When I paid for my ticket and walked in, I didn’t know the visit would change my life forever.
It started as a casual recommendation in a guide book. I had planned to be in Saigon for a week and knew I had to check it out. Located in Saigon, the War Crimes Museum, or War Remnants Museum, documents all of the horrific consequences that came of the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam).
I walked slowly through the exhibit, reading every plaque and looking over the old school war equipment, until I came upon The Wall. The Wall is covered in photos of Vietnamese children that have been grossly deformed by the effects of Agent Orange.
It’s a moment that will haunt me forever.
What is Agent Orange?
The Department of Veterans Affairs list the following diseases as possible side effects of Agent Orange exposure: peripheral neuropathy, leukemia, diabetes mellitus, Hodgkin’s disease, heart disease, myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, sarcoma, and prostate and respiratory cancer.
What are we doing about it? The US denies legal liability, and has dedicated a measly $3 million in both 2007 and 2009 to dioxin removal in Vietnam. That’s like $1 for every person who has been affected by the chemical. Sounds pretty damn insufficient, doesn’t it?
And the damage continues. It’s not just the soldiers’ generation that was effected – it’s their children, and their grandchildren – who knows where it will stop? Reports state that birth defects of children whose parents have been exposed to TCDD, the main component of Agent Orange, include cleft palate, heart defects, neural tube defects, asthma, skin rashes, chronic fevers, and learning disabilities.
After the visit, I couldn’t sleep for a week. I’d wake up in cold sweats, images of innocent, deformed children flashing behind my eyes. I’d pass disabled children in the streets and the question would torment me – are they Agent Orange victims?
I felt excessive rage for having the wool pulled over my eyes for so long. The profound devastation caused by the US government in Vietnam was never taught to me in school.
I felt a deep shame to be visiting the country as a casual tourist without even knowing about the destruction. The US government has barely assumed responsibility nor even attempted to make worthy reparations.
I felt crushed that so many thousands of children are suffering so severely for something they played no part in.
And I felt humbled by the people who welcomed me into their country with open arms, even though I come from a country that destroyed theirs.
It’s a pretty big detail to leave out of history class, don’t you think?
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Flickr photo by Jorge Lascar