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Agent Orange puts a new generation at risk in Vietnam

September 27, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, two young Americans who shared a sense of service made two very different decisions: one joined the Marine Corps and one went to Saigon to help war orphans. Decades later, they share a common mission to help victims of illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange from the war. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: how two men hear and are driven by the echoes of their time in Vietnam, one a Marine combat veteran, the other a conscientious objector who went to help the people of that country.

They are bound together now, working to help a new generation terribly affected by a war that ended before they were born.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

MIKE CERRE, Special Correspondent: At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968…

ANNOUNCER: Before the parade, mass draft card burning was urged.

MIKE CERRE: … and the protests against it that divided the country, two young Americans made very different decisions that would make Vietnam parts of their lives for the next 50 years.

LARRY VETTER, Vietnam Veteran: After I graduated from Texas A&M, I went to the Marine Corps basic school. And then, when I got out of that, in a few months later, we were off to Vietnam.

DICK HUGHES, Conscientious Objector: I was just wrapping up my acting studies at Boston University, and, at that time I was pretty concerned about the war, upset by the war.

So, I decided to do two things, that I would go down and take my physical in for the draft, but I would refuse induction.

MIKE CERRE: Larry Vetter, the volunteer, ended up serving two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Marine infantry and recon officer, much of the time on the front lines.

LARRY VETTER: You believed all that you were being told and what you read, and you were pretty gung-ho about going over and serving your country. And that’s what we all did.

MAN: If you’re concerned about something, you do something out it. The way I do things is, you go right to the center of the problem and where it’s happening.

MIKE CERRE: Dick Hughes, the draft refuser, ended up in Vietnam that summer of ’68 as well by paying his own way to Saigon in search of some kind of alternative service he could do.

Confronted by bands of street children orphaned by the war on his first day in country, he helped them find food and safe shelter with money from cashing in his return plane ticket.

Dubbed the Shoeshine Boys Project, it grew into eight safe houses Dick ran in Saigon and Da Nang until after the war ended.

DICK HUGHES: Are you a Saigon cowboy. You a Saigon V.C.?

These kids slept in the streets, shined shoes and watched people’s motorbikes and things like that to have money to live. And I think, over the course of seven years, probably in the area of 2,500 children went through the project.

LARRY VETTER: A person being a conscientious objector, I think that’s perfectly valid. At that time, I would have said something more like, well, find a way you can serve your country, and if you don’t want to be in the military, maybe you can be in something else.

MIKE CERRE: Two Americans with very different perspectives on the Vietnam War and a sense of service in the ’60s now find themselves on a common mission, the battle against Agent Orange, the dangerous legacy left over from the war that continues to plague another generation of Vietnamese.

LARRY VETTER: I got diagnosed with a cancer that was listed on the VA list as being caused by Agent Orange. And so that was one of the reasons why I asked to meet people in Vietnam that had Agent Orange diseases.

MIKE CERRE: Most American tourists passing through Da Nang don’t know it’s been one of Vietnam’s most contaminated Agent Orange sites, with dioxin levels in some areas 350 times international safety standards.

Nor did I when I was flying out of the Da Nang Air Base as a Marine aviator in the ’70s. The Agent Orange defoliant was used during the war originally to make enemy positions more visible from the air.

While it was stored in Da Nang and other air bases, it leaked into the surrounding areas, and is believed to have contaminated local water sources, according to a study done by Canadian scientists.

LARRY VETTER: In this area next to the airport, you have people whose dioxin levels in their blood are 100 times the safe levels, and you have women whose breast milk is four times the safe levels.

MIKE CERRE: Originally stationed in Da Nang during the war, Larry moved here in 2012 after recovering from prostate cancer, one of the many presumed Agent Orange-related illnesses. Nearly 250,000 American veterans are being compensated for Agent Orange.

He’s using his veterans disability benefits to help two Vietnamese brothers severely crippled by those presumed Agent Orange illnesses.

Toan (ph), age 25, has been in intensive care for the past two years, no longer able to move or swallow on his own.

LARRY VETTER: By the age of 8, he was seriously showing symptoms, stumbling, not having the strength to pull himself up. They saw some American doctors. The American doctors told them that they thought it was likely a disease caused by Agent Orange.

MIKE CERRE: The family Larry is helping camps outside on the hospital’s walkway, because Vietnamese families are responsible for feeding and bathing their hospitalized relatives.

LARRY VETTER: The mother, Hoa (ph), really works very hard trying to hold the family together. Her husband is paraplegic, two boys quadriplegic.

I guess I feel a little bit of national guilt for what we did here in Vietnam to so many people. I need to, just in my own little way, try to help.

MIKE CERRE: The Agent Orange problem has also drawn Dick Hughes back to Vietnam, where some of his former Shoeshine Boys are helping him work with another generation of children still at risk from the war.

DICK HUGHES: We decided to form a thing called Loose Cannons and try to get some assistance to people in Vietnam who had been exposed to dioxin and who needed some help.

Most people think Agent Orange was something that happened in the war. They don’t realize that the byproduct of Agent Orange, dioxin, is still in the soil, in the vegetation and the fish, and that people today are being born with deformities and illnesses.

It’s also being passed down in the genes. The Red Cross estimates there’s three million people in Vietnam today suffering with Agent Orange. And it wouldn’t take so much, really, to help them, but they are a constituency very far away.

MIKE CERRE: While Larry tries to generate support for his and other Agent Orange families through his children of war social media campaign, Dick has taken his Loose Cannons advocacy mission to Washington to persuade legislators to include funding for Agent Orange victims assistance programs in the Defense Department’s budget.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse first met Dick in Saigon in 1972 while visiting a Shoeshine Boys house with his father, who was serving there as the deputy U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.

DICK HUGHES: It is like a circle. We started off on different sides of it, but now we ended up at the same place.

MAN: I think it’s interesting that those who served in Vietnam in different ways have come together to help in solving the last of the wounds of the Vietnam War.

MIKE CERRE: For the PBS NewsHour, Mike Cerre, Da Nang, Vietnam.

Editor’s note: We learned the day after this story aired that one of the young men featured, Nghia La, died yesterday morning. His family, including a brother who is also suffering from a disability likely caused by the lingering effects of Agent Orange, has been supported for years by Army veteran Larry Vetter, also featured in the story. Nghia La was just 22 years old.

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