Around the Institute

Back from Vietnam with stories of hope and resilience

March 23, 2011  • David Devlin-Foltz

The Aspen Institute serves as the US host of the bi-national US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. The Dialogue Group developed a 10-year Plan of Action laying out practical steps to addressing the tragic legacy of wartime defoliant use. Since the plan’s release last year, we have been exploring how to engage more philanthropies, businesses, NGOs and governmental agencies as partners in offering enduring solutions to the human and environmental damage linked to Agent Orange. We know what those solutions are: isolate and decontaminate the dioxin “hot spots;” rehabilitate damaged croplands; and most important, offer cost-effective screening and care and opportunities for dignified lives to those living with disabilities. I am finding my way back into this time zone after a ten-day trip to Vietnam with an impressive delegation of Americans eager to learn more and do their part to address this legacy.

[Photos from the trip:]

Our delegation, listed below, included three former Members of Congress with more than 50 years of experience in the House among them. Our two prominent religious leaders have spent a similar period in the pulpit. Even those that our delegation leader, Bob Edgar, identified as bringing “young eyes” to the issue had decades of experience as advocates and policy advisors to governors and Senators and foundations.

Our Vietnamese hosts had equally impressive credentials. But this wasn’t about credentials. This visit was about meeting people at the center of Vietnam’s response to Agent Orange and dioxin and to the broader challenges of people with disabilities. Among the scores of encounters, we met:

  • disability rights activists whose quiet dignity and accomplishments impressed us all – like Vo Thi Hoang Yen, the talented founder of the “club” in downtown Ho Chi Minh City whose childhood polio has not prevented her from becoming an articulate advocate and “the best student ever” in her graduate program at Kansas State University.
  • caregivers like Father Tu and the Roman Catholic sisters and volunteers who offer a loving touch and expert rehabilitation services at the sparkling clean Center for Disabled Children in the fast-growing peri-urban districts near Ho Chi Minh City;
  • officials like Ambassador Ngo Quang Xuan, Vietnamese co-chair of the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, and Dr. Le Ke Son, chair of the Vietnamese inter-agency committee examining the Agent Orange legacy in Vietnam.

We visited our Vietnamese hosts on their own turf. And that turf included the denuded moonscape where massive barrels of Agent Orange were kept at the Da Nang air base. The earth is tortured. A smell like chlorine – the result apparently of an interaction between the defoliant and the soil – still permeates the area almost 40 years after the last drop of Agent Orange was spilled here. The stuff is persistent. And so are its effects.

But the resilience of the Vietnamese and their insistence on looking forward was more amazing still. They have patiently awaited a moment when the US government is willing to work alongside them. That moment seems to have arrived. American officials at our consulate in Ho Chi Minh City and the embassy in Hanoi briefed us on plans to “burn the dirt” contaminated with dioxin at the Da Nang “hot spot.” The Secretary of State announced that USAID will invest $34 million to complete this task. And USAID is considering the next phase of its support for rehabilitation services for people with disabilities that can serve as models for other parts of Vietnam. The members of this latest delegation, the Dialogue Group members, our Aspen Institute team, and our allies around the country are all poised to help “make Agent Orange history.”

Below is a list of delegation participants:

  • Charles Bailey, director, The Ford Foundation Special Initiative on Agent Orange/Dioxin
  • Susan Berresford, former president, The Ford Foundation, Convener, U.S. – Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin
  • Congressman Bob Edgar, president, Common Cause, former Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Pennsylvania
  • David Devlin-Foltz, director, Advocacy Planning and Evaluation Program, The Aspen Institute
  • Gay Dillingham, co-founder, former president and chair, Earthstone International, LLC
  • The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr., president, Healing of the Nations and former Senior Pastor of the Riverside Church, New York City
  • The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president, The Interfaith Alliance
  • Congresswomen Connie Morella, former Republican member of the US House of Representatives from Maryland
  • David Morrissey, executive director, United States International Council on Disabilities (USICD)
  • Suzanne Petroni, vice president for global health, Public Health Institute (PHI)
  • Congresswomen Pat Schroeder, former Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Colorado and Member of the National Governing Board of Common Cause
  • Karen A. Tramontano, chief executive officer at Blue Star Strategies