by Michael Uhl
If ‘justice for all’ were more than misty sentiment appended to a perfunctory ‘pledge of allegiance,’ H.R. 2634 — a bill seeking broad and long delayed remedial action on behalf of all Vietnam Era victims of Agent Orange — would sail through Congress and gain swift approval from the President.
Introduced by California Congressman Bob Filner, the senior Democrat on the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, the proposed ‘Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act’ challenges our lawmakers and our nation to finally confront and repair the chemically induced public health and environmental wreckage that remains the most shameful and unresolved legacy of the U.S. war against Vietnam.
Why is this bill necessary? Let’s review the facts as the proposed bill presents them:
- From 1961 to 1971, approximately 19,000,000 gallons of herbicides, primarily Agent Orange, were sprayed over the southern region of Vietnam, much of it contaminated with deadly dioxin.
- Potentially 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to herbicides in this period, resulting in chronic illnesses, shortened life spans, and high rates of birth deformities. Even today, exposure continues in contaminated areas, designated dioxin ‘hot spots,’ and through contact with the food chain.
- Public health resources in Vietnam are inadequate for the necessary care and treatment of Agent Orange victims, many of whom reside in remote rural areas far from available medical and custodial services.
H.R. 2634, which was authored for Representative Filner by the Vietnam Relief and Responsibility Campaign, many of whose members are U.S. veterans of the war, authorizes the creation of programs throughout Vietnam to deliver an appropriate level of medical assistance to the victims, and provide much needed home, respite and daycare services as well.
One component of the bill, moreover, would authorize “assistance to repair and rebuild substandard homes in Vietnam for covered individuals,” as well as proposed funding for the long overdue clean-up of “those areas in Vietnam that continue to contain high levels of dioxin,” a program of critical importance to public health issues associated with on-going exposure to these deadly toxins.
H.R. 2634 is unique in that, presenting upfront the case of the victims in Vietnam, the bill recognizes the failure of American policy as we now approach four decades since the war’s end to recognize the heavy responsibility our government bears for the human suffering and environmental devastation resulting from our chemical assault on the people and land of southern Vietnam.
But the bill by no means limits its remedial reach to the victims within Vietnam. There are generous provisions that will expand programs and research to benefit our own veterans, and create medical centers “designed to address the medical needs of descendants of the veterans of the Vietnam era.” In essence this means that, as in Vietnam, there would be a presumption that certain birth anomalies among the children and grandchildren of exposed victims would be recognized as resulting from contact with Agent Orange.
Finally, H.R. 2634 would launch an assessment and treatment program aimed exclusively at Vietnamese-Americans who lived in Vietnam and parts of Cambodia and Laos during the exposure period from January 9, 1961 through May 7, 1975.
If you want to see the face of justice as it applies to the unfinished business surrounding the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, give the H.R. 2634 (linked here) a thorough read, and find a way to support it. Will H.R. 2634 get far in today’s troubled political climate? It certainly should, but it’s not very likely.
However if we think of this honorable document, to the degree it is aimed at the victims in Vietnam, as a wedge in an on-going campaign that both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments are anxious to resolve in their bi-lateral relations, its chances of contributing in the not too distant future to the implementation of much that it contains might not be as slim as we imagine.
Michael Uhl is the author of Vietnam Awakening.
This article originally appeared on In the Mindfield.