Who We Are—and Why War Legacies
Hear from Executive Director Susan Hammond and Board President Jacquelyn Chagnon in a conversation that recounts the founding of War Legacies Project, its evolution, its work thus far, and the challenges that lie ahead.
How did your work with War Legacies Project begin?
SH: I first went to Viet Nam in 1991 to try to understand what was so important about the country that the U.S. had to fight a war there. I also had a personal reason, my first clear memory of my father was when I was five saying goodbye as he left on his second tour, not knowing if he would come home. In 1991, Viet Nam was still a very poor country with many bombed-out buildings and war invalids begging on the streets. But I also found a nation with a very ambitious young population, the first in over a 100 years to be born in peacetime, that were eager to make a new future for Viet Nam. I knew I needed to return and went back in 1996 to teach English before I began to work for the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FRD), an organization that focused on normalization of relations with Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.
In 1999, on a trip to Hanoi I met the family of a Vietnamese woman I knew who was getting her Masters at Columbia University. She was born before her father served in the south of Viet Nam. Her sister, born after his return to Hanoi, had severe physical and cognitive disabilities. The contrast between the two siblings was striking. By this time, my father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. I was aware that U.S. veterans were suffering from Parkinson’s and a panoply of devastating health effects. Many suspected they were caused by exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical heavily used in the war that was contaminated with the additive Dioxin.
Now I was seeing the incontrovertible impacts on a generation of children born after the war was over. This politicized me. I resolved from then on to address and raise awareness about the long-lasting impacts of Agent Orange.
JC: Sometime during the initial years of our post-war work with American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in the early 80s, my husband Roger Rumpf and I had heard accounts from Lao farmers that sounded like herbicide spraying inside Laos. But we could not find any historical data on herbicide use inside Laos during the Secret War. During a home leave at Roger’s family farm, we asked Edward Sumpter, our brother-in-law, a retired Air Force Mechanic Specialist, if this information could have been true. That began a series of conversations with Ed about his covert action military experiences. These conversations also revealed his personal distress and his questioning about the aftermath of the Secret War in Laos.
He told us he got shot down three times in combat, twice in Laos during the Secret War, and once in Viet Nam. He also recalled kicking barrels of Agent Orange out the back of C-130 airplanes. Ed was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, after having dealt with several medical problems related to a deteriorating heart condition over the decades since his involvement in the war. He died in 2014.
How was War Legacies Project founded?
SH: In the early 2000’s, after the U.S. had normalized relations with Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, my work at FRD began to focus on the ongoing impacts of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and Agent Orange under a program we dubbed the War Legacies Project.
JC: In 2001, during an international NGO Forum conference in the Lao capital of Vientiane, FRD linked us with Dr. Arnold Schecter as we had been collecting data on post-war impacts inside Lao since 1978. We had gathered many accounts from both Lao farmers and veterans that the U.S. had sprayed herbicides inside Lao. But we needed confirmation by governmental records which were still classified. Thus, Roger and I repeatedly sent FOIA requests to the U.S. government to release records on both the heavy bombing and years of secret herbicide spraying inside Lao territory.
SH: The declassified U.S. Air Force records finally released in the early 90s confirmed that 15 eastern border districts of the Laos PDR had indeed been heavily sprayed over nine years with all types of wartime herbicides.
JC: Shortly after, we coordinated a visit to Xepone for Dr. Schecter to gather samples of animals and human blood and breast milk to determine if there were elevated levels of Dioxin in this formerly sprayed region of Laos. We also assisted Hatfield consultants during the sampling in Xekong District.
What did the early work of WLP consist of?
SH: In the summer of 2002, FRD brought a delegation from Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia to Sweden to participate in the Environmental Conference on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And then in the fall of 2002, FRD brought another delegation to participate in a Yale University School of Forestry conference and to visit congressional offices in Washington, DC. War Legacies Project worked closely with Jacqui and Roger to align with their emerging research and findings on the persistent impacts of Agent Orange in Laos. We were thrilled to discover how closely our efforts from either side of the Pacific complemented each other. This began our long-term collaboration on directly addressing Agent Orange.
JC: We all began to work more closely with environmental experts in Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Canada, Europe and the U.S. We also conducted fieldwork and more research on issues relating to Agent Orange-Dioxin. After Roger’s death in 2013, I decided to continue leading the Lao Village surveys we had undertaken.
Typically, a team of four of more of us convenes in a district, having flown to the area and rented a car. Much to the surprise of locals, I drive, as we ford rivers and streams, and bump across rutted mountain roads to reach remote villages. Lao survey participants will include District or Provincial Social Welfare or Women's Union representatives. For our stays of 2-5 days, we bring in all our own food and mosquito netting, sleep on the floors of local health stations or peasants' homes, and spend daylight hours on in-depth interviews of families with severe illnesses and disabilities.
SH: I became very engaged in a 2004 lawsuit filed in U.S. courts against the chemical companies that had produced the herbicides used in the war. The lawsuit was filed by the Vietnam Association of Agent Orange Victims. I began working closely with some of the plaintiffs and with reporters, photographers and documentary filmmakers. War Legacies Project also served as an unofficial advisor to some of the U.S. lawyers on the lawsuit and with Nguyen Trang Thu who was a consultant and liaison between the U.S. legal team and VAVA.
After the lawsuit was dismissed, we continued our services to help families in Viet Nam still suffering from Agent Orange impacts and advocating for more U.S. assistance. In 2008, as FRD began to focus more on reconciliation of relations with Cuba, with the blessing of my former boss, I finally established War Legacies Project as an independent organization and relocated back home to Vermont. In 2014, we expanded to work on the Agent Orange issue in Laos.
JC: Our team has surveyed 126 villages in the Lao southern districts of Ta-oey and Samoi of Salavan Province, and in Xepone, Nong and Villabouly districts of Savannakhet. We have identified over 500 people with disabilities (PWDs) or congenital birth defects, approximately five per village born since the war ended. We have also provided support to over 100 of these PWDs primarily in the form of medical care and adaptive equipment.
Why War Legacies?
SH: War Legacies Project’s founding philosophy is that there is a moral, ethical and humanitarian obligation of countries that wage war to take responsibility for the immediate and long-term impacts of those wars on individuals, society and the environment. We hold to this even if these impacts are not immediately known and even if they develop decades after wars have ended.
JC: Our goals are to gather even more indisputable proof of the injuries still emerging from spraying that took place more than five decades ago, to convince the public and relevant governments about the long-term health, environmental, societal, psychological, economic and cultural costs of war; to foster discussions about the obligations of countries that wage wars to address these long-term impacts; and to provide direct assistance to heal affected individuals and communities.
SH: We also believe that mitigation efforts need to begin as soon as possible after wars end to help nations recover. No legacies of current and future wars should be as long-lasting as those from the wars in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.