say we just need to correct it that's all."

Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, who will testify alongside Hoan and was the first Vietnamese citizen to speak on the issue before congress in 2008, said the money that comes into Vietnam for Agent Orange assistance needs to be used properly.

"The money should be directed to Vietnamese NGOs for better distribution. As far as I understand, the already meager assistance has been trimmed by US NGOs tasked with bringing the money to Vietnam," said the former president of HCMC-based Tu Du Maternity Hospital and current vice chair of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA). Phuong has conducted extensive research on the impact of Agent Orange on breast milk in Vietnam.

"Imagine how much Vietnamese Agent Orange victims would receive given the fact that such [US] NGOs often come to Vietnam in large delegations and stay in five-star hotels."

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Congressman Faleomavaega was the first to hold a hearing on Agent Orange that included the Vietnamese government. He served in the US Army from 1967-8 and was the first Asian-American in the history to chair a sub-committee on Asia and the Pacific.

In 1989 he was elected to Congress by the people of American Samoa. They have been re-electing him ever since.

During an extensive interview with Thanh Nien Weekly, Congressman Faleomavaega spoke on a range of issues, excerpted below.

We're gonna spend another $100 billion on the 100,000 soldiers we've got on the ground in Afghanistan. And we're right in the middle of saying, are we justified, does this smell of Vietnam again?

... Every time I read about the billions and billions of dollars that have been wasted on the war on Iraq and out of Afghanistan... that really burns me up, you know?

... We can't account for billions and billions and we can't spend a few million to alleviate [Agent Orange]? Billions and billions we can't even account for? Give me a break. That's not right.

In my review of the situation, this started under the Kennedy Administration, these major chemical companies like Monsanto... They pointed the finger at the Department of Defense. They are both responsible for what happened.

... What makes it worse is that this didn't go on for a few months, it went on for close to 10 years!

... I have to put the ball squarely on the pentagon and those officials who conducted the war effort are responsible for what happened.

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