Agent Orange Champions

There are people around the world who have devoted their time and energy to understanding the legacy of Agent Orange and coming up with solutions to address this problem. These champions come from all different backgrounds and levels of expertise, but all are true humanitarians that are helping make Agent Orange history.


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Walter Isaacson, The Aspen Institute

 

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Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. He has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine. He is the author of Steve Jobs (2011), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986).

He is the chairman of the board of Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved communities in the United States. He was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other international broadcasts of the United States, a position he held until 2012. He is vice-chair of Partners for a New Beginning, a public-private group tasked with forging ties between the United States and the Muslim world.  He is also on the board of United Airlines, Tulane University, and the Overseers of Harvard University.  From 2005-2007, after Hurricane Katrina, he was the vice-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Isaacson with a young woman and her father in Bien Hoa.

The Aspen Institute serves as the U.S. secretariat to the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Mr. Isaacson is co-chair of this group, which seeks an enduring solution to the environmental and health effects associated with wartime use by the United States of defoliants contaminated with dioxin.  The Dialogue Group has promoted projects to contain the risk of further contamination from dioxin “hot spots” throughout Vietnam, to restore damaged land, and to improve services for people with disabilities and their families.  The Dialogue Group encourages funding from the U.S. and Vietnamese  governments — and from other sources — to take these projects and similar ideas to scale.

Isaacson was inspired to address the issue of Agent Orange in Vietnam after a visit sponsored by the Ford Foundation in 2007. Reflecting on the trip, he wrote:

“A practical and sensible resolution is possible. The U.S. should help immediately to contain and then clean up the contaminated sites. After all, we made the mess. …As for the health concerns, there is no need to pin precise blame or liability. They can be addressed as a humanitarian issue …. [T]here is a need for rehabilitation centers, health clinics, family counseling, and education for the afflicted children who cannot go to regular schools.”

In 2010, the Dialogue Group released a Declaration and Plan of Action to address the toxic legacy of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam. In this document, the group called upon the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to join with other governments, foundations, businesses, and nonprofits in a partnership to clean up dioxin “hot spots” in Vietnam, and to expand humanitarian services for people with disabilities in that country.

On the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations regarding the legacy of Agent Orange, Isaacson states:

“Out of both a sense of duty and a spirit of decency, U.S. government aid programs and private philanthropies should step forward to settle this last remaining dispute from the Vietnam War… Only then will America finally have closed the last chapter of the Vietnam War and turned its former adversary into a solid strategically.”

 

Kim Nguyen Browne, Vietnam Volunteer Network

 

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In April 1975, Kim Nguyen Browne (birth name: Nguyễn Sơn Thủy) was one of the last children flown out of Ho Chi Minh City. She was two months old. Thirty one years later she won a “Do You Dare to Dream” competition at the company she worked for and returned to Vietnam to volunteer at the orphanage where she spent her earliest days.

“I wanted to give back and to find my birth mother,” Browne said, “More than anything I wanted to give back to Go Vap Orphanage.” Browne’s first home, Go Vap Orphanage is a facility in Ho Chi Minh City that cares for children who suffer from severe illness and disabilities, including those affected by Agent Orange.

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Kim Nguyen Browne with two children from Go Vap Orphanage.

Upon leaving Vietnam she made a promise to the children. “I promised I would return,” Browne said.

In 2008 she formed the Vietnam Volunteer Network, a small charity working to bring people from around the world to Vietnam to help children in need.

“I started thinking of what I could do to help on a long-term basis,” Browne said. “I thought what is needed is love and a human touch for the children, especially the sick children.”

An enthusiastic networker, she began by seeking out and connecting with fellow adoptees and Vietnamese expatriates. She met new friends in the United Kingdom, France, Australia and the United States. “It’s really nice when you start getting feedback and you start forming friendships,” Browne says. “I think if you are open-minded and passionate about trying to get justice and help, you meet the right people at the right time.”

Browne is also a very active user of social media, particularly Facebook and YouTube. She believes strongly in supporting the causes of people she works with. “I talk about what they’re doing, about any donations or aide they need. It always comes back,” Browne says.

It is this collaborative approach that has allowed Browne to grow the Vietnam Volunteer Network from a single volunteer (herself) in 2008 to 62 volunteers in 2011. She has also enlisted the help of five volunteer staff coordinators from four different countries. All volunteers, including Browne, pay their own way to Vietnam.

“The Vietnam Volunteer Network would not be what it is today if not for my volunteers,” Browne says. “They are my and the children’s heroes.”

 

Ambassador Ngo Quang Xuan, U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group

 

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Ambassador Ngo Quang Xuan is a Vietnamese diplomat with an accomplished and storied career. He currently serves as co-chair of the U.S-Vietnam Dialogue Group.

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Ambassador Xuan (far right) meets with members of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group in San Francisco.

Xuan was Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York from 1993 to 1999 and worked closely with Madeleine Albright, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam.

Returning to Hanoi, he headed the newly-formed Department of Multi-lateral Economic Cooperation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2002 he was appointed Vietnamese Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. There he led the negotiations which resulted in Vietnam’s entry to World Trade Organization in 2006, a major boost to the country’s economic development efforts. Xuan then served as Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly.

Xuan is a passionate advocate for Vietnam and her many citizens affected by Agent Orange. He travels frequently and has spoken on several occasions to U.S. audiences. Xuan testified before Congress on this issue and was a featured presenter at the Agent Orange and Addressing the Legacy of the War in Vietnam Conference.

“Much has happened in the fifteen years since the United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations,” Ambassador Xuan told us for this article. “However there remains a tragic legacy of the war in Vietnam, the continuing impact of Agent Orange.”

“Significant progress has been made in our (the United States and Vietnam’s) shared commitment to address this issue. The ‘hot spot’ in Da Nang will soon be cleaned up and we have been able to expand humanitarian services to those in need.”

“Continued bilateral cooperation to implement the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group’s Plan of Action will bring relief to many thousands in Vietnam and enhance the special relationship between our two nations.”

In recognition of his outstanding diplomatic career, in July 2011 the President of Vietnam named Ambassador Xuan as Ambassador for Life.

 

Connie Schultz, Journalist

 

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“When the Vietnam Reporting Project first called, I’m embarrassed to say this, I said – ‘there’s a problem with Agent Orange in Vietnam, still?’”

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Connie Schultz participates in an Aspen Institute Agent Orange in Vietnam Program roundtable.

These are the words of Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, nationally syndicated columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Creators Syndicate, and a regular essayist for Parade Magazine. She is not alone – millions of Americans do not realize that Agent Orange continues to cause severe hardship in Vietnam.

In October of 2010, Schultz traveled to Vietnam with the Vietnam Reporting Project to investigate the legacy of Agent Orange. The result – “Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange” – is a groundbreaking 8-page investigative report which weaves together the stories of American veterans, Vietnamese soldiers and the innocent children caught in the middle.

Like many Americans who grew up in the era of the war in Vietnam, Schultz considered the prospect of visiting the former enemy to be pretty frightening. “I grew up in a small town, Ashtabula Ohio. Our county lost 29 boys in that war,” she says, “It seemed to me at one point every third house had somebody serving… [But] I couldn’t let fear stop me from going. Like I’ve always told my kids, ‘act brave and the courage will come.’”

Far from the war-torn country she feared, Schultz found in Vietnam a spirit of resilience, forgiveness and even hope. The children in the Friendship Village, Schultz writes, are “surrounded by people who care for them, and who don’t avert their eyes at the site of them. Most importantly, they have one another.”

“Most Americans don’t know about this,” Schultz says. “It’s not their fault. I didn’t know about this and I consider myself to be pretty well informed.” It is this reality that motivates Schultz to keep telling these stories and seeking long-term solutions such as cleaning up the dioxin hot spots and expanding services to the disabled.

“I intend to talk about these hot spots until they’re cleaned up or I’m not drawing a breath,” Schultz says, “and I intend to live a long time!”

Please read and share Connie Schultz fantastic report – Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange.  It is a powerful story that takes the reader into the depths of the problem while showing this is a humanitarian concern we can do something about.

 

Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group

 

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In 1968, as a young obstetrician in Ho Chi Minh City, Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong began to notice a strange pattern among the babies being born. “It was horrible,” Dr. Phuong recalls of her days working at Tu Du Hospital. “Every week we had about 2 or 3 or 4 cases of deformed babies born in the hospital. No eyes, no nose, deformed mouths.”

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Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong with a group of handicapped children at Tu Du Hospital. Image courtesy of alexisduclos.com

She was shocked and saddened by such a strange pattern, but it wasn’t until the end of the war in 1975 that Dr. Phuong began to see the connection between these deformities and the war in Vietnam.

“Many American veterans came to Tu Du hospital and asked about birth defects and cancers related to toxic chemicals sprayed over the southern part of Vietnam during the war,” Dr. Phuong recalls.

She was compelled to investigate, and has subsequently devoted her career to getting to the bottom of this issue. Her research has found that the percentage of reproductive problems, birth defects and other diseases is higher for people living in parts of Vietnam that were sprayed with Agent Orange/dioxin than for the general population. Moreover, the breast milk of mothers living in these areas contains dangerously elevated levels of dioxin (the toxic contaminant in Agent Orange) – an indicator that this problem is far from over for the affected Vietnamese.

“Victims are increasingly the millions of innocent newborn babies breastfed by their exposed mothers,” explains Dr. Phuong. “So dioxin may exert its effects over many generations of Vietnamese people!”
More than forty years since she first started noticing the harrowing effects of Agent Orange, Dr. Phuong still works with Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, and still performs surgeries nearly every day. However, she is also now the hospitals’ director, a position she has used to establish a “pregnant care network” to promote appropriate and quality births for women in remote areas of Vietnam.

In addition to her medical responsibilities, Dr. Phuong is a member of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group and a passionate advocate for a long-term solution to the continuing impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam. She writes and lectures widely and has testified before numerous government and scientific bodies, including the United States Congress.

“Dioxin is the most toxic man-made substance in terms of its effects on human beings. It destroys the environment, and biodiversity,” says Dr. Phuong. “It is a cruel destroyer of all life in my country.”

 

Susan Berresford, Former President of the Ford Foundation

 

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Susan Berresford has had a distinguished career in philanthropy spanning four decades. She served as President of the Ford Foundation from 1996 to 2007 and is currently Convener of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group. Her interest in Agent Orange began in 1993 on a trip to Vietnam. She was exploring opening a Ford Foundation office in Hanoi.

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Susan Berresford plays with children affected by Agent Orange in Da Nang.

“I was on the way to the airport, and one of the government officials who had been sort of shepherding me around asked if I’d mind stopping in a hospital,” Berresford recalls. “He took me into a room where there were these jars with aborted fetuses, and they were all terribly deformed, and he said to me ‘this is something I want you to remember. This is a problem we have and we’d like your help with it.’”

So Berresford got to work. To begin, she hired Charles Bailey in 1996 to direct the new office in Hanoi. Berresford credits Bailey with leading the effort to solve the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam from those earliest days to the present.

It wasn’t easy. The issue of Agent Orange is sensitive to the governments of both the United States and Vietnam. But, in Berresford’s words, “as Charles began to work on it, we were able to show that if an American philanthropy could work on it, ultimately others could as well.” Over more than a decade the Ford Foundation supported scientific research to identify the ‘hot spots’ and public health initiatives to expand services to people with disabilities.

Then in 2007, Berresford, Bailey and other colleagues helped establish the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group, a bi-national committee of private citizens, scientists and policy-makers working to address the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. It was a bold experiment and a “youthful approach to philanthropy.”

“The Dialogue Group is a perfect example, I think, of where philanthropy can take a difficult topic, a sensitive or controversial topic, explore it, work on it, then bring more public groups of people together to legitimize and guide the work,” Berresford explains. She is very optimistic about the future. “I see increasing willingness on the U.S. side to be engaged in this issue. Our public officials understand it and recognize this is something we can do,” she says. “I think addressing this issue will be a huge step forward in terms of deepening and solidifying the relationship between our two countries.”

 

Bob Edgar, Common Cause

 

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On a sunny, spring-like day in February 2011, Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause, led a crowd assembled at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco in an energetic chant. “We are,” Edgar preached. “We are,” the crowd responded. “The leaders,” Edgar continued. “The leaders,” the crowd repeated. “We have been waiting for.”

It is a familiar refrain for this former congressman and religious leader. Edgar, an anti-war activist who came of age during the war in Vietnam, originally set out for a life devoted to God and social justice. But his ambitions changed when the Watergate scandal motivated him to seek public office. He was elected to Congress in 1974 as part of a class of representatives known as “the Watergate babies” because they campaigned on and led major ethics reforms in Congress.

In Congress, Edgar helped to lead the effort to end the war in Vietnam and was subsequently placed on the Veterans Affairs Committee. “I quickly learned that you can oppose the war and love the veteran,” Edgar recalls. In subsequent years, Edgar helped investigate the health effects of Agent Orange exposure, a humanitarian concern he continues to work on.

Recently, Edgar has joined with the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group in calling for a substantial and multilateral effort to address the long-term effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. In addition to speaking at several events across the United States and co-authoring an op-ed article on this subject, Edgar has led two delegations of American leaders to Vietnam to witness the continuing impact of Agent Orange.

“All you have to do is see the children, and the grandchildren, of the Vietnamese who were exposed to the defoliant, to hold them in your arms,” Edgar says, explaining his passion. “We spent the first three or four days just crying.”

Watch Bob Edgar speak about his efforts to help people affected by Agent Orange.

 

Kristy Nguyen, Volunteer

 

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A recent high school graduate who lives in Guilford, North Carolina, Kristy Nguyen came to the United States eleven years ago from Vietnam. She is a young woman who understands the value of service.

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Kristy Nguyen models an Ao Dai dress for a Children of Vietnam fundraising calendar.

“I have always liked volunteering,” Kristy says. “I started to volunteer in ninth grade by helping a second grader with her homework.”

This turned out to be just the beginning of Kristy’s commitment to helping others. In her junior year Kristy began volunteering with Church World Service, working as a translator for recent immigrants and refugees. “I enjoyed helping because I knew what they were going through,” Kristy explains. “I was once in their shoes.”

Through this program Kristy met Dan Quinn, Chairman of the Board of Directors for Children of Vietnam – an organization that provides a range of services to disabled children in Vietnam, many of whom have been affected by Agent Orange. Kristy was invited to attend one of their board meetings and was instantly moved by the passion of the staff. She began volunteering with Children of Vietnam in 2010.

“Community service has brought me out of my inner shell,” Kristy says. “It helps me look beyond my surroundings and recognize that there is a lot more to discover and learn.”

Over the last year, Kristy has become an active member of the Children of Vietnam team, contributing to many events, fundraisers and strategies to help Vietnamese families in need. She even involved her classmates by raising awareness of the long-term impact of Agent Orange and collecting donations for Children of Vietnam at her high school’s annual international festival. She raised more than $500.

“I have never forgotten my roots and am deeply touched by stories I hear of the poor in Vietnam who are suffering from poverty, insufficient healthcare and the harmful health effects of Agent Orange,” Kristy says.

 

Masako Sakata, Filmmaker

 

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Masako Sakata in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

In 2003, Masako Sakata lost her husband less than a month after he was diagnosed with liver cancer thought to be linked to his exposure to Agent Orange as a G.I. in Vietnam. A devoted wife for 33 years, Sakata grappled with how to productively move forward.

“I went to Maine to spread his ashes in one of the lakes where we used to spend summers,” she recalls. “I happened to find out there was a film workshop in that small community. I had not even touched a professional camera before.” It was there that she was inspired to heal herself by telling the story of the many people touched by Agent Orange in Vietnam.

So with a camera and a plane ticket to Vietnam, Sakata embarked on an uncertain, open-ended journey that culminated in the 2007 documentary Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem, which captures the tragedy of Agent Orange through the prism of the affected Vietnamese, her late husband and her own search for answers. The film has gained international acclaim, and has been shown in Vietnam, Japan, the United States, France, India, Cuba and Bosnia.

For Sakata, this was just the beginning of her journey championing the cause. Deeply moved by the reactions she was getting at film screenings around the world, she moved to Hanoi in 2008 to study Vietnamese and begin work on a second film.

“I became closer to the people, the culture and the issue,” Sakata recalls. “I had opportunities to visit many victims in remote areas in Vietnam.”

The film, Living in the Silent Spring, is inspired by the victims of Agent Orange and Rachel Carson’s early warning on the dangers posed by pesticides and herbicides. It will be released in Tokyo on September 24, 2011.

In the meantime, Sakata has also launched a scholarship program in partnership with the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) to provide education and vocational training for disabled people in Vietnam. Aptly named Seeds of Hope, the scholarship pools donations from about 50 donors in Japan to provide a three year scholarship for 20 children affected by Agent Orange.

“Most of those who were exposed to the toxic chemical during wartime have been living in poverty, but their handicapped children possess great potential,” Sakata says. “A little help can change a person’s life and bring a smile to their face.”

 

Unsung Hero: Mrs. Doan Thi Que

 

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Nam and his Mom enjoy a rare treat, television.

[Editor's Note: In honor of Mother’s Day, we'd like to share the story of one of the unsung heroes of Agent Orange, a mother who has made countless sacrifices to care for her children who are unable to care for themselves. A special thank you to the War Legacies Project for connecting Make Agent Orange History with Mrs. Doan Thi Que.]

Mrs. Doan Thi Que has been caring for her son Le Ve Nam for 16 years. He suffers severe developmental and physical disabilities that are believed to be linked to his mother’s exposure to dioxin in the Quang Nam province, which was heavily sprayed with Agent Orange during the war in Vietnam.

Que first had a feeling something was wrong when Nam was just 7 months old — he didn’t seem to be progressing like other children his age. Filled with concern, Que carried Nam by foot to the nearest clinic, 17 miles away from their home in Tien Ha Village in central Vietnam. The clinic diagnosed the boy as severely disabled but they didn’t have the expertise or capacity to provide a precise diagnosis for the boy.

Despite the heart-breaking circumstances the family now faced, Que did not lose hope. Que decided then and there that she would dedicate herself completely to the support of her young son. Her love and passion proved a powerful force as Que has spent the better part of two decades providing essential care for Nam.

Fortunately, the family received a cow and some chickens from the War Legacies Project, a nongovernmental organization that provides assistance to families affected by Agent Orange, and this allows Que to stay home and provide Nam the care he so desperately needs.

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One of Nam's favorite hobbies is building block towers with his feet.

“It is difficult now because he is older and very heavy so it is hard for me to lift him,” Que says. “I have to place pillows around him at night so that he does not fall off the bed as his arms and legs are in constant movement [from the muscle spasms]. He does not sleep well because he has trouble breathing.”

While life is difficult for the family, Que stays focused on the future. She gains strength from the joy her son shows from his achievements whether it is building a tower of blocks with his feet or sorting small stones into piles.