April 26, Da Nang: Another full but very interesting day. First, we were met by well-known chemist Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Tam at the Da Nang airport hotspot where we learned much new about the best-studied hotspot. Briefly, during the war, the Da Nang airport had more air traffic than any other airport in the world as we unleashed our vast technological power on untamed jungles, rice paddies, and rice farmers. Part of that frenetic fratricide was Operation Ranch Hand, the Air Force program to turn paradise into a parking lot spraying dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange over more than 1/8 of the land mass of South Vietnam, and significant fractions of southern Laos and eastern Cambodia. In the process of storing, transferring, and loading the herbicide, and washing down the planes, they (of course) spilled it everywhere.
There are five areas on the site that are severely contaminated; the loading area, the storage area (where after 40 years still nothing grows, and dioxin is 330 times action levels), Sen Lake that gathers the runoff from the other two sites, the ditches in and out of Sen Lake, and a last area where AO was re-drummed in 1971 prior to shipping it to Johnston Island in the South Pacific for incineration. There is a plan and funding for cleaning up the two first areas, but no plan, funding or agreement on the last three. The US will spend something like $42 million to dig up the contaminated soil in the loading and storage areas, pile it up, insert electrical heating elements and heat it to 300 C°, which will break down the dioxin into not-toxic constituents. The Vietnamese government will have to build an entire new power plant to provide the electricity for this operation, but afterwards they will have it to supply electricity for the city. We could not find out what type of power plant it is to be, where it is, or who pays for it, but an American company has been selected to run the cleanup. What we did find out, however, is that, there is no plan or agreement on the cleanup of Sen Lake or the redrumming area. We even found a gadget that appears to be some sort of unexploded ordnance. No touch!
Next, on to the newest facility of the Da Nang Association of Victims of Agent Orange (DAVA) at the south end of town, fairly close to where I was stationed in 1970 on a barren lump we called Hill 34. Couldn’t tell exactly, because nothing remains as it was, but we were close. There we visited a center run by the dynamic Ms. Hien that cares for handicapped children, most of whom are AO victims. Most come each day, picked up in a bus designed for 16 that they cram 35 kids into. They have many more on a waiting list, but no transportation to pick them up. A few live so far away that they stay at the center all week, and others are delivered by their parents. Hien has been trying to find another bus and the funds to maintain it and pay a driver, but… The center is quite lively and the children performed for us and made us perform for them (BADLY, I might add). They are happy, well fed, and socialized, and given some medical care, education, vocational training, and lots of love.
These are relatively high-functioning children. For contrast, we went to a family at the south end of the airport, in the middle of the city. There a 74-year-old widow of a former VC soldier who died in 2005 is caring for two disabled ‘children’, ages 33 and 37. She gets $30/month stipend from VAVA and the government to care for her kids, but is frail and has to spend that cash hiring a neighbor to help with them. The older one, a man, Tran Duc Nghia has club feet and is unresponsive. He spends his life on the bed. The daughter, Tran Thi Ti Nghia, can just barely get around with a walker, and is also only marginally responsive. When asked what she will do when she gets too old to care for them, the mother started crying. She has no idea.
These Vietnamese patriots have paid a very high price indeed for fighting for their country.