Still counting the casualties of Vietnam War, 35 years later
America's faith communities have a long and important history of helping their members more deeply understand the implications of war, as well as our collective responsibility to our fellow human beings.
So I was proud last month to lead an interfaith delegation, generously supported by the Ford Foundation, on a week-long visit to Vietnam and an often-uplifting, often-uncomfortable examination of how that country - and ours - continues to struggle with the legacies of a war that ended 35 years ago.
Our focus was the continuing impact of America's use of Agent Orange, a powerful defoliant used to clear over 5 million acres of Vietnamese land. Some 4.5 million Vietnamese and 2.8 million Americans may have been exposed to the chemical, which has been linked to cancer, diabetes, and nerve and heart disorders. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that up to 3 million Vietnamese have suffered adverse health effects, including more than 150,000 children with spina bifida and other birth defects, from their exposure.
Our delegation saw the continuing damage firsthand.
In Da Nang, we wore "throw away" shoes to limit our exposure as we walked over still-toxic grounds at the airport. We also met a beautiful, tiny 8-year-old girl, Ly, who could easily have been a poster child for poverty and malnourishment. Her parents showed off her schoolwork, but her good grades are "something of a miracle because she has an enlarged skull and large eyes that are very wide set," observed Sister Maureen Fiedler, a member of our delegation.
Ly's "chest cavity is collapsed in ways that make it difficult for her to breathe," Sister Fiedler wrote later. She "is almost certainly a child deformed by war, a young girl whose whole life is forever shaped by the legacy of Agent Orange and dioxin sprayed by the U.S. military for more than 10 years during the Vietnam conflict."
In Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, we visited "The Club House," a center for differently-abled young adults and met Vo Thi Hoang Yen, who contracted polio as a child and has struggled throughout her life to be seen as a person of skills and not a person of disability. She has earned several advanced degrees, built organizations from the ground up to help all types of differently-abled people and been honored internationally and locally for her organizational talents. She teaches and trains social workers, cuts through governmental obstacles and gives hope to thousands of people throughout Ho Chi Minh City and beyond.
Yen is a remarkable young woman, who has overcome obstacles that most of us can scarcely imagine. Thousands of other Vietnamese, facing similar struggles because of their exposure to Agent Orange, need and deserve our help.
Our delegation made its trip at the invitation of the U.S. -- Vietnamese Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. The dialogue group has developed a plan that calls on the U.S. government to provide $30 million per year for 10 years, up from the current annual level of $3 million, to clean up "hot spots" like the one at Da Nang's airport and build the infrastructure needed to support the victims exposed daily to Agent Orange.
We believe the proposal deserves bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of the Obama administration.
This year, Vietnam marks four important events: the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi; the 35 anniversary of the end of the war with the United States; the 15th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations; and Vietnam's chairing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). What a GREAT year to start a movement to finally address the challenges of the dioxin "hot spots," damaged landscapes and human burdens of ill health and disability that are remaining as open wounds of the Vietnam War.
What a GREAT year to remember that wars are not over when the last soldier leaves the battlefield. What a GREAT year to teach the faith communities in the United States that our moral work related to Vietnam is not over. What a GREAT year to speak to the youth and young adults of America about this tragic part of our history.
The Interfaith Delegation to Vietnam also included:
• Sister Maureen Fiedler, Sister of Loretto, PhD. and host of the public radio talk show Interfaith Voices.
• Rabbi Steve Gutow, President and CEO, Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
• The Rev. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and a Fellow at the Open Society Institute and UN Foundation.
• Mr. James Winkler, General Secretary, United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.
• Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, Sr., First Vice President, Progressive National Baptist Convention.
• Ms. Paulette Peterson, Clinical Psychologist, U.S. Veterans Administration.
• Mr. Shariq A. Siddiqui, the Executive Director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana and Director of Legal Services at the Julian Center.
• The Rev. Michael Livingston, Executive Director, International Council of Community Churches and former President of the National Council of the Churches of Christ USA.
• The Rev. Victor Hsu, former staff for Asian Affairs at both World Vision and Church World Service.
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