April 28, 2015 / 7:19 AM / 4 years ago

As war memories fade, Vietnam still battles Agent Orange legacy

DANANG, Vietnam (Reuters) - Tan Tri doesn’t know a thing about Agent Orange. But doctors say he lives with its effects every day, when he crawls off his wooden bed and waits for someone to feed him. He is 25.

His mother Vo Thi Nham was exposed to Agent Orange when U.S. forces showered the chemical across swathes of Vietnam half a century ago to the destroy jungle cover of its wartime enemy.

Nham believes it’s the reason her son was born physically and mentally disabled.

“Other people around here were affected by Agent Orange, too, but it was really bad for us,” Nham said at her home in Danang, central Vietnam. “At least they can walk – he can’t.”

Tri, slumped on the concrete floor at her feet, chimed in.

“I can walk with my arms!”, he said, correcting her.

The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago this week and its memory is fading among its young population.

But Agent Orange is the enduring legacy it cannot forget, with children of a second postwar generation still being born with deformities which their doctors believe are linked to the defoliant.

Some three million Vietnamese have suffered from fatal diseases, disabilities and illness after coming into contact with Agent Orange, according to the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA).

Today deformities are visible everywhere. In the streets, beggars carry children with swollen heads or unnaturally bent limbs. Bodies are twisted, some are born without eyes.

Former soldier Do Duc Diu prays at the cemetery where twelve of his children are buried, after showing the graves to reporters, near his house in Quang Binh Province in central Vietnam April 11, 2015. Twelve of his fifteen children died from illnesses that the family and their doctors link to Do Duc Diu's exposure to Agent Orange. Do Duc Diu served as a North Vietnamese soldier in the early 70s in areas that were heavily contaminated by Agent Orange. He only found out about the possible dangers of Agent Orange before his last child was born in 1994. He said that if he had known about the possible effects of Agent Orange he would not have had children. Before he found out about the effects of Agent Orange, Do Duc Diu said that he and his wife visited many spiritual leaders and prayed at different shrines as they attributed their children's sickness to their ill-fated destiny. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A Reuters journalist this month traveled from north to south Vietnam and documented lives of many disabled people whose relatives doctors say were exposed to Agent Orange.

One former soldier, Do Duc Diu, said he buried 12 of his 15 children after they died as infants. He has graves prepared for two daughters who are sick and may not live long.



Le Dang Ngoc Hung, 15, lies taciturn on a bamboo mat most of the day, his listless eyes and mouth drooping. Hung cannot walk and has the delicate skin of a newborn because he rarely ventures outside.

“It was sad,” his mother, Le Thi Thao, said recalling when she discovered his disability. “But he is my son, so of course, I have to take care of him.”

Agent Orange is complex, its long-term impact much debated and subject to legal cases by Vietnam and American veterans.

U.S. studies have found heightened risks of prostrate, lymphocytic leukemia and melanoma in exposed servicemen, but similarly with the impact of dioxin on postwar generations of Vietnamese, research indicating strong links has also cited complexities in making conclusive determinations.

The United States is fast becoming an important ally for Vietnam, but Agent Orange remains a source of friction.

Washington allocated $43 million in 2012 to clean land contaminated by dioxin from the estimated 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed in Vietnam from 1962-1971, but many Vietnamese say that’s not enough.

16-year-old Le Dang Ngoc Hung, who suffers from mental and physical health problems, rests under a mosquito net in the family house in Phuoc Thai village, outside Danang April 12, 2015. Le Dang Ngoc Hung's grandfather Le Van Dan, a former artillery soldier with the South Vietnamese army, said he was exposed to Agent Orange more than once, including being directly sprayed by U.S. planes near his village before he joined the military. Health officials confirmed two of his grandsons’ disabilities are due to his exposure to the defoliant, Le Van Dan said. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj PICTURE 20 OF 24 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "VIETNAM: LEGACY OF AGENT ORANGE"??SEARCH "AGENT SAGOLJ" FOR ALL IMAGES - RTX19N8Y

Some American veterans are sympathetic, like Chuck Palazzo, who has devoted years of his life to working with Vietnamese to fight the stubborn vestiges of Agent Orange.

But he’s unsure if they’re winning the battle.

“Does it get better or does it get worse?” he said. “It’s a grind. And you have to keep at it. We just have no idea how long this is going to last.”

Additional reporting by Damir Sagolj; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry

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