A Small Gesture: Eyewitness Voluntourism in Vietnam

More than 30 years after the last U.S. helicopter departed from the embassy in Ho Chi Minh City, a young American expatriate does his part to make up for his country's tragic legacy in Vietnam.
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I never played soccer growing up and yet in April 2006, I couldn't resist joining a game in Danang. No score was kept; we just kicked the ball and laughed. The sun was shining, and you could smell the approaching summer in the heavy humidity. Life seemed carefree and yet it wasn't. The children I was playing soccer with were casualties of a war fought long before their time. I was visiting a group home that cared for children thought to be suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.

Agent Orange is the herbicide that American forces sprayed over large swathes of Vietnam to deny the North Vietnamese and their allies cover in the dense jungle throughout the U.S.-Vietnam War. Soldiers inhaled the herbicide and as it laid waste to the landscape, the chemical leached into the earth, where it remains to this day.

Both American and Vietnamese soldiers manifested health complications, widely believed to be the result of exposure to Agent Orange during the war, as have generations of Vietnamese children. Whether exposed through a parent's genes or from the food supply, many thousands of children with connection to the chemical suffer from a myriad of debilitating diseases, ranging from mental retardation to bodily deformities to deadly cancers.

After living for nearly two years in Vietnam, my girlfriend and I had decided to return to the United States. Before leaving, however, we wished to give something back to the country that had hosted us so warmly. After some research, we organized a visit to the group home in order to meet with the children and set the wheels in motion for a future fundraiser.

To help us implement our plan, I contacted Dr. Kenneth Herrmann, a veteran of the Vietnam War, an academic, and a social worker who, among other things, operates as the director of the Danang-Quang Nam Fund (www.danangquangnamfund.org), which aids the poorest of the poor in the two provinces for which it is named. Much of its work focuses on those struggling with ailments allegedly caused by Agent Orange.

Published: 26 Jun 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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