Bernie “Doc” Duff

ORANGE WALK 2009

Ca Mau Province
Ca Mau Province
It’s time once again to begin writing about Orange Walk since the time is rapidly approaching our second annual walk for the kids and families affected by Agent Orange. This walk will be different in many respects than was the last effort, but the meaning and intended results will be the same. For one thing, the distance that we will be covering will be far greater than the last walk, which ended last June 1st. We are planning to cover much of the border areas of Vietnam this time, as well as venturing into parts of Laos and maybe even into Cambodia. Our trip will begin in Ca Mau City, in Ca Mau Province.

Ca Mau is located at the southernmost portion of the country. It is surrounded by Kien Giang in the north, Bac Lieu in the east, the Gulf of Thailand in the west, and the East Sea in the southeast. The Kinh and Khmer are the main ethnic groups living in this area.

The climate is divided into two distinct seasons: the rainy season (from May to October) and the dry season (from November to April).

Dien Bien Province
Dien Bien Province
This area is in the southernmost part of the country and from there, we will begin our trip northward, where we will eventually make our way onto Highway One and cover the same area that we walked on our previous trip. This time, we will go northward as far as we can go until we reach Lang Sorr, near the Chinese border. We will then head West, through Dien Bien Phu:

Dien Bien Phu is a small village in the north-west corner of Vietnam. Situated in a beautiful valley near the Laotian border, the area has special significance to the modern State of Vietnam. It was the site of the decisive battle that led to the end of French colonial occupation. In May 1954 the Vietnamese forces (the so-called Viet Minh) destroyed the local French garrison. There is an interesting museum to visit that informs about the battle. The area is inhabitant by hill-tribe people, most notably the Tai and Hmong. A journey to this remote region provides a vista of picturesque mountain terrain and glimpses of ethnic villages living a lifestyle unchanged for centuries.

This place is a must for every French visitor who is interested in history. The victory of the Vietnamese against the French foreign army was the trigger for the French to move out of Vietnam.

Rach Gia, Western Mekong
Rach Gia, Western Mekong
After traveling through Dien Bien Phu, we will head South along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (hopefully, through Eastern Laos). At some point (to be determined), we will reenter Vietnam and continue South, at least as far as Kon Tum Province and possibly as far South as our starting point of Ca Mau. We are still working on this portion, since we would like to be able to finish the trip in just over two months. We do plan to spend a great deal of this trip on motorbikes, walking through major cities along the way with as many local residents as would like to join us. We are still in the planning stages, but as with the last walk, we are always asking anyone who would like to contribute to the kids and their families as possible. Last time we donated to many needy families both in terms of money, computers, medical assistance, food and more. The people we spend money on are very needy and appreciate anything we can do, even if that is just hugs and well wishes.

Anyway, I will be adding more about our plans in future blogs. Bao Anh and I will be out getting ready for our walk by taking some practice walks in and around Nha Trang (eat your hearts out – it’s so BEAUTIFUL here!), so be ready for more pictures and postings as time goes by. Happy New Year (Chuc Mung Nam Moi!) to everyone!!

Author’s Note: The following article was posted in a newspaper at the end of Orange Walk 2008. I’m sure that there are SOME people who were not aware of that walk, so this article is for you!

Vietnam: Lingering effects of Agent Orange

Victims of Agent Orange, Vietnam. Photo Kianh Foundation
We are unable to say with absolute certainty that the disabilities of some of the children at Hoi An Orphanage are as a result of Agent Orange dioxin poisoning. However, 2 badly-disabled children who came to the Orphanage in 2005 were strongly believed to have been affected by dioxins.

Anh and Trang are 16 and 19 year old boys with immense physical disability. In late 2005, the Government, quite unusually, gave their father, Mr Nhan, permission to live at the Orphanage with his 2 boys. They have no mental or intellectual disability and living at the Orphanage allows them to continue their education in Hoi An (there is no high school in their small village).

Mr Nhan has left his wife at home, with their youngest son, who has extreme learning difficulties, and their adopted son. He is tireless in his efforts for his sons; he takes them to and from school, carries them to the toilet, showers and dresses them etc.
20 June 08 – ‘Doc’ Bernie Duff, 58, a former medic in the Vietnam War, recently led a 1,700 kilometer walk from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi to raise awareness of the problems still faced by those suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.

Helen Clark/IPS, Hanoi – Vietnam resident and charity worker Duff will now head back to the U.S. with fellow walker Bob Schuessler. They plan to undertake two short walks in Michigan and outside Chicago. An awareness-raising initiative, the veteran is hopeful it will lay the financial groundwork for next year’s more ambitious walk. Lacking a government permit this year, fundraising was put on the backburner and walkers paid their own way.

“We’re coming armed with pictures and movies,” Duff told IPS. He and partner Bui Thi Bao Anh, a 28-year-old tourism consultant responsible for publicizing the walk in the local press, documented the suffering of families affected by the chemical defoliant dropped by U.S. forces to deny forest cover to the enemy. He hopes to meet with senators and veterans’ groups. Despite journeys becoming an almost ubiquitous fundraising activity in recent years (in fact two Australians traversed Vietnam in 2005 to raise funds for the Hanoi-based charity restaurant Koto). Orange Walk – Footprints from the Heart has garnered interest and sympathy worldwide, along with much interest within the country.
“I’ve letters from around the world, from people who’ve never heard of Agent Orange. They thought it had stopped right after the war,” Duff told IPS. It is a problem that has never really made it into worldwide consciousness.

Some 20 million gallons of the defoliant were used in ‘Operation Ranch Hand’. Containing dioxin, one of the most poisonous substances humanity has yet invented, it damaged more than foliage.

Cancers, skin diseases and birth defects have been linked to the substance. The U.S. has offered compensation to its veterans for these afflictions but on Feb. 22, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed the case of Vietnamese Agent Orange victims seeking compensation from chemical manufacturers Dow and Monsanto. The decision was called “erroneous and unjust” by the Vietnam Bar.

Having passed into the water system and thence into food such as fish and waterfowl, Agent Orange very much remains where it was dropped in the south. In the north problems are less common but still exist — children of veterans who fought in the south can still suffer from spina-bifida, water on the brain and gross, nightmarish malformations or mental retardation. Many die early.

One entry in Duff’s blog concerned a father and his two remaining daughters, both affected. Twelve other family members had perished. The Vietnamese government estimates some four million people have been affected.

“My feeling is that because the United States didn’t come out as a victorious winner, they turned their backs,” said Duff, who sees his country’s resistance in emotional not financial terms. Others are more forgiving.

At the grand finale of the walk at the Peace Village, an Agent Orange rehabilitation centre, on Jun. 1 — International Children’s Day — Nguyen Thi Thuong Van, 24, said, “We lost [the court case] but we’ll win another way. We have the love from the world, that’s the way we’ll win.”

She and her older sister Thao flew from HCMC to join the ceremonial last few kilometres from central Hoan Kiem Lake to the outer suburbs. Speaking inside the physiotherapy ward, crowded with people eager to meet the young patients, she continued, “For young people like me, we’ve always heard about Agent Orange but we couldn’t imagine how serious it is… it’s not very visible.”

Nearby three-year-old Son underwent physiotherapy, the nurse pedalling his chubby legs clad in white Spiderman shorts as he lay back, uncomprehending. Unable to move by himself he needs exercise otherwise his limbs will atrophy. He is one of the luckier children. Many affected children are doomed to lives of poverty and early death, a terrible strain on already poor families.

Despite little foreign knowledge of Agent Orange, and varying coverage in the state-controlled media, the walk has been widely covered and well-received in Vietnam. Nguyen Thi Phuong Lien, who has worked for VTV4 in the International Programme Department, sees ‘Doc’ Bernie Duff’s journey as significant. “This is such a charitable act, the largest ever walk a group of people has done. Bernie is a veteran, he suffers the pain himself — he sympathises with those who suffer,” she says. The coverage given the group of orange shirted walkers resulted in cheers, offers of food by people and invitations by police into the local bia [beer] joints.

Duff is not the only returned veteran to aid the progeny of those he once fought. George Mizo returned to Vietnam and helped found the Friendship Village, another rehabilitation centre for the Agent Orange-affected. It celebrated its tenth anniversary on Mar. 18.

Though when returning, Duff was amazed at the welcome he received, not every Vietnamese has forgotten the war. “Some people here are still angry about the war,” Bao Anh told IPS at the Peace Village, “They say, ‘our kids are like this because of the Americans’.”

“This is a battle we [the world] should be fighting together. These kids never chose to fight,” Duff added.

Orange Walk: www.orangecarers.com