Viet Nam News
Susan Hammond in an interview with a Vietnam News Agency reporter. — VNA/VNS Photo Thu Phương
HÀ NỘI — Susan Hammond, an American, first set foot in Việt Nam 27 years ago, on a vacation she had planned with the hope of learning more about the country where her father spent time during the war.
At that time, she knew about the S-shaped country only through the stories of her father, who was a construction engineer of the US armed forces. His stories filled her head with visions of the beauty of Vietnamese landscapes and people.
On that first trip, Hammond observed painful war remnants everywhere, but her overwhelming impression was of the hospitality and honesty of local people, who bore no hostility towards American visitors. Her curiosity urged her to explore more about the country, the people and their war losses.
“One of the reasons I came here is because of my father. I also want to get to know more about impacts of the war on Việt Nam and why the US started this war,” she said.
But her strong ties to the country did not really start until 1996, when she came back to learn Vietnamese after earning her MA in International Education from New York University.
She had a chance to meet Major General Nguyễn Đôn Tự and his two daughters. The younger girl, born after the war, suffered from cerebral palsy as a consequence of Agent Orange.
By contrast, his first daughter, studying at a university in the US, was in good health and developed normally because she was born before the war.
At the same time in the US, Hammond’s father was struggling with Parkinson’s disease as a result of dioxin from the war.
The contrast between the girls born before and after the war, along with her father’s state of health, made her recognise that the legacy of the war was still visible and terribly damaging, though the conflict ended dozens of years ago.
Hammond thought she must do something, even something small, to relieve the pain of Agent Orange.
Since 1996, she has been involved in assisting victims of Agent Orange in Việt Nam and worked as Deputy Director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a US non-profit organisation.
In 2006, she founded the War Legacies Project, which works to address the long-term health and environmental consequences of Agent Orange and other herbicides used in the Việt Nam War.
During more than twenty years since 1996, many US veterans and their families have offered assistance to the healing projects of Hammond and her team.
In central Quảng Nam Province, for example, the local Red Cross and Hammond’s organisation have helped 350 families with disabled children repair their houses and access loans or animals to breed for their livelihoods. The project’s funds were also sourced from the family and friends of Bob Feldman, a US veteran who was based in the southern province of Đồng Nai’s Biên Hòa City. He died of cancer as a result of Agent Orange.
To date, Bob Feldman’s fund has provided more than US$250,000 for 50 families in the central provinces of Quảng Nam and Quảng Ngãi, and Biên Hòa City.
Moving and inspiring stories
Susan Hammond (right) in one of her projects helping Agent Orange victims in Việt Nam. — Photo warlegaciesproject.org
One day in 2007, Susan met two brothers in their 20s from Đồng Nai Province, both suffering from leg disabilities.
Instead of going to school or work like people of their age, Phú and Phi could do nothing but stay at home.
When they were small children, their mother put them on her shoulders to take them to school. Now she wished they could walk by themselves.
To make their dream come true, the War Legacies Project presented them with wheelchairs. For the first time in their life, they could walk on their own.
“In a letter written by them and sent to me, they said that this was the most amazing thing to both of them,” Susan said.
“Imagine that every day you can go to school or work by yourself. For them, it took 20 years to make it happen. Such a simple but meaningful thing to the brothers,” she said.
“They taught me the lesson of treasuring what we have and inspired me with their own courage. The first thing coming to my mind when thinking about your country is love for life by people living on the edge of happiness like them,” she said.
On the journey to heal the war pains, Susan has met and listened to numerous touching stories of Agent Orange victims’ families.
During a field trip to the mountainous district of Hiệp Đức in Quảng Nam Province, Hammond met a family of a single father and three daughters who had problems with their brain development or were deaf and mute. The father repaired bicycles to earn a living to care for his daughters.
Hammond asked him what he needed the most for help.
“I need a small plastic stool to sit in front of my house to fix bikes,” the father answered.
“A stool worth only $1 and some other bike fixing devices help him earn a living to take care of his children. I was surprised at the answer,” she said.
“But I came to realise that the smallest things can make big changes to Agent Orange victims,” she said.
Stories like that fuel her belief in the meaningful work she and her colleagues have done for the disadvantaged.
Not only directly supporting victims and their families, Hammond has spent time and effort addressing the environmental impacts of Agent Orange in A Lưới District of central Thừa Thiên-Huế Province and called for financial assistance to build green fences around dioxin hot spots in the district.
She has made documentaries and written books and news articles about the effects of Agent Orange. She also maintains data on Agent Orange at agentorangerecord.com which records 35,000 visits from the US, Canada, Europe and Việt Nam each year.
“Agent Orange victims not only need support for themselves but also someone willing to sympathise with their pains,” she said.
“The first reason I came to Việt Nam was because of my father. But why I stay is because of you [Agent Orange victims],” she said. — VNS