NEW YORK — In 1964 Nguyen Thi Hong, then a young woman of 17, joined the struggle against the U.S. occupation of her country, Vietnam. She knew that she might lose her life. But she had no idea that she would become sick and remain so for more than 30 years.
“I was exposed to dioxin during the war,” Hong told reporters outside a federal courtroom here June 18.
Dioxin, a deadly carcinogen, is the most lethal ingredient in Agent Orange, one of several chemical herbicides used by the U.S. military over 2.6 million acres of Vietnamese countryside from 1961 to 1971. The U.S. sprayed more than 660 pounds of dioxin, mainly in southern and central Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. By way of comparison, scientists estimate only 3 ounces of dioxin in New York’s water supply would be enough to kill the city’s entire population.
More than 3 million Vietnamese suffer from Agent Orange exposure.
Hong miscarried in 1969. She then gave birth to underweight premature children three times, one born with a heart defect. Then things got worse.
“When peace returned, I moved to Bien Hoa,” she said. Bien Hoa, a city in the south of Vietnam, was used for Agent Orange barrel storage during the war and is now recognized as a ”hot spot” with high levels of dioxin poisoning.
After living in Bien Hoa for several years, Hong was diagnosed with breast cancer and cancer of the spleen and liver. She has cerebral anemia and cirrhosis, and has limited mobility due to bone metastasis and varicose limbs. Her legs are swollen and painful. She tests positive for very high dioxin levels in her system.
“I am rife with diseases,” she said. “I am determined to tell my story in court.”
Hong, along with Vo Thanh Hai, Nguyen Muoi and Nguyen Van Quy, testified before a U.S. appeals court here. The Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) is a party to the suit.
Muoi, only 24 years old, was born long after the war ended. Yet he suffers from Agent Orange as well. His father fought for the army of the Republic of Vietnam, the U.S. ally during the war. In 2003 he was diagnosed with spina bifida. He told the World, “I don’t know if I should get married or not.” He is afraid of passing genetic disorders or even dioxin poisoning on to his children. “I am very worried for the future,” he said.
VAVA originally filed suit in U.S. court in January 2004. The class action suit charges Dow Chemical, Monsanto and 35 other U.S. chemical companies with liability for causing personal injury though their manufacture of the chemicals for the U.S. military. The U.S. government is immune from lawsuit in such cases.
The suit was dismissed in 2005, with District Court Judge Jack Weinstein ruling that Agent Orange was a “defoliant,” not a chemical weapon, despite its use on civilian populations, and that the companies were not liable for the U.S. government’s use of Agent Orange during the war. That ruling was appealed last year, and the court finally heard testimony last week. Hundreds of the victims’ supporters filled the courtroom and stood outside with orange balloons and informational leaflets.
In a companion case heard the same day, U.S. veterans appealed the dismissal of a similar lawsuit filed on their behalf. Thousands of U.S. veterans also suffer from dioxin poisoning due to wartime exposure. Some received settlements from the chemical companies in the 1980s. Others remain sick without compensation.
Hugh Bruce, a Vietnam veteran and vice president of the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace, stood in front of the courthouse for hours while the judges heard testimony inside.
“I am here to demand simple justice and dignity for victims of Agent Orange, both Vietnamese and others,” said Bruce. “We have to hold those who provided these chemicals accountable. They knew.”
The Vietnamese Agent Orange victims attended public events in San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., organized by the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign and co-sponsored by Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the National Lawyers Guild and United for Peace and Justice.
In Washington, they joined U.S. Vietnam veterans in a visit to the National Vietnam Memorial, and met with Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.).
Lawyers said they hoped for a positive ruling soon.
More information on the campaign is available at .