Just as in the U.S., most people living in Vietnam today were born after 1975. That year marked the end of the devastating two-decade war that ravaged that land and its population. But the people and government of today’s modernized nation of Vietnam maintain a strong commitment across generations to caring for the war’s survivors.
According to Pham Minh Huan, Vice Minister of Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor – Invalids (Disabled) and Social Affairs (MOLISA), the country spends 25 percent of its national budget providing pensions and social services to the nine million people who are veterans or are the children, wives, husbands and parents of those killed or injured in combat during the country’s long war for national liberation. The nine million comprises nearly ten percent of the country’s 95 million population.
There are hundreds of thousands of injured and disabled veterans who require various levels of nursing care and medical services. The 25 percent budget line also includes assistance to victims of Agent Orange, who number more than three million. Pham spoke last week to a visiting delegation from the Communist Party USA. (story continues after video)
Agent Orange’s cruel legacy
Twelve million gallons of Agent Orange, Monsanto Corporation’s brand name for a toxic brew that contains the deadly chemical agent dioxin, was saturation sprayed by the U.S. military over the length and breadth of Vietnam over a period of twenty years. It resulted in deaths, cancer, and severe birth defects to civilians living in its path, as well as veterans and their descendants. Vietnam’s Red Cross reports 150,000 children with birth defects due to Agent Orange. In addition to Vietnam’s victims, hundreds of thousands of American vets were also exposed and their children, growing up on the other side of the globe, were subsequently affected. No figures are available on the numbers of U.S-born children affected.
“Our country has made the decision to assign a major part of our total revenue to people who devoted their lives to the country.” Pham explains. His department, the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), has responsibility for dealing with the horrific human costs of the war. That means that MOLISA also has taken on the heartbreaking but necessary process of finding and identifying the remains of war victims. This is a painstaking task that has not been completed to this day, even 40 years after the cessation of armed hostilities. Over a million men and women soldiers lost their lives and hundreds of thousands are still missing after the 30-year battle against American forces.
MOLISA also is responsible for implementing legislation that ensures preferential treatment for vets. “The law requires that they must have at least an above average standard of living,” Pham says. Families of the war dead are entitled to a monthly allowance and they are also eligible for medical and rehabilitation services. Their children get preferential admission to the nation’s universities, and they are also entitled to periodic vacation weeks at rest facilities.
The agency runs a program that encourages disabled veterans to set up their own businesses. The government offers them support, for example, by giving them priority treatment in accessing space to set up their businesses or land to farm.
“They have disabilities but are not disabled,” says Pham, meaning that they are still able to do some work. He notes that the disabled vets, having already done so much for their country, still want to contribute to society.
A veteran’s message
“War is a crime against humanity,” says Le Huu Duong , 58, who works as a chef in Hanoi. Le should know. He was only 17, the son of peasants, when he volunteered to fight for his country’s liberation. Le doesn’t glorify war, but he honors his fallen comrades: “For us to be able to live in a peaceful country today is partly owed to the lives of my comrades,” he says as his friendly face darkens, perhaps with difficult memories.
“Now with peace and a free country we all of us have families and we live a happy life,” he says.. Le is married with two grown sons. He remembers his rural roots. Every two or three years he and a group of his wartime comrades get together to visit and deliver what help they can to victims of Agent Orange in a village in Quang Tri Province.
After our interview ends, Le pauses for a moment, then adds, “Me and my nation, we know how to close the path and look forward to the future. But in the name of a soldier, I want to send a message to the U.S. government: they should take the highest responsibility for the consequences of the war in Vietnam, like the issue of Agent Orange victims.”
Different nations, different priorities
“We never forget the contribution to our country these people made,” Le explained, pointing out that the nation honors them in August of each year with a special ceremony.
Apparently they are not forgotten the other 364 days of the year – Vietnam spends $2 billion annually – over 1% of its GDP – on helping veterans and families. If the U.S. made the same level of commitment to its vets, it would be spending $180 billion, or $20,000 for each of the 9 million veterans who currently use the Veterans Administration system in the United States. Per capita spending in the VA varies widely state to state (and even county to county), but the national average is just over $6,000 per veteran.
And unlike in the United States, where veteran homelessness is a highly visible problem, Vietnam also directly provides its veterans with housing. “The government insures a home to every veteran, either rebuilding their old one or assigning them a new one,” says Pham.
Veteran Le is taken aback by a reporter’s question: is 25 percent of the national budget too much for a nation just emerging from poverty to spend taking care of an aging generation injured in a battle that is now history? “I think it is the will of Vietnamese people,” he answers earnestly. “The policy of the government is appropriate and proper. It reflects our tradition to pay tribute and be thankful. ”
Photo: Le Huu Duong. Roberta Wood | PW