On Saturday, nine U.S. senators, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will gather at the Bien Hoa Airbase in southern Vietnam. There they will inaugurate a joint U.S.-Vietnam project to clean up land contaminated by dioxin from the Agent Orange that was stored and loaded onto airplanes on the base during the Vietnam War.
The delegation will also witness the signing of a new U.S. commitment to fund a five-year program supporting people with disabilities living in areas sprayed with Agent Orange.
More than 3 million U.S. servicemen and -women who served in the Vietnam War, and more than 5 million people who lived in the regions of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia where the herbicides were sprayed, were potentially exposed to dioxin. Nearly 45 years since the end of the war, Agent Orange continues to affect families on both sides of the Pacific.
One of the veterans directly affected was my husband, Bob Feldman, who was stationed at the base in Bien Hoa when there were a number of spills of Agent Orange into the groundwater. When he came home, we thought the war was behind him … until he became sick with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in the spring of 2002 and lymphoma in 2005. Both of these cancers have been directly linked to Agent Orange exposure.
At the time of his death in 2006, the U.S. was not providing any assistance to those in Vietnam suffering from exposure to Agent Orange. Bob and I felt it was wrong that his cancer was acknowledged by the U.S. to be connected to Agent Orange while at the same time ignoring the health impacts on the Vietnamese who were also exposed. We wanted to do what we could to address this injustice, and our research led us to a nonprofit organization working in Vietnam called the War Legacies Project (WLP).
Using Bob’s retroactive disability benefits of about $40,000, we started a fund with WLP to help Vietnamese families affected by Agent Orange.
In 2013, my daughter Sara and I visited Vietnam and met some of the families the fund supports. We were able to see firsthand how this direct people-to-people assistance has immediate impacts on the lives of poor families caring for children with disabilities. Just as importantly, we let these families know that they are not forgotten, that Americans care about how the war continues to affect their lives.
We started our trip in Bien Hoa. Although we were unable to go directly onto the abandoned base where Bob served, from a nearby hillside we were able to see how vast an area the base had covered in the city. We also saw the densely populated residential areas lying just outside the base’s perimeter and why cleanup of this toxic site is so necessary.
Not far from Bien Hoa, we visited two brothers in their 20s born with severe physical disabilities that left them unable to walk. Their mother carried Phu and Phi to school, enabling both to graduate from high school. Unable to go onto college, they set up a business tutoring local children. The fund donated electric wheelchairs, giving Phu and Phi independence of movement for the first time in their lives and Wi-Fi access to assist in their tutoring.
In central Vietnam, where WLP works with the Quang Nam Province Red Cross, we hiked across rice paddies to meet families whose children had both physical and cognitive disabilities. Most never received medical care or rehabilitation services available only in the city centers.
Having a child with a severe disability in rural Vietnam often means that one parent has to stay home, making farming difficult. Most families we met struggled to survive on less than $75 per month. The fund helps families improve their income by setting up small home-based businesses or in most cases helping them purchase livestock they can breed. For some, the fund helps fix roofs, provides adaptive equipment, gives scholarships or bikes enabling siblings to attend school.
With the contribution of my VA survivor benefits and additional donations from family, friends and complete strangers, the Bob Feldman Fund has distributed over $330,000 to more than 450 families in Vietnam. It is gratifying to know that our efforts have made an impact on hundreds of families. We will continue to reach out to as many families as we can. However, they are just a small fraction of those affected in Vietnam.
After 45 years, the U.S. and Vietnam have made the transition from former enemies to partners to address this legacy of the war. But much more work still needs to be done so that all families affected by Agent Orange in Vietnam receive the care and support they deserve. Bob would be pleased to know that the U.S. is now addressing this toxic legacy of the Vietnam War, as he would be proud of the work the fund has done in Vietnam in his name.
Nancy Feldman is the retired CEO of the Minneapolis-based UCare, a position she held for 20 years. She currently serves on a number of nonprofit boards and community organizations.