Two parents who lost 12 children to Agent Orange
Profile by Armando Gallardo and Iain Guest
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.”
‘“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 She has suffered from a bad memory, depression and headaches ever since and seems quiet and withdrawn.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.
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.
Le Thien Dung and Dang Thi Niec visit the graves of their lost children
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.
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.
A Race Against Time
2017 Update by Jacob Cohn (July 2017)
Last Friday I had the privilege of meeting three more of the Advocacy Project’s beneficiary families here in Quang Binh Province, families that have been ravaged by the effects of Agent Orange. With AEPD outreach worker Mr. Thuan, staff member Ngoc and AP associate Dat, I headed out to meet the families of Le Van Dung, Pham Thi Do, and Le Thanh Duc.
These are all families that have already received funding through the generosity of AP’s donors, and I’m mainly visiting to check up on how everyone is doing and how the businesses that AP has helped them start are faring. However, I would soon be reminded that AP’s support, while welcome, is no shield against misfortune.
Le Van Dung and his family live in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Dong Hoi, the provincial capital where AEPD is based, so it only takes us around 10 minutes to reach him. Mr. Dung and his wife, Dan Thi Miet, live in a house typical of the area—it has several rooms and a front courtyard. We sit down with Mr. Dung in the foyer/living room of his house; Mrs. Miet also joins us, but Mr. Dung does most of the talking, a pattern I’ve seen in other families here.
Mr Dung and Mrs Miet are proud of their military service
As explained in greater detail here, Mr. Dung and Mrs. Miet both served in the North Vietnamese military during the American War, with Mr. Dung seeing active combat. While fighting in Quang Tri Province, close to the border between North and South Vietnam, US forces sprayed the dense jungle sheltering his unit with Agent Orange, exposing them to the poison. Mr. Dung and Mrs. Miet attempted to build a family after the war ended, but tragedy haunted them as 12 of their 13 children died in infancy. Their surviving daughter Thuy (who lives elsewhere in the city) and Thuy’s daughter Thao have experienced illness linked to Agent Orange.
Mr. Dung bought a cow and calf with AP funding earlier this year, and he tells me that not much has changed since then—both are developing “very well.” He’s had to work a bit harder to take care of the animals and plant grass for them to eat, but it’s “not too hard,” and the additional income is well worth it. Mr. Dung can’t have a full-scale farm in the city, so instead he hopes to raise and sell the calf, breed the cow again, and use the cow’s manure to fertilize the plants he does have.
Last year we’d planned to buy him a cow and a sugar cane press, which he could use to produce sugary drinks to sell from his home, and I ask him why he changed his request. Mr. Dung says that he wanted to earn money from a new source, and that he believed a calf would allow him to earn more money more quickly. Since his home is on a side street, Ngoc says, it’s not a good location for selling drinks. Mr. Dung says he’s still hoping to get a cane press for his daughter Thuy (who sometimes suffers from headaches and depression but is otherwise healthy) so she can open a business of her own, but his own health is fragile enough that he doesn’t want to create more work for himself right now. Mr. Dung tells me that Agent Orange has contributed to the worsening of his health—he’s developed a “heart condition” (Ngoc clarifies that this is not a heart attack) in the last year and now relies on medicine to keep going. He shows us some of the medications he takes—it seems like a lot for one man.
The couple’s granddaughter, Thao, lived with them during our last visit, but Mr. Dung says she’s living with her mother now. They’d previously taken in their nephew Duc, son of Mr. Dung’s late brother, who also suffers from Agent Orange poisoning and is confined to a wheelchair—since the spring, however, Duc has lived with his own mother. Now it’s just Mr. Dung, Mrs. Miet, and their other granddaughter Nan living here; Nan is with other relatives for the summer holidays, so we don’t get to meet her.
Mr Dung’s cow and calf were purchased with funds raised by Peace Fellow Ai Hoang
Thao’s eyesight is slowly deteriorating, and Mr. Dung tells me that hasn’t changed since our last visit. Mr. Dung took Thao to see a doctor in Hanoi, who said that Thao can undergo surgery when she turns 18 (she’s 9 now) to try to reverse these effects, but it’s possible that by the time she’s old enough for the procedure her eyesight might be totally gone. Mr. Dung and Mrs. Miet are hoping that Thao’s sight will last another nine years, but Mr. Dung says it’s not entirely certain the surgery will work even if that happens. Nan, meanwhile, has developed kidney disease in the last few years (she’s 14), which they are treating with traditional remedies; it’s unclear whether this has any connection with Agent Orange.
After I take photos of the couple and the house, we leave and travel around a quarter-mile to a large collective farm field to see the cow and calf. While traversing the field we see—and hear—a passenger jet passing overhead; this neighborhood is very close to the Dong Hoi Airport. Dat later informs me that Mr. Dung complained of gasoline fumes from the airport, and of airplane noise disturbing the family’s sleep. They’ve complained to the local government, but there’s little to be done.
We see the cow and calf, who indeed look healthy as they graze peacefully in the field next to a large rice paddy. As we prepare to leave, Ngoc tells me that this is the last collective rice field in Dong Hoi, and that there are plans to develop the area to accommodate the growing city. “If they get rid of these fields,” I ask, “what happens to the animals?” She shrugs.