As parents die, Vietnamese worry who’ll care for Agent Orange disabled

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 22, 2013 

— Dang Chi Trung and his sister, Dang Chi Tam, live down a narrow alley in a small house that once belonged to their parents.

The son and daughter of two lifelong Communist Party members who fought against the French in the 1950s and the Americans a decade later, they live on a government allowance of about $60 a month.

Both parents are deceased, leaving Dang Chi Trung, 44, to care for his sister, who’s 43. She’s mentally disabled because of her parents’ exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. She is completely dependent on her brother.

“Even personal hygiene, she doesn’t know how to do,” he said. “Even to go to the toilet.”

Despite the government’s help, theirs is a precarious existence. Dang Chi Trung has never married. Having to care for his sister means that he cannot work, either.

“It is very difficult for me to do any kind of job, because four times a day I have to come back and take care of her,” he said. “There is no one else to help. All of our relatives live in rural areas far away, and they are very poor.”

“If I were to die,” he added, “I don’t know what would happen to her.”

The dilemma he faces is one that concerns many people who work with Agent Orange victims in Vietnam. As parents and other caregivers die off, the fate of these people is often uncertain.

“We foresee this becoming a serious issue, which is why we need more foreign funding,” said Nguyen Thi Hien, the director of the Da Nang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin.

Vietnam, where once-lush jungles in the Central Highlands remain denuded of vegetation because of Agent Orange, doesn’t have much of a social safety net. Families usually take care of their own elderly, sick and disabled. In a country where the average per capita income is just $1,300 a year, the families of Agent Orange victims are often the poorest members of society.

A Columbia University study in 2003 found that at least 3,181 villages, containing anywhere from 2.1 million to 4.8 million people, had been sprayed directly.

Not everyone qualifies for government assistance. In Da Nang, where more than 5,000 people are recognized as Agent Orange victims, only about 1,200 receive monthly allowances, and that’s only because they, their parents or their grandparents happened to fight on the winning side of the war.

Those who fought on the losing side aren’t so fortunate.

Tran Duc Nghia, 39, spends his days in a wheelchair at his mother’s house. His father died years ago, the result of having been exposed to Agent Orange as a soldier for the American-allied South Vietnamese regime, his mother said.

He was born a normal child, but he developed mental and physical problems by the time he was 12 years old. He’s now completely disabled, said his mother, 75-year-old Hoang Thi The.

His limbs are atrophied from lack of use. His dark eyes are alert, but he can no longer speak. His mind is trapped inside the increasingly useless shell of his body.

His sister, Tran Thi Na, 33, is beginning to exhibit many of the same symptoms. She knows the grim fate that awaits her. She sees it every day.

The family gets no support from the government. The mother wonders who’ll take care of her children when she and her 70-year-old sister are gone. At her age, she knows that time isn’t so far away. She’s bitter and angry about what’s happened to her family.

“If they had died in the war, this would have been normal, because it’s a war,” she said. “But why did the U.S. government have to spray this Agent Orange?”

Brown is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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