The Effects of Agent Orange: An Interreligious Investigation in Vietnam

05/27/2010 11:16 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wandering through youth centers for disabled kids in Saigon and Da Nang has left me shocked and hopeful. Children with heads so large that I feared I was in a horror movie held my hands and smiled wide smiles at me; I felt their souls, as large and as beautiful as any souls I have encountered. I met teenagers living in cribs because brittle bones and undeveloped minds do not allow for any free movements. Knowing the likelihood that my country contributed to this ordeal of the heart and body caused me to realize that we have 'what' to do, as my grandma might have said.

Then came hope. We went to the Disability Resource and Development Center in Saigon. It was established and directed by a young woman named Yen. She, herself disabled, took her indomitable will and her belief in hope and built a place where young people were nurtured and nurturing. Walking through the upbeat building, where the art on the walls was created by those who come there, inspires even the skeptics of the world. She and one of her colleagues have beautiful voices, and all of us were serenaded by the two singers and the smiling faces of the kids at the Center. Bob Edgar, our trip leader, led us all in a song at the end of our time at the center. The song was made up not only of words and hearable melody but also of the melody of motion, in which everyone, whether they could hear sounds or not, participated. Who is this woman named Yen? We have all met her before. When we do, we know that the world is better simply because she lives in it. I sat with her at dinner a couple of nights ago and knew the meaning of the lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem, "Voluntaries III": "So nigh is grandeur to our dust, so near is God to man, when duty whispers low thou must, the youth replies, 'I can.'"

In the last couple of days we have visited other centers for kids whose lives have been ruined by the Agent Orange mess we left behind. We broke up into small groups, and each group went to two different homes, one rural and one urban, of very poor families, each with a disabled child and each suffering because of extreme poverty. In one we met a 90-year-old Vietnam veteran who venerated his ancestors, felt no bitterness about the war, and only asked for the smallest amount of money possible in the hopes of acquiring health insurance for his granddaughter. We all did our small best to help.

The Airport Concrete Slab

At the Da Nang airport, America left deposits of Agent Orange that contained the deadly dioxin in amounts over 365,000 parts per thousand [ppt] -- the parallel contamination in most industrialized nations is less than 12 ppt. This deposit of death and disability has been poisoning the lives and the water of those who live in its presence. This airport area is one of the hotspots mentioned in my previous blog post that we need to clean up if we have any hope of cleaning up our own consciences. The dioxin is difficult to move and for now is only separated from the water systems here by a concrete slab. Walking on top of the slab that separated me from the vicious toxins living under the earth below gave me the feeling of walking on a volcano about to erupt, or a land mine, only separated from me by a cracked plate on top of the earth. There is much research as to how to remove it and destroy it, but it is not certain what process will be the best one. The only certainty is that this will take time and money, and we brought it there and left it there.

One last note: the Ford Foundation deserves great credit for the work done here. They have put nearly $12 million dollars into this country, and the results are everywhere. Traveling with Susan Berresford, Convener of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin and former President of the Foundation; Charles Bailey, Director of the Ford Foundation's Special Initiative on Agent Orange/Dioxin and beloved everywhere we travel; and Ngo Le Mai, who keeps our trains here running on time, is an honor. Here is a Foundation that has focused almost laser-like on the problems here and is clearly making a difference.

Our group continues to enjoy each other, to learn from each other, and to become closer. There is much laughter in our tears, religion in our talk, and commitment in our vision of what we must do when we return. Only time will tell what we do, but so far so good. We are off to Hanoi, and soon we will return home much changed compared to when we left only a few days ago.

Our group is made up of the following:

  • Bob Edgar, President and CEO of Common Cause and delegation leader.
  • Sister Maureen Fiedler, Sister of Loretto, PhD. and host of the public radio talk show Interfaith Voices.
  • 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.
  • James Winkler, General Secretary, United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.
  • Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, Sr., First Vice President, Progressive National Baptist Convention.
  • Paulette Peterson, Clinical Psychologist, U.S. Veterans Administration.
  • Ngo Lee Mai, Ford Foundation official here in Viet Nam
  • 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.
  • Susan V. Berresford, Convener of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin and former President, The Ford Foundation.
  • Charles Bailey, Director, Special Initiative on Agent Orange/Dioxin, Ford Foundation.