Between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 75 700,000 litres of chemical herbicides including the infamous Agent Orange in Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia . This devastation was referred to as Operation Ranch Hand. While the war ended in 1975, the effects of chemical warfare remain apparent.
My father served in this prolonged war and in 1968 married and set about having a family . As a child, I remember feeling curious and concerned about the pustule sores on my father's back that never healed.
I was born 6 weeks prematurely with chronic asthma, lung problems and testicular cancer. My brother was born with failed kidneys which nearly killed him. Hospitals were a common theme of both of our lives for the first few years. Could it be possible that generations on, the legacy of Agent Orange and it's super-contaminant Dioxin may be at play?
Dioxin is now regarded as one of the most toxic chemicals known to man and remains present in Vietnam's soil and river systems. The original concept was simple - destroy all the foliage to expose the adversary. The plan sounds simple but would it have been administered if there was an understanding of the mass devastation that would impact entire eco-systems and remain toxic for another four generations and counting ? The United States government has started offering compensation for Vietnam veterans and their children for a range of cancers, diseases and birth defects related to their war service.
It is reported that nearly 4.8 million Vietnamese people were directly exposed to the contagion, causing 400 000 deaths. Associated illnesses include cancers, birth defects, skin disorders, auto-immune diseases, liver disorders, psychosocial effects, neurological defects and gastrointestinal diseases. The Red Cross of Vietnam, attribute one million people currently suffering disabilities to Agent Orange, with at least 100 000 of those effected being children.
I have spent a lifetime trying to understand why my father is the person he is and due to my brother's and my own entry into this world, I have been driven to spend time in Vietnam , connecting with locals and learning their stories. My compulsion to regularly travel to Vietnam and document aid projects is an extension of wanting to understand myself, my family and the ruthlessness coupled with resilience that humans manifest, especially apparent in legacies of war. Perhaps it is why I spend so much of my life trying to tell other peoples stories and use the medium of film and photography to amplify everyday voices .
During my latest visit , I wanted to look more closely into the plights of children residing in local orphanages. While it is impossible to attribute the disabilities of children living in such conditions to potential chemical exposure , I found myself with more resounding question marks .
Upon arrival at the Go Vap Orphanage, I was greeted with open arms and with a truly loving heart by all the staff . There are approximately 250 children living in the orphanage and about 150 staff attending their every need . I have never witnessed
such dedication to this vocation. Nurses work 24/7 six days a week and on average have worked at the centre for 7 years . One such nurse explained that she had been working in the centre for more than forty years.
During my stay, I observed all of the nursing staff nurturing and genuinely engaging with the children while sharing tender moments . However, I confess to feeling confronted by fearless children and acutely aware of my own sheer good fortune .This rendered me lost for words on numerous occasions. The centre has an adoption program, however the children I met had not benefitted from such opportunities and are likely to live out their lives in the orphanage , living longer with care but not becoming cured.
Like most children, the Go Vap children enjoyed activities of meeting new people , playing games and joking .Every ward is brightly coloured to stimulate the senses and there is an abundance of decorations . The majority of children I saw suffered from Hydrocephalus , cerebral palsy and forms of intellectual impairment . More than 70% of the orphanage experience such challenges from birth as well as forms of Hepatitis, chronic kidney or liver problems, blindness, deafness and genital malformations. As genetic or pre-disposition possibilities remain unknown , the actual causal factors are not able to be speculated upon.
The biggest problem for these children as well as most Children in Vietnam suffering such these ailments is access to medical treatment due to the scale of the issue. Medicinal expertise and sizeable donations are required to establish ongoing treatment options and to generate crucial medical supplies .
Upon reflecting on my trip , was I any closer to understanding the impact of toxicity on individuals and populations ? If anything I was formulating more internal questions than potential theories . I did however, discover tireless devotees dedicating their lives to the protection and support of heroic children bursting with courage and life force.
There are many such orphanages dotted across Vietnam ...