Decades after American military forces used Agent Orange to further their efforts in the Vietnam War, this deadly chemical continues to impact the lives of Vietnamese people.
Garth and Claire Ewert Fisher travelled to Vietnam in July as part of a learning tour sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) British Columbia. They went, says Claire, “to observe the legacy of the American war in Vietnam.” In particular, they learned about the ongoing impact of Agent Orange and the ways MCC is caring for those impacted.
Garth is pastor of Mount Royal Mennonite Church in Saskatoon, while Claire, a former executive director of MCC Saskatchewan, is interim pastor of Rosthern Mennonite Church. The couple had been to Vietnam before. In 2009, they spent a month in the Southeast Asian country, visiting family and travelling.
But Claire also lived in Vietnam with her first husband, Wally Ewert, from 1973 to 1975. Together, they served under MCC in the areas of hospital support, agriculture and community development.
“During the war, three million Vietnamese were killed. Two million of them were civilians,” says Claire. “Today, three million are living with the after-effects of Agent Orange.”
American armed forces used Agent Orange to destroy crops that might feed the enemy and to strip leaves from trees that might hide enemy troop movements.
Trees started losing leaves within two hours of being sprayed, and people experienced burning skin. Long-term effects include skin diseases and cancers. At least 13 diseases are known to result from exposure to Agent Orange, including Parkinson’s disease, liver dysfunction, and mental and cognitive delays.
Dioxin, a byproduct of Agent Orange, is known to cause genetic mutations, not only in those directly exposed to it, but in their offspring. Many Vietnamese parents are not able to bring pregnancies to full term, while others bear infants whose bodies are not formed properly, says Claire. Today, “the third and fourth generations of babies are born with problems,” she says.
Garth points out that, although trees have regrown, the chemical is still in the soil and in the country’s water system. And, as dioxin is extremely stable, it can continue to be present in the soil and water for many years.
Also, “dioxin gets into the fatty tissue of fish,” says Garth. When people eat the fish, they become contaminated. “Early on, people wouldn’t have been aware [of the dangers],” says Claire. “They were raising and eating fish.”
MCC works to improve the lives of those impacted by Agent Orange through physical and occupational therapies. The Ewert Fishers visited two rehabilitation centres and a few private homes to see how these therapies are making a difference in people’s lives.
Parents who bring their children to a rehabilitation centre must name a goal for each child. Some parents simply want their children to be able to say their own name and address. Others want them to develop skills that will enable them to live independently.
“Vietnam is under-capacity in occupational therapy,” says Garth, noting that, until recently, the country “had no facilities for training people in occupational therapy,” so students were sent to India to study. “Now a Dutch organization is trying to work with the government to set up local training,” he says.
Another place the couple visited was the Vietnam Friendship Village. The brainchild of American veteran George Mizo, Vietnam Friendship Village cares for children who are Agent Orange-impacted, training them in basic life skills and eventually jobs.
In addition to providing home and schooling for children, Vietnam Friendship Village hosts 40 Vietnamese veterans each month. While there, they receive a healthy diet of organic food, medical care, and occupational and physical therapy. “Most importantly, they come together and create community,” says Claire.
“[Visiting Friendship Village] was a very profound experience for me personally,” she adds, recalling the joy on one veteran’s face when he learned that she had lived in Pleiku, where he was from.
Although she once lived in Vietnam, Claire says the places they visited on this trip didn’t bring back a lot of memories, as “the country has changed tremendously.” Garth adds that Vietnam has a very young population. The majority of its 98 million people were born after the war.
Agent Orange continues to make its presence felt, but the people of Vietnam do not dwell in the past. “The Vietnamese people are tremendously warm and engaging,” says Garth. “They don’t want to be portrayed as victims. I am amazed at their resilience.”
This image, from the War Relics Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, shows the devastating effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese countryside. (Photos courtesy of Garth and Claire Ewert Fisher)
Garth and Claire Ewert Fisher travelled with MCC British Columbia executive director Wayne Bremner to Vietnam, where they were met with MCC Vietnam staff and volunteers. Pictured, from left to right: Nikolai Mazharenko, MCC Vietnam co-director; Beth Kvernen, MCC volunteer; Eva Mazharenko, MCC Vietnam co-director; Ba Vinh, Vietnamese reference group; Co Mai, MCC Vietnam staff; Wayne Bremner; Ba Bai, Vietnamese reference group; Claire Ewert Fisher; Josh Kvernen, MCC volunteer; and Garth Ewert Fisher.