By Chuck Searcy
Last month, completion of dioxin cleanup on a 5,300-square-meter tract of land at Bien Hoa airport marked a significant milestone.
Officials of both the Vietnamese and U.S. governments could derive satisfaction from knowing that the Agent Orange/dioxin legacy of war is now being addressed, after a troubling post-war history of misinformation and controversy, accusations and doubts.
Not just public officials, but veterans and ordinary citizens of both countries can take pride in looking back over the remarkable transformation that has taken place in the past two decades, from early years of mistrust and recrimination to a positive, working partnership between Vietnam and the U.S. today.
That relationship is now built on mutual trust and respect.
A cornerstone of our dramatically improved relationship is a clear, shared commitment between the people of both countries to address the legacies of war, Agent Orange/dioxin, explosive ordnance (EO), and wartime Missing In Action (MIA) personnel from all sides, in an open and honest manner. We now recognize that the humanitarian component of these challenges rises above politics and demands a concerted, selfless effort of all concerned.
How did we come to this point?
Twenty-five years after Vietnam and the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations on July 11,1995, is an appropriate moment to observe and reflect.
I have been a personal witness to this history: first, as a U.S. Army soldier in the war, in 1967-68, then as a veteran who returned to Vietnam in 1995 to try to contribute to the rebuilding, recovery, and reconciliation that was being painfully pursued by the Vietnamese. Working at the Swedish Children’s Hospital and Bach Mai Hospital in Ha Noi to provide orthopedic braces for disabled children, one of the first projects funded by USAID, I learned of the terrible toll in deaths and lifetime disabilities among ordinary people throughout Vietnam as a result of wartime bombs and mines still remaining in the ground.
I was shocked to discover that more than 100,000 Vietnamese had been killed or injured by explosive ordnance since the end of the war in 1975. When I and other Americans discussed this humanitarian tragedy with U.S. Embassy staff and other government officials, there was cautious agreement that this grim challenge needed to be addressed, yes, and it was an area in which the U.S. could provide assistance.