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April 12, 2010 - 5:15pm

Batavia veteran's mission is helping victims of Agent Orange

posted by Diane M. Dole in batavia, agent orange, vietnam war.

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Kenneth Herrmann Jr. (on the right above) is an associate professor of Social Work at SUNY Brockport and an Army Vietnam veteran. The Batavia resident was stationed there between 1968-1969. He's had many great achievements over the years, including publishing three books: "I Hope my Daddy Dies," "Mister, I'm Nobody's Child," and "Lepers & Lunacy: An American in Vietnam."

But perhaps his greatest achievement is his involvement in the Danang/Quang Nam Fund -- also known as Agent Orange Children, which he founded in 2001. He currently serves as its president and executive director.

Its sole purpose is helping families and, more importantly, Vietnamese children affected by the notorious chemical dropped on vast areas during the war.

He received a Certificate of Merit by the Danang People's Committee for his humanitarian effort, hard work and involvement with Agent Orange Children. The Web site offers a wealth of information about the fund and Agent Orange, including a paper Professor Herrmann wrote (it can be found under Links and Resources).

The U.S. Government used the herbicide Agent Orange, a very toxic dioxin, because it killed foliage and undergrowth so that the enemy soldiers would be visible. Unfortunately, not only did Agent Orange strike the plants and enemies, but innocent civilians as well. None were spared.

The environmental pollutant killed not only the trees, but poisoned the soil as well. The food and wildlife were contaminated and when the Vietnamese people ate the food, they ingested the chemical, too. Once Agent Orange entered into the human body, the chemical altered DNA, passing down generation after generation, a host of mental and physical deformities. Because it transformed their DNA, people may never get well, according to scientists who've studied the effects of Agent Orange.

"Twenty million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed," Herrmann said. "To put that in perspective, if a person takes a glassful of Agent Orange and dumps it on the front yard, the Environmental Protection Agency would come in and destroy all the homes within a half-mile radius, dig three feet down to remove the contaminated soil and tape off the area for the next 30 years as hazardous."

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Herrmann's first postwar trip to Vietnam was in 1998. What he saw was devastation. Generations of children born with countless birth defects: blindness, deformation, extra limbs, fingers and toes, cancers, tumors, mental disabilities and more. He has returned 45 times since then, including his latest visit last month.

Several generations have passed since the Vietnam war and yet the number of cases are on the rise. During one visit, he met a man who first developed marble-sized tumors but each tumor grew larger until they were the size of soccer balls, all as a result of direct contact with Agent Orange.

The man was being cared for by his two adult daughters. He told Herrmann of when he was a boy and how he and two other boys were foraging for food when they came across potatoes covered in a white substance. All three boys ate the potatoes and two of them died soon after. They were the lucky ones. The third boy appeared to have no ill effects for years and led a normal live.

It wasn't until after he had his two daughters, that the tumors begin to develop.

"I'm sorry for the part I played in this war," Herrmann told him.

The man responded, "No need to apologize. America did not make me eat potatoes.  That was fate." 

Herrmann was surprised by this attitude. The man was lying on his deathbed but did not blame or hate America for destroying his people and his way of life. Even more surprising, many Vietnamese echoed the man's opinion. The professor learned that after the man's death his two daughters were also diagnosed with tumors.

agentorange01.jpgWhen Herrmann returned from that visit, he wrote a paper detailing everything he had witnessed: the conditions of the land, the mutations and birth defects, and the state in which the people lived. Due to an unending plague of illnesses, many people are unable to find work or are even capable of doing any work if they found some. This means the people have no money for food or medical aide.

After Herrmann published his paper on Agent Orange, his work attracted attention.

"I was approached by the president of SUNY Brockport about organizing a study abroad program to help provide medical aide, food, clothing, and other essential supplies as well as building homes, creating jobs and educating people," Herrmann said.

agentorange03.jpgThus, The College at Brockport Vietnam Program was born. Professor Herrmann stayed in Vietnam in the Danang/Quang area for almost a year to help organize the program and the Danang/Quang Nam Fund.

Through volunteer work and internships, students from colleges all over travel to Vietnam to help the people, even if all they can do is hold hands with the dying. Now students enrolled in work in Vietnam for a semester and some students are there year round. Currently they operate two group homes, a day care, and job training center and more outreach is planned.

To date, Herrmann estimates that they have helped over 13,000 victims of Agent Orange. The Danang/Quang Nam Fund is completely supported through volunteer work and donations from people. It receives no grants or government money. Since no administration costs are taken from the fund, all donations go to the afflicted families. If a person donates $100, the entire sum would be used for medicine or other supplies and every donation is tax deductible. Also, there's a small leper community in the area, which the fund also provides with medical aid and supplies.

While the professor was in Vietnam, he contacted Vietnamese newspapers and asked them to print an article asking people to send him letters about how Agent Orange affected individuals and their families. He intended go to Washington and use the stories to illustrate the hardships and crises these people faced because of America's actions long ago. He was staggered by the amount of letters he had received -- eventually totaling more than 4,000. (The letters have been posted on the Web site.)

And Herrmann did go to Washington, but to no avail. He was unable to obtain any grants or funds to help the Vietnamese people. The government has paid for the medical costs to veterans who were affected by Agent Orange, seemingly an acknowledgment that it knew how lethal and dangerous the chemical was. But in legal actions, the government maintains that Agent Orange was not harmful. A lawsuit filed by Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange against the companies which produced the chemical, was thrown out of court. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Herrmann says all three branches of the government have failed to do what is right and have sided with the manufacturers of Agent Orange against the Vietnamese.

He still has questions, but no answers: how can the U.S. government say that the herbicide is not toxic; why won't it do more to clean up the soil and other hotspots it created in Vietnam; why does it refuse to provide medical aid to these foreign victims of its actions?

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