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June 7, 2010

by Chuck Palazzo

June 7, 2010

Chuck Palazzo

Da Nang, Vietnam

Victims of Victims

Saturday afternoon, the heat of the summer is upon us in Da Nang.  The comforts I enjoyed back in the US still exist for me in some ways – air-conditioning, hot water, a decent meal.  I am reminded every moment of every day, however, that this is Da Nang, Vietnam.  This is my adopted new home. I am also reminded each and every day that I am one of the fortunate few.  Still relatively healthy.  So many of my own as well as millions of Vietnamese are not so fortunate.

Why Da Nang?  It is where I first landed.  It is where, as a very young Marine, my political and human beliefs changed dramatically.  I realized, first hand, that what we did as an American Nation was wrong.  The effects of Agent Orange immediately manifested themselves on the environment here so many years ago.  Sprayed by the US on the jungles, on the rice fields, the river banks, on the people – spilled onto the runways, the tarmacs, the storage facilities.  Leached into the water supply, the food supplies.  The crops, the animals and the humans – the children, the adults, the elderly.  Plants and trees withered quickly, just to die and never to return to normalcy again. 

The toll on the animals and sea life were next – it was slow, but gradual and deadly.  The water supply was contaminated early on – but the lies from the US Government as well as from Monsanto and Dow were told with such convincing and straight-faced language, the people of this country, as well as I and my fellow veterans believed it. “Agent Orange is not harmful or deadly to human beings”, said the liars.  “In fact, you can drink it and nothing would happen to you”, was stated time and time again by these greed filled and soul-less people.

The lies continued over the years and remain so to this day.  My own government refuses to accept responsibility.  The chemical companies continue to lie.  All of them continue to fill their bank accounts.  The tragedy?  Today, 4 generations after the first spraying occurred, people continue to die.  Children continue to be born with severe physical and mental deformities.  Disease is rampant.  Satan himself could not have contrived such an ideal evil.  Over 7 million victims and still counting by the second.

As I travel to one of the orphanages here in Da Nang, I ponder several things.  This city in Central Vietnam is one of three hot spots designated by independent as well as government studies and tests – Da Nang is one of the worst contaminated cities in the world.  Yes, poisoned from dioxin – the core of the evil which is produced by Agent Orange. 

Who knew, that after so many years dioxin would still be present in the soil, in the water supplies?  Who knew that so many would become sick? Who knew so many would die?  The US knew.  Monsanto knew.  Dow knew.  Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information act as well as what is now in the public domain reveal with no doubt that the US Government knew exactly what they were doing and what the effects would be.  Ditto Monsanto.  Ditto Dow.  Ditto all the rest who conspired to keep this evil secret – secret.

I think about so many of us who were exposed, who have become untreatable, and who have died.  So many who have children who were born with such horrific disabilities, much of society has turned its back on them.  Children who have been damned as a result of corporate and government greed.  Children who did absolutely nothing to deserve their fate, but suffer they do.

I think about some of my students at the local university.  Students who have experienced firsthand the devastation of Agent Orange.  Students, who should hate, but do not. Students who should be at the beach on this hot Saturday afternoon.  Students who recognize the evils we have committed here in Vietnam, but students who care for their own.  The victims. The students, like so many other Vietnamese, have forgiven us.

 These students volunteer their time to help children and adults alike.  They try, and try and try, to put smiles on the victims’ faces.  A hug, a kiss, a handshake – babies and children who might not reach their 21st birthday.  Children and adults who have continued to live, but under the care of a public facility.  Babies, children, adults – all victims.  But these are very special victims.  These are victims of victims. 

 Their own families cursed with disease and poverty as a result of Agent Orange and war.  Parents and loved ones who could not afford in so many ways, the proper care-giving for their own.  Infants, children and yes, adults, who are now wards of the state.  Victims of victims.

I enter the gate and am reminded immediately that this is no private or comfortable facility.  However, the government here does its best.  They depend on people like the students, the other volunteers, the staff, and yes, other victims, to assist in every which way that we can.  Homelessness will not become a sad reality for these victims.

As I walk through the facility, I am greeted by those who can greet me – victims with such obvious dioxin caused conditions, it is devastating and heartbreaking.  I must not show my emotion.  I have to put myself aside and focus.  Focus on the victims.  Focus on making them smile.  Focus on loving them.  But I have to fight back my own feelings – anger, sadness.  The feeling of deceit.  Deceived by my own government.  So many victims, so much horror, and so much sadness – a smile is priceless in this environment.

Incredibly, they all smile.  Those who can, at least.  But they want to be loved.  They need to be spoken with, rocked, and fed.  The students show me.  They take me by the hand and lead me to the individual activity areas and to the orphans’ homes.  I follow their lead.  They, these twenty-something young adults, teach and show me how to care for these orphans.

During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed 2,000,000 US gallons of chemical defoliants in South Vietnam as part of the aerial defoliation program known as Operation Ranch Hand. 20 percent of South Vietnam’s jungles were sprayed over a nine year period.

The first objective was to reduce the dense jungle foliage so that Communist forces might not use it for cover and to deny them use of crops needed for sustenance. In 1965, 42 percent of all herbicide spraying was dedicated to food crops. The second objective was spot clearing in sensitive areas such as around base perimeters. It was also used to drive civilians into RVN-controlled areas.

In 1963, the United States (suspecting the negative effects) initiated a study on the health effects of Agent Orange that by 1967 confirmed that the chemical caused cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems. The outcome of the study had no affect whatsoever on the use of Agent Orange.

4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children born with birth defects. 2.4 million Americans (in addition to allied forces and the Vietnamese people) were exposed in various ways to Agent Orange.

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