April 21, Saturday: In the morning we met with the Thua Thien-Hue Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange. Their director is retired Doctor Nguyen Cuong, who I had met previously when I was in town in 2010. He had been an NLF (Viet Cong) doctor during the war, so I am sure he has interesting stories to tell. But both times I met him he was all business: a survey in 1999 in Thua Thien-Hue Province identified about 15,000 AO victims, 5,000 in sparsely-populated A Luoi Valley alone. A follow up survey in 2008 with the 15,000 found that about 2,000 had already died. Further studies are planned to refine the numbers but have been postponed due to lack of funds and the complications of working with numerous agencies. Currently, the VAVA chapter provides free medical checkups for AO victims (as opposed to actual care), engages in poverty reduction via micro grants and micro loans, builds compassion houses for the most needy, provides free corrective surgery, and other such programs and coordinates government support for about 600 victims, or 4.6% of the total number who may need help.
Following this formal meeting we visited two AO families in Hue; the first was in an extremely fancy house, which was shocking since we have come to expect that all families affected by AO have been driven into poverty. We met with an older couple both of whom had been NVA, she as a porter/cultural worker on the HCM trail and in the south, and him as a fighter from 1970 to the end of the war. They had a daughter, now 36, who has club foot, diabetes, heart disease, and severe developmental problems. The daughter, Tran Tshin Dinh, was napping while we were there, but they did not want to wake her because she usually yells all day. The parents are exhausted and cannot leave their daughter alone even for an hour. They sacrificed more than they perhaps bargained for when they went to fight for their country. The parents are retired, and the fancy house belongs to a much younger daughter who has been successful in business and now lives in Saigon. They have three daughters, the oldest is AO-affected Tran, but the younger two are fine. It appears that wealth, or its lack, is not the only measure of suffering.
The second family, photo above, is the home of a doctor and his wife, who married and had a child while in medical school. When the boy was born with severe developmental problems, the mother had to drop out of medical school to care for the child. Her husband was able to finish medical school and practice medicine. The boy, Dinh Trinh Anh Tu, is now 19 years old, and cannot walk without help, talk, relate to others, and has several inoperable tumors. The mother has training in physical therapy, so she knows to massage his limbs every day to keep them from curling which would make him even more incapacitated. She is tired, feels that she has lost many opportunities in life, and that it is her karma to have a child like this. When asked what kinds of help she thought Agent Orange victims and families should receive, she said that they need help caring for their disabled children and adults. For some that would mean day-care centers where the children can go while the parents are working. For others it would mean home care for all or parts of days.