AKRON, Pa. – While volunteering in Vietnam in the late 1960s as a conscientious objector to the war that the United States military was waging there, Doug Hostetter saw firsthand the effect of Agent Orange, a dioxin-contaminated herbicide that the U.S. military used to kill vegetation.
In 1968, the U.S. military had dropped Agent Orange on a target considered enemy territory, but a strong breeze blew the herbicide away from its target to cover the nearby small farming hamlet of Ky Phu.
A teenager from that village, who was part of Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) literacy program that Hostetter started for children displaced by the war, invited him to visit Ky Phu. It looked quite different than Hostetter remembered from a previous visit.
“The defoliant had come down in splotches, leaving some areas looking like they had been scorched with every living plant turned brown or black, while yards away plants remained green and seemed unaffected,” Hostetter said.
He saw ducks, whose feet had turned white from swimming in contaminated water and would soon die. He talked to other villagers, making a detailed list of chickens, ducks, pigs and calves of water buffalo and cows that also died after exposure to the herbicide.
Hostetter said he took a detailed list of the damages to a U.S. colonel who was responsible for a program that would reimburse Vietnamese people for livestock or homes accidentally destroyed by the U.S. military. The colonel dismissed the list, claiming that Agent Orange was not harmful to people or animals and refused to visit the area, Hostetter said.
“The farmers of Ky Phu were never reimbursed for their losses,” said Hostetter, who is now director of MCC’s United Nations (UN) Office.
Throughout the 41 years since the war ended, Hostetter has continued to support efforts in the U.S. and in Vietnam, while doing peace and justice work on other issues, to get compensation for people whose lives are still impacted by Agent Orange.
He now understands, far more than when he saw the damage in Ky Phu, just how devastating Agent Orange was to U.S. veterans and to Vietnamese people whose exposure to the chemical through contaminated water, land and discarded supplies continued long after the war ended.
In visits to Vietnam since 1969, Hostetter has met hundreds of children with genetic neural defects and other health issues linked to their parents’ or grandparents’ exposure to Agent Orange.
One of them is Tran Thi Hoan, whose mother was exposed to Agent Orange in 1986, after which Hoan was born without legs and with a seriously atrophied hand.
She and other people associated with MCC’s partner, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), came to the UN in December 2015 to spread awareness about the continued suffering of people affected by Agent Orange.
Now a computer science professional at the Tu Du Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Hoan said she is one of the “lucky” among people affected by Agent Orange because she had good health care and education. Many other people affected by Agent Orange, including those she grew up with, “just lie in the bed. They cannot understand anything,” she said.
“We have a lot of our suffering and difficulty in our life, but … because of the love of a lot of friends all over the world, we try to overcome everything and improve ourselves,” she said.
She thanked MCC for its current work with VAVA, providing therapeutic day care and cows for families in Quang Ngai Province who need time and money to support a family member living with an Agent Orange-related disability.
Members of the VAVA delegation asked people at a public meeting to urge U.S. legislators to support health care for the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese still dealing with the health effects of Agent Orange. Later they also met with a representative from the U.S. State Department and individual legislators to ask for this support. The Vietnam Agent Orange Relief Responsibility Campaign arranged those visits.
Delegation members asked legislators to support House Resolution 2114, which would require the U.S. government to help pay for medical and chronic care services, nursing services, vocational employment and medical equipment for those affected by Agent Orange.
“It took many years of struggle to get the U.S. government to recognize the American veterans who were spraying Agent Orange, cleaning up the planes or even working in the depot where the planes were cleaned,” said Hostetter. “Now 14 different maladies are covered by the U.S. Veteran’s Association if you were exposed to Agent Orange. Unfortunately, that was limited to U.S. military personnel.”
Since 2007, the U.S. has appropriated more than $130 million to Vietnam, primarily for environmental remediation, but also for some health and disability work. Hostetter contends that the U.S. must do more to live up to its promise in the war-ending Paris Accords of 1973 to “contribute to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam …”
Those who want the U.S. to take responsibility for the damage it caused in Vietnam may contact their legislators to ask them to co-sign HR 2114, said Charissa Zehr, legislative associate for international affairs at the MCC U.S. Washington office. Zehr also suggests learning more about this issue at www.vn-agentorange.org, where a note can be sent to the sponsors of HR 2114.