by Heather A. Bowser
The “NEW” Lessons from an Old War, do not Include Agent Orange, According to University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College Panelists
When something is just to good to be true and it usually is. The University of Pittsburgh held a college honors program, March 4th, called Vietnam: New Lessons from an Old War, a Half Century On. The speakers were Senator Bob Kerrey, Vietnam Veteran and former governor of Nebraska, Peter Arnett, from New Zealand, he won a Pulitzer prize for his journalism during the war, Thomas Vallely, the former director of Harvard’s Vietnam Project and Vietnam Veteran. Laura Palmer, reporter during the Vietnam War and author, and lastly, historian Edward Miller, an expert on Vietnam and an associate professor at Dartmouth College.
I was interested in how those who were in the thick of the Vietnam War have processed what they went through as a young adult. I was also very interested in hearing panel members talk about the chemical defoliant the U.S. used in Vietnam to kill the jungle and decimate crops. The D.O.D. sprayed over 19 million gallons of herbicide on south Vietnam. The herbicide manufactured by seven different chemical companies were contaminated with dioxin. The dioxin in the herbicide, poisoned drinking water, and food.
Agent Orange has left a permanent mark on Vietnam Veterans and their families. It has also destroyed the environment and people’s lives in Vietnam. Vietnam Veterans are dying quickly. Their children and grandchildren have been begging the government to take seriously their claims of devastating chronic illnesses and birth defects they say have been caused by their father’s exposure. Even with the explosion of epigenetics their cries for help falls on deaf ears.
The second floor ballroom was packed with well over two hundred people. Thirty people were milling about in the standing room only section. I pushed through the crowd and slid down along the back wall just before the event began. As my Vietnam Veteran father taught me, not through words, but through action, whenever I’m in the crowd, I have to be aware of my surroundings. I scanned the crowd, lots of college kids who were probably forced by some professor to come, who wouldn’t even bother attending themselves, a few journalists, many baby boomers, some academic types, and several Vietnam Veterans. I have Vietnam Veteran vision; they do not have to wear their Vietnam Veteran ball cap (though many were) for me to spot them. They are usually the sixty something men who look a bit haggard, even sickly, who are maybe walking with a cane, or have a Parkinson’s tremor, they look wise beyond their years and tonight, they looked hopeful. I also checked for my escape route “just in case.”
Even though Agent Orange took my Father’s life sixteen years ago it is his actions that I learned from. My father genuinely cared for others who were veterans in need. He would drive Vets to V.A. to get care. He served as Commander in the D.A.V. several times in his town’s chapter. He became an agent Orange Activist after I was born with multiple birth defects. While his desire to be there for others drove him out of his PTSD symptoms at times, ultimately he became very sick. My father had emergency bypass surgery on his heart at age 38, five arteries were clogged at the time was a fit laborer in a steel mill. He had a 50/50 shot of surviving the surgery. He did. He went on to develop diabetes at age 40, at 48, he had a stroke, and at age 50 he died of a massive heart attack.
A Vietnam veteran in the row in front of me offered me his chair since I was standing; I declined and thanked him as the program began. The first go around through the panel was to be a three to four minute response to quickly introduce themselves and their connection to the Vietnam War. Peter Arnett was first to respond. He relayed the fact he was an Associated Press Journalist from 1962 to 1975. He then launched into a prepared diatribe beginning with the biggest downfall of the American Military during the Vietnam War. In Mr. Arnett’s opinion, American Military didn’t know their adversary. Rule number one, “Know your Adversary.” He went on to explain, the US believed by shear military force and by reputation, America thought they would be successful in Vietnam. The downfall being, the U.S. did not have any allies in the war who understood Vietnam, Australia was our only true allies and they had little or no understanding of Vietnam either. No one knew who the enemy truly was, Arnett explained. He suggested if the U.S. would have gone to the French for advice they could have done a better job. From my vantage point, I started to see Vietnam Veterans shift uncomfortably in their seats.
Senator Bob Kerrey was next to speak, he downplayed his military service stating he took a free physical and ended up volunteering for the Navy. What he failed to mention was he wasn’t just any other sailor, he was a Navy Seal. There was no mention of his swift boat patrol which he led into a village in Thanh Phong, where his platoon killed innocents because they believed they were Viet Cong. He didn’t explain, he was brought up on having committed war crimes in 2002 by the Vietnamese. He didn’t talk about the controversy that swirled as these charges were brought up. People were outraged a suspected war criminal held a position as College President at The New School, in New York. He didn’t talk about how he lost part of his leg later in combat. Unless the young college students in the crowd had done some research, there is no way they would have known the extent of his Vietnam War history.
What Senator Kerrey did share was after he was home; he worked to oppose the war. He stated it is not easy to make peace happen. He credited the U.S. for normalizing relations with Vietnam in the 1990’s when it would have been just as easy to forget about Vietnam. I believe there were a lot of Vietnam Veterans who were there to see Senator Kerrey.
The Vietnam Veterans in the crowd were disappointed. There is so much he could have shared about the lessons he personally learned from his time in Vietnam. So much real life angst and trauma he endured and afflicted. There was such an opportunity for him to connect with other veterans who were there because he was there, to help them move on, and move through. They wanted to know someone understood their own anguish.
I would never expect a man of his stature to break down in front of a crowd, or to totally bear his soul, but SOMETHING. There were zero attempts to connect with the Veterans in the crowd. At one point later in the program, a question was asked about whether the draft should be reinstated. Senator Kerrey quickly responded “No.” He stated the all volunteer military has moved us into professional soldiers. He summarized, while their tours are long, and not as many civilians feel a connection with the military, we need to respect them, but also not glorify them too much.
The next panelist that interested me was Laura Palmer. Laura shared how in a twisted set of events, she ended up in Vietnam as one of the youngest female reporters reporting in Vietnam. She focused a lot on journalism and how she ended up leaving Vietnam the Day Saigon fell. She was very nostalgic for her time in Vietnam. I felt she tried to connect with the audience more than the others. She gave a riveting tale of her last moments in Saigon. Her notoriety came from her account of evacuating Saigon by helicopter.
Laura, plugged her book about the Vietnam Wall, but did mention to the audience war not only affects the Veteran but the families as well. I thought things were looking up. When asked about the parallels between the current military conflicts and Vietnam she responded that she just doesn’t understand why the public isn’t outraged by the epidemic of suicides of our veterans. She also stated that we need to do more to recognize all the Vietnam veterans who ended their lives prematurely by suicide while the V.A. made veterans go it alone, unlike today’s efforts to protect our emotionally wounded warriors. She stated so many Vietnam Veterans have died of suicide, if the National Park service were to add their names to the Wall; the Wall would stretch to Virginia.
I have say I have done my own research over the years, “Twenty two veterans die every day from suicide,” is a popular quote, but according to the VA’s 2010 report 68% of the Veteran’s completed suicide are committed by males with an average age of fifty or older. Another opportunity was missed by a panelist. She could have connected the past to the present. A strong lesson in proper mental health care for ALL VETERANS no matter the era in which a veteran served could have been stressed. A plea for Vietnam Veterans, who are still struggling with the aftermath of their service, to get the free mental health services they are eligible for through the V.A. could have been made. Instead she mourned her time in Saigon, her “hometown” as she put it.
Between speakers Vietnam veterans, started leaving. I saw it. They tried to not show their frustration, but for someone like me who was watching, it was very sad. It started in trickles but more and more would leave as the question and answer session continued.
Audience members were asked to submit questions for the panel. I had written two in hopes one would be answered. Neither of mine were chosen by the moderator. Most of the questions asked dealt specifically with Vietnam as a country, is Vietnam now more capitalist then communist? Was Ho Chi Minh a communist or a Nationalist? Lots of questions in regards to journalism were asked, not surprising, as the moderator is himself the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. More Vietnam Veterans escaped.
Mr. Arnett escaped himself, into two other prepared ten minute diatribes, and the historian Edward Miller, plugged his research, himself, and his book. Mr. Vallely did not speak much at all. I held out hope my questions would be asked right until the very end. I looked around in disgust, as I knew; the program was drawing to a close. The veteran who had offered me a seat was gone.
Could this really still happen? Could the “New” Lessons from an old War, not include the irresponsible use of herbicide, also known as Agent Orange? A two and a half hour forum such as this and not a single mention of the ill that is killing Vietnam Veterans quicker than any other Veteran era has faced? The issue that is on the minds of Vietnam Veterans and their families was not even alluded to. Not a single utterance of herbicide, or Agent Orange. Surprisingly, not even the Vietnamese struggle with the aftermath of herbicide was mentioned. It was as if it didn’t exist, just like Senator Kerrey’s admittance that he was a Navy Seal. The panel closed and the moderator thanked everyone. He mentioned folks could still make it home to see the Arizona game on TV, and that was the end.
As the crowd filed out, I decided to go and talk to some of the panelist. I spoke with Senator Kerrey, I gave him my card and quickly told him about our organization, Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance. I told him about my dad and my birth defects and how many kids of male vets are suffering and are not recognized for the same birth defects that are covered in the children of women Vietnam Veterans. His response, “I didn’t know so many were out there. “ My response, “Now you do, please put us on your radar. “
Journalism college students were no match for me, I maneuvered my way around and was assertive, until I was able to speak with Laura Palmer. I had the most hope for my conversation with her. After all, during the panel she mentioned children, wives and families. I basically wanted to introduce myself and say “thank you,” for mentioning the struggles of military families. I gave her my card and introduced myself, told her briefly about my story.
She stopped me mid sentence and said, “I am not reporting anymore.”
Shocked I said,” I just wanted to thank you for mentioning families.”
She replied, “There are a lot of journalists here, like people from the Post Gazette. I am no longer reporting.”
I said,” I don’t need a reporter, I just wanted to introduce myself, thank you for mentioning the families.”
“Oh, Ok, you’re welcome,” she said, nervously.
With that, I left. I felt numb. I wanted to scream, but there is no energy to scream anymore. I wanted to cry, but there are definitely, no tears.
The “NEW” Lessons from and Old War, taught tonight were (don’t get excited they aren’t new):
Vietnam was an unpopular war.
If we pretend Vietnam Veterans don’t exist we can rewrite history the way we want it viewed.
War is violent and people don’t like to admit their involvement.
We can try as hard as we can to do “good” in the country we engaged in war with, it doesn’t change the fact we were at war with them and they with us.
Some people had exciting adventures during the Vietnam War. They built their careers while soldiers and civilians died.
We don’t want to glorify the soldier, because then you are promoting war (Total B.S.).
Agent Orange? What is that? Huh? Never heard of it.
One thing I will take away from this evening is Peter Arnett’s, quip, “Know your adversary. Tonight I watched our Vietnam Veterans shrink away slowly from the familiar pain of disapproval. How many more times do the lessons from an “Old” war have to repeat and be reinforced in their lives by people who should know to do things differently?
Posted By COVVHA – AO2GEN Children Of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance On March 19, 2014
Heather A. Bowser © 2014 (COVVHA) Children Of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance INC. All rights reserved.