When war is waged, it scars both the land and its people.
At a symposium last weekend sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Yale School of Nursing, participants considered how damage to the Vietnamese ecosystem created a network of victims that transgressed national boundaries and generations long after the Vietnam War ended.
The conference, “The Ecological and Health Effects of the Vietnam War,” brought together scientists, veterans, and students from around the globe and allowed a groundbreaking exchange of scientific research on the effect of Agent Orange/Dioxin on the ecosystem and its inhabitants.
“This type of conference has never been done before,” said Linda Schwartz, an associate research scientist at the School of Nursing and the primary organizer of the conference. “We didn’t separate environment from health.”
She added that the conference was unique because it was held in an academic setting with all of Yale’s resources.
To eliminate the cover of the jungle, American troops from 1962 to 1971 sprayed an estimated 19 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant dioxin over the forests of Vietnam. This pollutant, the primary ingredient in Agent Orange, has caused deformity in offspring, cancer, and nervous system disorders in both American and Vietnamese veterans.
The Vietnamese government estimates that one million of its 79 million citizens has been affected by dioxin.
The conference comes during a watershed year for U.S.-Vietnamese collaboration on environmental research. In March of this year, the two countries held the first joint conference in Stockholm concerning the abiding health effects of Agent Orange.
But as quickly as the silence is breaking, Vietnamese officials are demanding U.S. admission of responsibility for the destruction the United States caused during the Vietnam War, something the United States is reluctant to do until clear scientific evidence has demonstrated a connection between dioxin exposure and health problems.
“Our government has tied our hands until we have research that demonstrates the correlation,” Schwartz said, “but we’ve bridged a wide chasm to where we are now.”
The conference addressed current and future collaborative ventures aimed at studying the effects of Agent Orange.
Keynote speaker David Lamb, a Los Angeles Times reporter and author of the book “Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns,” was stationed in Vietnam after two of his Times predecessors were killed. He spoke about his time in Vietnam and how the country has changed since then.
A wide range of speakers from government organizations shared their expertise: Connecticut Congressmen Rosa DeLauro and Rob Simmons; Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; Linda Birnbaum, director of the Dioxin Division of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Bill Farland, director of research and policy for the EPA.
To complement the discussions, reports and presentations, Yale’s Council on Southeast Asia Studies screened contemporary North American and Vietnamese films depicting life during and after the war from different vantage points. As many as 50 people attended the screenings, which intended to ground the conference’s events with an understanding of Vietnamese culture and life. Schwartz, a veteran herself, said she thought the Vietnamese delegation felt respected.
–The Associated Press contributed to this story.