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.
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 She has suffered from a bad memory, depression and headaches ever since and seems quiet and withdrawn.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.
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.
2017 Update by Jacob Cohn, July 2017
A Race Against Time
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.
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.
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.
Update by Karen Delaney, January 2018
AP first met the family of Mr. Le Van Dung in 2015. They have suffered terribly from Agent Orange, as 12 out of their 13 children have died. The only daughter still alive, Le Thi Ngoc, has two children – they too are victims of Agent Orange.
This family was supported by AP in 2016 with one cow and a calf. The father of Ai Hoang (2016 Peace Fellow), raised the funds to support this family and came to Vietnam to deliver the money himself. He gave them 20 million dong, and the family contributed with 3 million themselves to buy the two animals.
They tell me the animals are healthy, but they are still maturing so there are no offspring yet. They use the cow’s fertilizer for their garden, where they grow vegetables, like sweet potatoes and greens. They use the garden mostly to feed themselves, but sometimes they sell products to neighbors, for a little money (around 20k dongs a month -$1). Mr. Dung tells me that they’ll keep the animals and their offspring for “emergencies”. This scenario seems to be common among our beneficiaries, who are relieved to have a reliable source of money in case they have sudden medical needs.
The couple looks old and fragile so I ask if they get any help from their community. Mrs. Dang Thi Miec does all the gardening but their relatives are the ones taking care of the cow and calf. The animals live in the rice field with the relatives, so I don’t see them on the property. Mr. Dung tells me their grandson, Le Hoai Nam also helps with the animals.
I ask more about their family’s health. Mr. Dung tells me he has a “heart problem”, which he takes medication for. He also mentions he has fertility problems since 12 of their children died. He receives 1.5 million dong per month in compensation but has to pay 700k dong per month on medication which is not covered by insurance. His wife, Mrs. Miec is also an Agent Orange victim and also a war veteran. She tells me she’s had many operations to remove tumors from her throat, bones, and back. Now she has the usual symptoms of first-generation exposure – headaches and joint pains. She receives 1.7 million dong per month as compensation. Both husband and wife joined the army in 1969, which makes them eligible for compensation.
Their daughter, Le Thi Ngoc Thuy (39), was born very weak and has ”unstable health”. Mrs.Miec tells me she cannot do hard work, such as work in the field. She receives 800k dong per month as compensation. Her eldest child, Le Hoai Nam(15), is from her first marriage and lives with Mr. Dung and Mrs. Miec. Their grandparents tell me he sometimes gets violent and “his mental state is not great”. Ngoc, my translator, tells me “he is not all there”. I ask about medication and they say when he gets too violent they take him to the hospital for treatment.
The second grandchild, Le Thi Phuong Thao (10), lives with her mother and father, who is Thuy’s second husband. She is short-sighted and has been wearing glasses since she was very young. Mr. Dung tells me her vision is deteriorating and is now down to 70%. Apart from that, Le Thi Phuong Thao cannot concentrate in school. Both grandchildren were denied AO compensation.
Unlike other supported families that we’ve visited, the cow and calf didn’t seem to relieve any of the burdens of Mr. Dung and his wife. Having a more stable economic situation won’t stop their grandchildren from suffering from AO effects.
Update by Marcela De Campos, September 2018
Mr. Dung and Ms. Miet warmly welcome us into their home. Mr. Dung is sporting his veteran’s cap and pin on his shirt. He pours us tea as we sit around the table. Although Ms. Miet sits behind us, she is just as engaged in the conversation.
Both Mr. Dung and Ms. Miet joined the army prior to 1969 and were directly exposed to Agent Orange. The exposure has had a significant impact on their family’s health including their children and grandchildren. The reach Agent Orange poisoning has had on this family is harrowing–12 of their 13 children suffered and died from its effects. Their surviving daughter and two grandchildren are also victims of Agent Orange. Mr. Dung has little to report about his own health. He remarks that he is aging but otherwise it is unchanged. Before saying anything else he begins to talk about his wife’s health condition.
It is obvious that Mr. Dung is severely concerned for his wife’s wellbeing. Ms. Miet had a surgery to remove a tumor on her back within the last two years (they weren’t exactly sure the date). Unfortunately, she stills feels pain when the weather changes. She is currently feeling pain in her neck. Ms. Miet has a goiter and the doctor has advised her to have surgery to remove it but they cannot afford it right now. Despite these difficulties, Mr. Dung and Ms. Miet seem optimistic and determined to care for their daughter and grandchildren’s health above their own.
Le Thi Ngoc (39 years old) is the couple’s only surviving daughter. Like her two children, she suffers from the effects of Agent Orange exposure. Since Karen’s visit, her health has not changed.
Ngoc’s daughter, Le Thi Phuong Thao, is 10 years old. She does not receive Agent Orange compensation as a third generation victim. The exposure has most severely affected her vision. It has worsened since January. Thao is treated regularly at the Dong Hoi eye center but her condition has worsened beyond their ability to most effectively treat her. She has had to go to a specialist in Hanoi twice this year. Thao is eligible for an eye surgery that will significantly improve her quality of life but must wait until she turns 18. As such, she will continue to rely on the medication to treat her symptoms for the next eight years.
Because of their age, Mr. Dung and Ms. Miet’s income is primarily derived from the compensation they receive from the government. They are unable to farm and live from the vegetables, fruits, and herbs grown in their garden. Mr. Dung and Ms. Miet received a cow and calf in 2016 from Peace Fellow Ai Hoang’s family. Both animals are growing well and the cow is scheduled to breed once the calf has been weaned. Mr. Dung plans to sell either the cow or calf to purchase a motorbike for Le Hoai Nam (his grandson) to go to school. Nam lives with Mr. Dung and Ms. Miet. He is Ngoc’s son and suffers from mental disabilities related to Agent Orange. He experiences violent episodes when the weather changes. Mr. Dung adds that these episodes do not happen regularly. A motorbike would greatly help the family’s situation. Mr. Dung and Ms. Miet also genuinely seem excited to gift their grandson a motorbike and look forward to it.
The couple believes they will sell the mother cow because the calf has greater potential for future breeding (due to her excellent physical qualities). They estimate the mother cow will sell for approximately 18M VND but will wait for the calf to grow for at least 2 more years; the calf is currently valued at 10M VND. Ultimately, however, their choice will depend on market price and need. Unfortunately, their current needs (motorbike, goiter removal surgery, etc.) are greater than the potential profit of one cow and they must prioritize their needs.
Mr. Dung and Ms. Miet will continue to meet with an AEPD Outreach Worker. When the time is right (based on market price and calf maturation), AEPD and the Le family will discuss cow sales. They are transparent about their intentions and trust AEPD to guide them in their business plan. It’s heartening to see the rapport AEPD has built with them and how invested the Campaign and the couple are in the future of their business plan as a sustainable source of revenue creation. Although their need is greater than their income production, the Le family remains hopeful.
Update by Mia Coward, July 2019
It’s about 8:15 AM when we leave for today’s field visits. As the drives takes us down a winding road, we pull up to a small but very quaint house. Ms. Miet was smiling when we arrived. She is so small that even at only 5 feet, I look nearly twice her size. She welcomes us in her home, but it seems very quiet and empty according to the previous blogs I have read. I see one young boy tending to the house who seems to be a teenager and I assume that it her grandson Le Hoai Nam . I don’t actually see him again until we are leaving. As we sit down with Mrs. Miet, I began to look around and notice that there is no sign of her husband. I remember when reading the previous fellow Marcela’s blog, she had told us that his health was not in a great condition–as he suffers from a heart condition. I ask about if there had been updates since our last visit and how her husband was doing since it was clear that he was not in the home. Currently, the only people in the home are Mrs. Miet and Le Hoai Nam (the son of their only daughter, Le Thi Ngoc Thuy). He stays with his grandparents since he is from a previous marriage. We learn that her nephew, Le Minh Duc, who was staying with her and her husband has moved to be with his mother. His mother used to send money to the family but now she has come back to be with her son. Now, Le Hoai Nam helps her out with the household chores when he is not school.
As Ms. Miet’s mood begins to shift she shares with us that Mr. Dung is currently in the hospital suffering from blood clots (thrombosis as we later learn) in his leg due to his heart problems and the medication he was taken. He has been in the hospital since last Monday and will stay there for about a week or so until he is transferred to the hospital in Hanoi for his surgery that with hope should remove the pain and blood clots from his legs. The surgery is tentatively planned for next week. After the surgery the doctor is not sure how long we will have to stay in the hospital for recovery. As Ms. Miet explains more, I look up to see her wiping her tears away, her cheering disposition slowly saddened by the condition of her husband. According Ms. Miet his heart problems worsened some time ago and the pain had matriculated to his legs. Ngoc (AEPD Coordinator) tells me that he has had two surgeries before and that this was hopefully the last he will have to have. He had been traveling back and forth to the hospital for medicine and even though he was taking his medication the pain gradually began to affect both legs.
Ms. Miet does not know for sure if this surgery will fix the problem, but she is hopeful. Her daughter lives in a different district in Dong Hoi with her husband and daughter and she travels back and forth to the hospital to help with the care of her father. We ask about the cow that we had given them and to share any updates about if they sold the cow or if it had a calf. Ms. Miet tells us that since the condition of her husband has worsened and he is in the hospital, she has asked her neighbor to take care of the cow. Ms. Miet health is also not stable enough to take care of the cow, so it is nearby in the rice field. She is currently keeping the cow but will most likely sell it to pay for the hospital bills. Their insurance will cover the surgery but not the medication or recovery. Medication prescribed by her doctor or purchased cheaper will still be very costly for this family. She has sold the baby calf already for about 8-10M VND before her husband went to the hospital. The money was then used for medication that they bought for a cheaper rate than the hospital but still very expensive. She still receives her Agent Orange compensation from the government, 1.9M VND each month.
We move toward asking Mrs. Miet about savings questions to get a better understanding of how AP and AEPD can move toward making this partnership more sustainable in the future. We ask her if she has been able to think about saving and if she would be interested in a savings group. As I wait for Ngoc to say this in Vietnamese, I see that Mrs. Miet head begins to hang low. She begins to get teary eyes and quickly wipes her tears away because she says she has not and cannot think about savings while her husband is in the hospital. It was clear that Mr. Dung took care of most of the finances in their household and that she, now worried about his health and if the surgery would make him better, was consumed with only that one thing. She tells us that she does not spend much on household items, she eats vegetables from her garden and goes to the market for meat and fish that can vary in cost. However, she gives her daughter 100 VND a day to buy things like food for her husband. She is also still waiting for the doctor to set a price for the medication.
I ask if she has been able to see her husband and she tells us that her grandson takes her to see him every evening. However, When Mr. Dung goes to Hanoi for his surgery, she will not be able to join. In her health condition she is unable to make the journey or help during his recovery process. She is saddened because she cannot help her husband and see him after his surgery. Her tears roll down her face as she explains this to Ngoc.
The compensation from the government and selling the calf was not enough to have any leftover funds for saving. It only covered her grandson’s schooling and medical fees. She further tells us that in the event that she is not able to sell the cow, she will have to take out a loan from relatives or other people to pay for the medical bills. Ms. Miet is unable to sell the cow at the moment because she is still looking for someone to buy it at a good price. Recently she has borrowed 1M VND from another organization that represents women who have retired from the military. She has not been able to pay the loan and now she must pay what seems like an interest rate of 5000 VND per month. Ngoc tells me this is very cheap and there is no deadline for her to pay the whole amount. The organization has asked her to pay but because of her current circumstance she is unable to pay in full. We ask would she be interested in working with a group of Agent Orange victims or affiliated families and she says she is not sure right now because she thinks it’s better if her husband is here to make sure they could participate and help pay back the loan. It is very hard for them to work and so she is afraid they will not be able to pay back the loan or participate in any form of savings group as their health continues to decline. They cannot generate any other income other than what they get from the government.
I am stumped and at a loss for words, knowing that there is nothing I can promise her and that she can’t really answer any of the questions we have for the visit. Me and Ngoc realize that we don’t think she can calculate the amount of money they are bringing in their household and come to an agreement that the main person we would get many of the answers to our questions is not here. The last question we ask about is if she was offered another grant how she would use it. She refers to her husband, looking up at their military plaques and says she just wants to be able to pay the bills for her husband and tells us that because they are both older and their health is not great, they still would not be able to maintain the land or any animals given to them but money would help pay for her husband’s care. Their main expense is his medicine.
As we leave, I tell her that I will be praying for her husband and their family. She holds my hands tightly as if that is her way of saying thank you. It was clear that Ms. Miet focus was on nothing but her husband and that her heart and mind could think of nothing but ensuring that he was going to get better and come home soon. As we leave she began to smile again, talking with Hoang Thu Hienhe (new AEPD employee). I can tell that she is hopeful and wants to focus on the good, but is really anxious about her husband’s condition.