By Geoffrey Cain and Joshua Kurlantzick
Anh Nguyen Khanh, a motorbike driver in the mountains outside Da Nang, a city in southern Vietnam, is only fifty-three, but he looks much older. His fourteen-year-old son was born with severe spina bifida and cannot walk; his seventeen-year-old daughter has Down’s syndrome. His wife, shattered by her two children’s hardships, has become so mentally unstable she must be restrained at times. "Life is the hardest thing," says Anh Khanh, who supports his family by transporting vegetables between villages, earning about $100 per month. "This [life] is truly a curse."
As a child during the Vietnam War, Anh Khanh remembers watching as American forces sprayed the area around his home with Agent Orange, a defoliant containing the chemical dioxin and used by U.S. forces to kill plants and expose enemy movement. "I remember seeing the American warplanes dropping some sort of chemical on the jungles," he says. "We thought everything was okay, because they weren’t dropping bombs … It wasn’t until the 1980s, when our generation started having children, that we learned the horrible effects of war would follow us our entire lives." Today, Anh Khanh, like many Vietnamese, is convinced that the remnants of dioxin, a poison, in his village’s soil have destroyed his family, causing his children’s birth defects, which then ruined his wife’s mental health. The local government, he says, has little money to help him, and offers just $15 per month in benefits, only enough to cover a portion of the food and health care costs of one of his two children. "God is watching over us," he says. "That’s our only hope."
During the Vietnam War, the United States sprayed as much as 18 million gallons of Agent Orange on the country, according to a Government Accountability Office study. Decades later, the long-acting toxin continues to exact a terrible toll on the people of Vietnam. While the U.S. insists that there is not enough evidence to link the spraying of the defoliant to any illnesses in Vietnam, the government in Hanoi estimates that as many as 400,000 Vietnamese have died early from ailments related to exposure to dioxin and that 500,000 children have birth defects because of exposure to the chemicals leeching into water and soil.
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