Village scheme breeds fresh hope in rural Vietnam

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Bruce Montgomery distributes cows in central Vietnam

by Catherine Marshall

AGENT Orange: a nasty defoliant with a squeaky-bright name, used by the US military to flush out the enemy during the Vietnam War.

Its heartbreaking legacy – mental and physical retardation, dwarfism, cancers and deformities so severe the sufferers’ features are often effaced – prompted Bruce Montgomery, a Tasmanian journalist and former staff writer on The Australian, to help victims and their families.

But in founding the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange Trust, he also had a more personal motive. He wanted to help a friend come to terms with his experiences while serving as a medic during the war.

“Don [Killion] got to see some sights involving children which really upset him,” Montgomery says. “He had tried to go back several times and he always had a problem. At one stage he curled up in a foetal position in the aisle of the aircraft. He really was traumatised by Vietnam.”

While visiting the country in 2000, Montgomery met US veterans working to redress some of the wrongs of the war. The encounter prompted him to consider the voiceless victims of Agent Orange and sparked the idea for an Australian-run trust.

“And I thought it might be the vehicle we needed to get Don back to Vietnam on his terms,” Montgomery says. “I was fairly fearful at what his reaction might be, but he was terrific. He stayed [in Vietnam] for a month. That was my amateur therapy for him and he’s been involved with the trust ever since.”

Montgomery, Killion and fellow trustee Tony Brown decided to focus on the town of Hue in central Vietnam. On the advice of local authorities, they delivered a consignment of wheelchairs to disabled villagers. Then they brainstormed ways in which to nurture self-sufficiency in these communities.

“[We thought that] if we could purchase a breeding cow for each family, they could then produce calves and that would be an enormous benefit to them,” Montgomery says. The resulting Orange Cows Project is effective from a fundraising perspective, too: with their big brown eyes and rusty-orange coats, the cows easily command attention. And supporters have readily stepped into the breach left by the US, a country unwilling to compensate Vietnamese victims of the fallout.

“People haven’t been concerned about [who] sprayed [Agent Orange], it’s the fact we were an ally of the country that sprayed,” Montgomery explains.

“A lot of the people who’ve given us money have been Vietnamese who migrated after the war. Quite often it’s the kids of those immigrants who maintain an interest.”

For Montgomery, the trust offers special fulfilment after a lifetime spent reporting from the sidelines. “As a journalist you seldom get involved yourself. I was able to pick up on a cause that was close to my heart, having grown up with the dilemma of Vietnam and having a friend who was traumatised by Vietnam.

“It gives you a perspective on life that you don’t normally have. How many wars have we had since then and how many forgotten victims are there?”

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