After his eighth round of chemo, Trai Nguyen is exhausted, his body ravaged. The 60-year-old has a rare and aggressive form of cancer that he believes resulted from his contact with the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
His doctors believe his cancer may now be in remission, but that is little comfort. “My hands shake violently. I can’t do anything,” he says, sitting on a mattress in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with relatives.
The aftermath of war brought Trai to the United States where he rebuilt his life, but now he’s destitute. His fortunes could have taken a better turn had one thing been different in his past: The uniform he wore during the conflict.
As a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, Trai gathered intelligence that helped American soldiers. He fought alongside the Americans and was exposed to the defoliants that are known to have injured them. But he’s excluded from the compensation and health care afforded to U.S. veterans for the same service-connected disabilities.
Vietnam War veterans in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea receive Agent Orange disability benefits through their governments. Canada has compensated citizens who were exposed to herbicides during pre-war testing of the chemicals. The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs has paid billions in disability benefits related to herbicide exposure to eligible American veterans.
In contrast, Vietnamese Americans who were exposed and are now sick - a group that includes both veterans and civilians - haven’t received a dime.