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The Victims of Agent Orange the U.S. Has Never Acknowledged

George Black, Christopher Anderson

Feature

America has never taken responsibility for spraying the herbicide over Laos during the Vietnam War. But generations of ethnic minorities have endured the consequences.

Photographs by Christopher Anderson

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It was a blazing-hot morning in October 2019 on the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, an intricate web of truck roads and secret paths that wove its way across the densely forested and mountainous border between Vietnam and Laos. Susan Hammond, Jacquelyn Chagnon and Niphaphone Sengthong forded a rocky stream along the trail and came to a village of about 400 people called Labeng-Khok, once the site of a logistics base inside Laos used by the North Vietnamese Army to infiltrate troops into the South. In one of the bamboo-and-thatch stilt houses, the ladder to the living quarters was made from metal tubes that formerly held American cluster bombs. The family had a 4-year-old boy named Suk, who had difficulty sitting, standing and walking — one of three children in the extended family with birth defects. A cousin was born mute and did not learn to walk until he was 7. A third child, a girl, died at the age of 2. “That one could not sit up,” their great-uncle said. “The whole body was soft, as if there were no bones.” The women added Suk to the list of people with disabilities they have compiled on their intermittent treks through Laos’s sparsely populated border districts.

Hammond, Chagnon and Sengthong make up the core of the staff of a nongovernmental organization called the War Legacies Project. Hammond, a self-described Army brat whose father was a senior military officer in the war in Vietnam, founded the group in 2008. Chagnon, who is almost a generation older, was one of the first foreigners allowed to work in Laos after the conflict, representing a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee. Sengthong, a retired schoolteacher who is Chagnon’s neighbor in the country’s capital, Vientiane, is responsible for the record-keeping and local coordination.

The main focus of the War Legacies Project is to document the long-term effects of the defoliant known as Agent Orange and provide humanitarian aid to its victims. Named for the colored stripe painted on its barrels, Agent Orange — best known for its widespread use by the U.S. military to clear vegetation during the Vietnam War — is notorious for being laced with a chemical contaminant called 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-P-dioxin, or TCDD, regarded as one of the most toxic substances ever created.

The use of the herbicide in the neutral nation of Laos by the United States — secretly, illegally and in large amounts — remains one of the last untold stories of the American war in Southeast Asia. Decades later, even in official military records, the spraying of Laos is mentioned only in passing. When the Air Force in 1982 finally released its partially redacted official history of the defoliation campaign, Operation Ranch Hand, the three pages on Laos attracted almost no attention, other than a statement from Gen. William Westmoreland, a former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, that he knew nothing about it — although it was he who ordered it in the first place. Laos remained a forgotten footnote to a lost war. To those who followed the conflict’s aftermath intimately, this was hardly surprising. Only in the last two decades has the United States finally acknowledged and taken responsibility for the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, committing hundreds of millions of dollars to aiding the victims and cleaning up the worst-contaminated hot spots there.

While records of spraying operations inside Laos exist, the extent to which the U.S. military broke international agreements has never been fully documented, until now. An in-depth, monthslong review of old Air Force records, including details of hundreds of spraying flights, as well as interviews with many residents of villages along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, reveals that, at a conservative estimate, at least 600,000 gallons of herbicides rained down on the ostensibly neutral nation during the war.

 

For years, Hammond and Chagnon were aware of the spraying in Laos, but the remote areas affected were almost inaccessible. Finally, in 2017, with new paved roads connecting the main towns, and many smaller villages accessible in the dry season by rough tracks, they were able to embark on systematic visits to the villages of the Bru, the Ta Oey, the Pa Co and the Co Tu, four of the ethnic minorities whose homes straddle the Laos-Vietnam border. It was the first time anyone had tried to assess the present-day impact of the defoliant on these groups.

Of the 517 cases of disabilities and birth defects so far documented by the War Legacies Project in Laos, about three-fourths, like malformed limbs, are identifiable to the untrained eye as conditions of the sorts now linked to exposure to Agent Orange. “When we started the survey, I told American government officials we were doing it and said honestly that we didn’t know what we would find,” Hammond says. “In fact, I hoped we would find nothing. But as it turned out we’ve found a lot.”

Hammond’s requests for both the United States and Laos to acknowledge the long-term effects of the spraying have so far been met with bureaucratic rationalizations for inaction: Congress can do nothing without a clear signal from the Lao government; the Lao government has been hesitant to act without hard data; officials of the United States Agency for International Development in Vientiane have been sympathetic, but other senior embassy officials have waved away the problem. “One said that if we were so interested in what the U.S. had done in Laos, why didn’t we look at what the Soviets and the North Vietnamese had done?” Hammond recalls. “It was like being in a time warp, like dealing with an official in Vietnam in the 1990s. So we’ve been on this endless treadmill.”

So far, these conversations with officials have been informal, but this month she plans to submit the group’s findings to both governments, documenting the extent of the spraying recorded in the Air Force records and the number of disabilities the War Legacies Project has found. That’s when the governments of the United States and Laos will no longer have any reason to avoid taking action that is long overdue.

For Hammond and Chagnon, the personal connection to the war runs deep. Chagnon took time off from college in 1968 to work with Catholic Relief Services in Saigon, later living in a compound near the Tan Son Nhut air base. Even though public opinion had turned sharply against the war since the Tet offensive earlier that year, she wasn’t an antiwar activist. “I’d never been to a demonstration,” she says. “My parents were furious at me for going into a war zone.”

The first jolt to her innocence, she recalls, came when newspapers in Saigon published gruesome photographs of malformed babies and fetuses in Tay Ninh, a heavily sprayed province on the Cambodian border. By the late 1960s, Vietnamese doctors had strong indications that these congenital defects might be connected to the chemical defoliants. By the time Chagnon came home in 1970, the defoliation campaign was about to be shut down amid growing controversy over its possible health effects. But her anxiety increased. Many of the early spraying sorties had taken off from Tan Son Nhut, and she worried about her own exposure and the long-term effects if she had children. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when her daughter, Miranda, was born in 1985 with multiple birth defects. There was no proof that dioxin was responsible, and Miranda’s ailments were treatable with surgery and medication, but that hardly quelled Chagnon’s concerns about Agent Orange.

By this time Chagnon and her husband, Roger Rumpf, a theologian and well-known peace activist, were living in Vientiane and visited remote areas where few outsiders ever ventured. They had heard strange and unsettling stories in Xepon, a small town near the Vietnamese border. Doctors reported a rash of mysterious birth defects. A veterinarian told of farm animals born with extra limbs. There were anecdotal accounts of airplanes trailing a fine white spray. But it was impossible to find out more. “In those days there were no roads into the mountains,” Chagnon says. “You had to walk, sometimes for days.”

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