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Evaluating Agent Orange Cleanup In Vietnam


The Vietnam War ended decades ago, but the U.S. is still spending money on the cleanup of that war. Yesterday, a Washington, D.C., think tank brought together officials from both countries to take stock of those cleanup efforts. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In the atrium of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Senator Patrick Leahy and Vietnam's deputy defense minister, General Nguyen Chi Vinh, are looking at photos of some of the work they've done together to help their countries, former enemies, become partners.

CHI VINH NGUYEN: (Through interpreter) There was some contamination...

KELEMEN: Their next project is cleaning up an air base in Bien Hoa, where the highly toxic defoliant Agent Orange was once stored.

NGUYEN: (Through interpreter) And we will help the city of Bien Hoa to become one of the most beautiful city of Vietnam.

PATRICK LEAHY: Wonderful. Thank you.

KELEMEN: Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has a long history on these programs. He first got involved during the George H.W. Bush administration, which was looking for some kind of opening with Vietnam. Working through the Vietnam Veterans of America, Leahy recalls traveling there and helping one Vietnamese man who had lost both legs into a new wheelchair.

LEAHY: All the time he was staring at me. I pick him up. I put him in the wheelchair. I started to get up. He grabbed my shirt, pulled me back down and kissed me. The same thing happened to Senator Glenn, to John Glenn, who was not an emotional person. He had tears coming down his face. And I felt, we really have to do more, and we have.

KELEMEN: Over the decades, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on war recovery programs in Vietnam, clearing landmines and unexploded ordinances. Last year, the U.S. completed a five-year program to clean soil contaminated by Agent Orange at Da Nang air base. The next site, Bien Hoa, is much larger and will be more costly. But in this age of budget cuts, Leahy says it's money worth spending.

LEAHY: We spent far more money than that in the war, and it was not America's finest hour. What we're doing now speaks to the moral responsibility of our country.

KELEMEN: For his part, General Vinh tells NPR his country will continue to search for missing Americans and won't stop until, quote, "the last soldier, Marine or airmen come home from Vietnam." Speaking through an interpreter, he says this is not just about humanitarian programs.

NGUYEN: (Through interpreter) The resources that Vietnam government has devoted for the MIA operation, as well as the resources from the U.S. to assist Vietnam with the remediation of dioxins as well as demining, it's opened up the trust and confidence that we have for each other.

KELEMEN: He calls this a good example of how former enemies can overcome the pain of the past. Senator Leahy plans to head back to Vietnam soon to take stock of the programs but also to say, there's a long way to go.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF RELEASE THE LONG SHIPS' "SNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.