Le Thi Mit isn’t sure what caused the severe physical and cognitive disabilities of her three youngest sons, who were born in the wake of the “American War.” She doesn’t know what caused the uncannily similar conditions of the children of her closest neighbor, either. But she remembers watching U.S. planes spraying clouds of white defoliant and red napalm over the forest near her property in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, and she clearly recalls the destruction that came in their wake.
Two of Mit’s sons have already passed away, but Mit and her husband, Lac, continue to provide round-the-clock care for their youngest son, Truong, who cannot speak, walk, or feed himself. Mit and Lac provide the best care they can for Truong, who is now 30, but are constrained by poverty and old age – both are now in their 70s, and the family struggles to subsist on the $75 they receive each month in benefits from the Vietnamese government. They live in a simple rural home with a leaky roof and worry about the coming rainy season. But mostly, they worry about Truong. After they pass away, Mit asks, who will care for him?
Mit and Lac are hardly alone. Many parents who gave birth to children with severe disabilities after wartime exposure to Agent Orange are now in their 70s and 80s and worry about the fate of their dependent adult children. While many Vietnamese provinces have live-in care centers, most centers are severely strapped for funding, and some have shuttered or provide only daytime services. Mothers like Mit are forced to hold on to a morbid hope: Outliving their own children.