“Please tell me how your life has been impacted by war.”
I distinctively remember sitting in a small classroom my senior year of college with about twenty other students, being asked this question as our icebreaker. The theme of the course was Gender & Militarization. Normally, I struggle with icebreakers. It’s a lot of pressure to be given thirty seconds or so to cleverly answer some random question, all while trying to make the best first impression and not repeat what someone else just said. But this question, well, this one was a little different. I wasn’t even sure where to begin. How do I sum up the ways in which my life has been impacted by war? The Vietnam War (or ‘the American War’ as it is known in Vietnam).
Before I go any further, here’s a quick background. The American War took place from 1954 to 1975 with the Communist regime of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong on one side, South Vietnam and its main ally, the US, on another. The US was adhering closely to their policy of “containment”, doing their best to prevent the spread of communism to Vietnam. Under a peace agreement, President Nixon withdrew American troops in 1973. The war between North and South Vietnam continued until the 1975 Fall of Saigon when the North captured the city, marking the end of the decades-long conflict. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese died, 3 million wounded and 12 million became refugees.
Then, do I answer the icebreaker by telling the class how my uncle was killed as a soldier for the South Vietnam army? Do I recount the stories that my dad told me of his years spent in reeducation camp following the 1975 Fall of Saigon? Or, should I respond with how my mom spent her teenage years selling sticky rice on the streets of a war-torn country, cowering with her sisters under a blanket at night, praying for the bombing to stop? Where do I even begin when war is as much a part of my history as it is a part of the rivers and rice paddy fields of Vietnam?
War has left its mark on my birthplace (or as I like to call it, the motherland) with poison running through its veins. More than 19 million gallons of various pesticides was sprayed over 4.5 million acres of the country by US planes from 1962-1971. The most commonly used chemical was Agent Orange, 11.4 million gallons to be exact. Those exposed to AO suffer from many health problems, such as cancer, Parkinson’s and heart disease to name a few . Exposure to AO has also been linked to birth defects, altering the lives of what has now been three whole generations of Vietnamese. The burden of caring for victims often falls on the entire family of those affected, especially on primary caregivers. This is why AEPD and AP are focusing on meeting their needs. Please click here to take a look at our campaign. Shoutout to the awesome AP team back in DC for all the work they did on this page and the profiles of families featured.
Leftover Explosive Remnants of the War (ERW), landmines and unexploded ordinance, also remain in the ground, detonating when curious children and innocent passerby pick one up assuming that it’s a toy. Or, when farmers burn crops on their field, unknowingly applying too much heat and accidentally setting off a bomb buried deep under the earth. These are explosives designed to wipe out as many people as possible. Those who do survive face a lifetime of pain and disability. Quang Binh province, where AEPD is located, and its neighbor Quang Tri are two of the most highly contaminated provinces.
So how did I ended up answering the icebreaker? I told the class the story of one of my uncles who made it to America alone as a refugee when he was only 17, with no family and no friends. He put himself through college by working odd jobs, and built a great foundation for our family in the US. He became our sponsor and brought us over to California sixteen years ago. Ultimately, one of the main reasons why I’m sitting here, privileged enough to be given a platform to tell people of our history, is because of the war. This is why I came back. This is why I care, because this history has made me who I am today and has shaped who I want to be.
As I finish my second week here of AEPD, I’m reminded once again that there are never any real winners in war. The losses are great on all sides and the consequences continue to affect generation and generation of innocents to come. So here I am, doing what I believe is best to assist with the healing process.
Thank you for reading.
Posted By Ai Hoang
Posted Jul 4th, 2016