Please click on ‘AGENT ORANGE’ to follow me on a visit to the present day Agent Orange victims in Vietnam. Scroll down below the photos to read the full historical account of the infamous ‘Operation Ranchhand’.
THE DEADLY LEGACY OF AGENT ORANGE
Vietnam and I go back quite some time. I have come to know and admire this country after dealing with Vietnam and its people for almost 30 years.
As for many others in my generation, it was the prolonged tragedy of the Vietnam War that caught my attention on a country so far away from my own. More specifically it was a legacy of war – so unimaginable in its sheer horror – that brought me to Vietnam for the first time in 1984. The legacy of ‘Agent Orange’.
The legacy took me on a 2 year journey ranging from the inner workings of scientific warfare and senior policy making in the White House to the victims of maybe the most destructive and meaningless part of what the Vietnamese call the ‘American War’. In short: Operation Ranchhand – its official Pentagon codename.
In an increasingly desperate effort to locate and neutralize the hidden bases of their elusive enemy, the US air force sprayed a total of 72 million liters of dioxin contaminated pesticides over the forests and rice fields of Southern and Central Vietnam.
Thousands of hectares of forest and fields vanished, but the military objectives were never achieved. Operation Ranch Hand may have been long forgotten as a waste of effort and funds, if it were not for the harm it did for generations to come.
Walking the rounds with Dr. Phuong
I first heard about Agent Orange from a Danish trade union official. In 1982, he told me about his visit to the Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. He had brought back with him a few amateur photos of poor quality from the hospital ward and from the basement collection of abnormal foetus. The unborn monsters (and this is what they were) had been removed from young Vietnamese women, who had grown up in the heavily sprayed areas in Southern and Central Vietnam.
The trade union official had a very hard time controlling his emotions, while he told me about what he had seen among the patients of dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong.
Dying side by side
A few months later I realized my self that nothing could really prepare the human mind and heart for the experience of walking with Dr. Phuong on her rounds among the young girls that lay there two-and-two in the hospital beds. Some were dying side by side with others, who desperately clung to the hope for life without pain and fear.
A few girls had a bed of their own – those that were expected to die within hours.
Many other heart breaking scenes followed in hospitals, orphanages and in utterly poor villages, where I collected the facts and figures of a disaster of unbelievable proportions.
My companion, press photographer Ole Johnny Sørensen recorded everything in photos so horrifying, that most of them were considered unfit for publication by our editors.
Among them were the pictures of 4 year old Kim – a little girl in Tay Ninh, who had been born without eyes. Tears were constantly streaming out of her empty eye sockets – due to the agony of a rare liver cancer that was to kill her a few months later.
Thousands still suffer on three continents
The worst of it all may be that is still with Viet Nam today, what we encountered 30 years ago. Even though the last spraying missions by the US air force was carried out in 1972, thousands of people still suffer the consequences even today. In the past four years I have visited victims all over Vietnam – in Hai Duong, Thai Binh and Nam Dinh provinces in the North, in Da Nang and Kontum in central Vietnam, and in Da Lat and Ho Chi Minh City in the South. The pictorial journey on this site represents only a few of the thousands of people, who are still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.
Waiting for an army to die
Most Agent Orange victims are Vietnamese, but not all. Large numbers of American soldiers and allied troops from Australia and Korea were also exposed to the deadly herbicides.
To this day the price is still being paid by victims across three continents – as vividly described in “Waiting for an army to die” and “Gi Guinea Pigs” – possibly the saddest and angriest books you could read about Agent Orange.
And just for the record – the outcry of the US veterans and their families was sufficiently embarrassing for the producers of Agent Orange to set up a compensation fund of USD one billion 30 years ago to assist the US victims with their medical bills.Only a few years ago, the Pentagon followed suit with a very limited compensation scheme, which makes it possible for US veterans to apply for assistance to pay their medical bills.
No compensation has ever been paid to the poor Vietnamese farmers by corporations like DOW Chemicals and Monsanto, who made huge profits on wartime deliveries or by the US government, who ordered the deadly chemicals.
For years it was left to the Vietnamese themselves and a handful of NGO’s to clean up this mess. Only recently, the US Embassy in Hanoi has approved funding (USD 3 mio.) in order to clean up one of the worst ‘dioxin hot spots’ in Da Nang, where the dioxin levels are still a 100 times higher than the legal limit in the US.
The US Department of Defence has also – belatedly – recognized that there is a direct link between dioxin exposure and a number of serious diseases, found among US veterans, who are now eligible for financial support. No such scheme is available for the thousands of victims in Vietnam.
In all this misery, I did manage to find a living symbol of courage and hope: A young student, Tran Thi Hoan – who sent a letter directly to president Obama to appeal for assistance to the Agent Orange victims. The US government has yet to reply. Hoan has taken the victim’s case to Washington D.C. several times as a witness for US congressional committees. An elderly, pleasant looking lady often joins her on these campaign trips for the Agent Orange victims. This is Hoan’s stepmother – non other than the now retired dr. Ngoc Thi Ngoc Phuong from Tu Du Hospital.
Hoan wrote to Obama from her ward in Thu Do hospital.
Hoan shares her room at the hospital with 12 other victims.