As America continues to untangle itself from an ongoing battle in the Middle East which has spawned the rise of ISIS and contributed to the Syrian devastation, it feels particularly poignant to remember this is not our first rodeo. Just a mere 60 odd years ago, we were busy raining down holy hell on the heads of the Vietnamese people after which we hightailed it out of there, back to the safety of our clean and well-kept neighborhood. Like a child who has tired of their mess and moved on to dismantle the next fresh slate, America has carelessly launched its next war game without bothering to tidy up the last.
While the Vietnam War may feel safely buried in recesses of the American psyche, its unquestionable legacy of horror is far from gone. Even today, all these years later, many parts of the East Asian country still resonate with the painful effects of a 20-year battle that delivered intense suffering and little justification. And these feelings of anguish are not just alive in the hearts of the Vietnamese citizens, they have real faces—faces that are twisted and ravaged by the dark history of war.
In Ho Chi Minh City, there is a place called Tu Du Obstetric and Gynecological Hospital where these faces can be seen firsthand, as it houses some 400 children suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, the deadly chemical sprayed by the Americans during the campaign against Vietnam. Since the care unit was founded in 1990, it has worked diligently to manage the catastrophic effects of this toxic chemical and to redeem the lives of those innocents who were born into a world beyond their control.
Since the care unit was first founded in 1990, it has worked diligently to manage the catastrophic effects of this toxic chemical and to redeem the lives of those innocents who were born into the wake a violent generation. Agent Orange not only contaminated the land and rivers of Vietnam, but it caused extensive birth defects and medical problems for three generations of survivors.
Looking back, waging war against Vietnam was not quite as simple as the U.S. had predicted. Tactical issues were complicated by the area’s thick forest cover which limited aircraft visibility and obscured ground targets, leaving military efforts frustrated and impotent. In response this problem, the U.S. created “Operation Ranch Hand,” which sprayed more than 19 million gallons of herbicides over 4.5 million acres of land in Vietnam to defoliate and clear any visual obstructions from the air and destroy the crops used to feed the enemy.
Agent Orange, or Dioxin, was the most commonly used and the most effective but sadly, it was also the most lethal. It caused serious health issues like tumors, birth defects, rashes, damage to psychological systems, and cancer in anyone who was exposed. Due to the intense concentration used during wartime, much of the land it touched remains unproductive to this day.
Many people in the U.S. opposed the Vietnam War and avidly protested the use of the poison Dioxin, but this made little difference to those behind the control switch. Although the extent of danger was not clearly understood, it was clear such a toxin could (and likely would) have a lasting impact on the environment and any living organism unlucky enough to exist nearby. Little did anyone know, its horrific reach would go even further, claiming the health of unborn generations to come.
Hoa Binh Peace Village, the special care unit located inside Tu Du Hospital, provides medical relief to the young victims of Agent Orange—children who range from ages 2-23 years old. It houses a great number of patients whose families are attempting to deal with the extenuating repercussion of a conflict they may have never seen. The unit not only aids next-generation casualties but also creates a coalition of politicians and activists who are seeking justice for the victims of Agent Orange through social services and the introduction of new laws.
Approximately 20 people work on staff with these needy children, supplying the food, support, and care they need to complete the most basic tasks. The level of overall need varies among patients—some children are long-term residents, while others travel back and forth between their families and the Village.
All children on the unit are required to attend school out of principle, but in some cases, the degree of education they receive is based solely on their limited capabilities. For some, the option to learn a trade is available, providing them with an opportunity to work and become a useful, productive member of society. For others, reentering the regular world is a dream they don’t even know exists. Regardless of the child’s disability, the care unit strives to make everyone feel important and deserving of human connection and respect.
Metal beds line the walls in the unit, where approximately 60 patients who are second and third generation victims undergo medical treatment and rehabilitation. Most of the children have not been outside since their arrival, as they are incapable of helping themselves and have no family to support them elsewhere. In reality, several of these disabled children were abandoned by parents who could not handle the responsibility and have since disappeared, leaving their offspring in the hands of those who can manage their needs.
Their afflictions vary from missing limbs or eyes, hydrocephalus (widening of the skull), seizures, paralysis, vision impairment, severe brain defects, genital malformations, or a scaly rash known as ichthyosis. Some of these unfortunate children undergo degrees of rehabilitation, while others die at a young age or are bedridden for the duration of their lives.
Some testaments to the past are more heartbreaking than others, and Tu Du Hospital surely has one of the most powerful. A private room on the premises contains the shockingly deformed remains of 150 babies, all of whom were born dead after the war. Some have two heads or two faces—while others have unbelievably twisted limbs and deformed bodies.
These disturbing remains were once kept for research purposes only but now, they sit idly in their jars, documenting the human sacrifice associated with war and the careless use of chemical weaponry. These deformed babies remain a stark and graphic reminder of the steep price others have paid for the American need to “shock and awe” its enemy.
Although Tu Du hospital receives financial support from the government and other international organizations, it still relies on infrastructure and committed faculty. The staff itself is relatively limited and runs on a shoestring budget, even though they are always trying to expand their services to meet the needs of the community. Because, yes—even 60 years later—the need is there. Places like Da Nang, Vietnam are still grappling with the disabilities of children being born under the yoke of a violent past.
Competent volunteers who can handle medical equipment or engage in physical rehabilitation activities are always needed, while non-skilled volunteers can be essential in preparing nutritious meals, spending one-on-one time with patients, or assisting nurses. Without such people, these children would never receive the quality of care they deserve. Hoa Binh Village is both a devastating and an inspiring place, where one is challenged to literally gaze upon the face of human brutality, a fact that is particularly poignant as the U.S. emerges from yet another conflict on foreign soil.
And the rest is history.