Le Van Dung and his wife Dang Thi Miet have produced thirteen children and buried twelve of them. It’s hard to imagine how one survives such an experience, but they welcome us into their home with warmth and gratitude. Mrs Miet seems exhausted, but has a winning smile. Her husband wears his VAWA badge and his veteran’s red star with pride. This couple has not been demeaned by their loss.
From the right: Le Van Dung, nephew Le Minh Duc, wife Dang Thi Miet, granddaughter Le Thi Phuong Thoa and daughter Le Thi Ngoc Thuy
We visit their spacious house (which was built and financed by a grant from the provincial Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA)) with Tran Van Luan, an AEPD outreach worker. According to Mr Luan, 24 Agent Orange victims are living in this ward. AEPD only started working with the family 6 months ago, and has yet to involve them in any activities.
Mr. Dung and Mrs Miet both served in the military during the war. Mr Dung fought, while his wife worked on roads. Mr. Dung was exposed to Agent Orange in Quang Tri province when US forces sprayed the area where he was stationed, leaving the forest burning and Mr Dung gasping for air.
Of the couple’s thirteen children, twelve died in the first few weeks. The longest that any of the twelve lived was 8 months and they remember hoping against hope that she would survive. Sadly, it was not to be. “When the baby fell ill we took her to the hospital. The doctor could not save her. She had many symptoms. Her limbs grew smaller all the time.”
Le Thi Ngoc Thuy, the daughter who survived, was born in 1979. She has suffered from a bad memory, depression and headaches ever since and seems quiet and withdrawn. She had two children by her husband, but he left her. Mrs Thuy receives 700,000 Dong a month in compensation and earns a small income from cutting grass.
Le Thien Dung and Dang Thi Niec remember their service with pride
Of Mrs Thuy’s two children, one is free from dioxin poisoning – at least for now. The second child, Le Thi Phuong Thao is full of spirit and moves restlessly from lap to lap as her grandparents talk to their strange visitors. Le Thi Phuong Thao is in the first grade at school and seems smart and curious, but her teacher says she has a bad memory and a grade point average of around 6 out of 10. Her eyes are an even bigger problem. Le Thi Phuong Thao’s eyesight has been deteriorating steadily since she was born and is now functioning at around 70%. She goes to Hanoi every six months for a check-up and new glasses. But she cannot have surgery until she reaches the age of eighteen, so she is in a race against time.
The family assumes that Le Thi Phuong Thao’s medical issues were caused by dioxin, and she is listed as a victim of Agent Orange by MOLYSA, the government ministry. In spite of this, the family gets no money for Le Thi Phuong Thao because government compensation does not extend to the third generation.
We meet one other member of this family whose life has been ruined by Agent Orange. Le Minh Duc, 12, is the son of Mr Dung’s younger brother, now deceased. Duc is in a wheelchair was certified by the government as an Agent Orange victim in 2012. His leg was operated on three months ago. He seems extraordinarily frail.
Le Van Dung often visits the cemetery where his children were buried
As with the other Agent Orange families we met, the Dung family is struggling to pay the bills. Mr Dung and his wife each receive 1.9 million Dong a month. Their daughter receives 700,000 Dong, and their nephew Duc receives 600,000 Dong. But it costs 5 million Dong each time they take Le Thi Phuong Thao to Hanoi for her medical check-up every six months.
AEPD is helping to identify options. The family is a member of a local AEPD self-help group and Mr Dung appreciate the company: “I like to sing together and meet other members. They have raised funds to help us.” They are also thinking of how to earn a living. Le Thi Ngoc Thuy, the daughter, dreams of buying a sugar cane machine which will allow her to press the cane and make a popular local drink that she could sell outside schools. There is also plenty of rich farming and available in the area. A buffalo would certainly help, says Mr Dung.