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Today's story comes from Iain, who wrote about witnessing and being motivated by Mai Thi Loi and the impact of Agent Orange on her family in Vietnam:
I never understood the full horror of Agent Orange - the dioxin-laden defoliant that was sprayed over Vietnam during the war by American planes - until I met Mai Thi Loi and her sons.
It was August 2015 and I was in Quang Binh province, visiting some families of Vietnamese veterans who had been exposed to the defoliant and passed the poison onto their children. The trip was organized by the Association for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (AEPD), an advocacy group that reserves a special loathing for Agent Orange.
I knew some of the facts about Agent Orange from our Peace Fellows (graduate volunteers) who had served at AEPD since 2008. But it was Mai Thi Loi who brought home the human cost.
It all seemed normal enough as we sat in the peaceful courtyard of her house. Mai Thi Loi explained how her husband, now long dead, had been exposed to Agent Orange during the war. Three of her sons were sick. She then introduced us to her ageing father, 99, and second son Cuong, who was friendly but withdrawn. Her youngest son was out in the fields.
Suddenly I heard a howl from inside the house. Mai Thi Loi’s shoulders sagged and she began to weep as two neighbors led us to an inner room where a naked man was chained to the wall. This was Kien, Mai Thi Loi’s oldest son, 31. Kien’s descent into darkness had started around the age of fifteen when he began to tear off his clothes, fly into rages, and attack neighbors. Torn between love for her son and sheer panic, Mai Thi Loi decided to chain Kien up. Now here he was, restrained like an animal and completely mad. We left, stunned.
But we were also determined to help, and over the next year our group, The Advocacy Project, raised enough money ($1,500) to purchase a cow for this devastated family. This was to be the first of several successful appeals and it was launched by Ai Hoang, another of our dedicated Peace Fellows whose own family had fled Vietnam sixteen years earlier.
In October 2016, Ai and I headed out to introduce Mai Thi Loi to her new cow and spent a delightful hour surrounded by villagers, trying to come up with a name for the creature. Someone proposed “Opportunity,” which seemed inspired, and my photos of this memorable day captured a different Mai Thi Loi from the previous year. She is squatting next to her youngest son Hung and the newest member of her family, still bemused at the attention but no doubt quietly satisfied at the money she will make from renting out Opportunity to other farmers.
This is the memory, and image, that I cherish. But while our appeals will certainly ease the pressure, there will be no happy ending for Mai Thi Loi and the many other Vietnamese stricken by Agent Orange. Kien’s condition is irreversible and the same summer that she took possession of her new cow, Mai Thi Loi restrained a second son at the insistence of her anxious neighbors. This time it was the same amiable Cuong who I had met in 2015.
The government plans to build a hospital in the area for people with extreme disabilities, but it will take years to complete. Our job is to keep going back to Quang Binh and remind ourselves why it matters so much.
- I wrote this in support of The Advocacy Project.