When Mike Mansfield was a teenager, he worked on a road crew in his home state of Illinois. As part of that job, he was charged with killing the weeds that grew alongside the county highway. To do so, he and his co-workers sprayed a diluted version of Agent Orange.
Mansfield never forgot what that chemical did to those weeds.
“It was amazing,” he said, sounding equally impressed and horrified. “You would put it on this plant, and it would immediately die.”
Mansfield is now a United States government and 20th century history teacher at the Community School of Naples. He regularly takes his students on field trips, and in 2000, he took a group to Vietnam. While he was there, he noticed what seemed to be an unusually high number of birth defects.
“It kind of got me interested,” he recalled.
Used to strip the Vietnamese countryside of its foliage, an estimated 20 million gallons of Agent Orange was sprayed by the United States military during the Vietnam War. From 1962 to 1971, approximately 6,000 spray missions were conducted, Mansfield said; in 60 percent of those missions, Agent Orange was used.
There is an ongoing debate about the link between birth defects and Agent Orange exposure. The research is not considered conclusive, but the Vietnam Veterans of America reports that of the 2.8 million Americans who served in Vietnam, 3 percent to 6 percent of their children have been born with birth defects.
Among the general, non-Vietnam vet population, the birth defect rate is just 3 percent to 4 percent.
Thanks to a $5,000 grant through the Byrnes Family Foundation, a local foundation that supports educational enrichment, Mansfield recently returned to Vietnam. This time, it was to volunteer at the Morning Star Center in Hanoi, a school devoted to working with profoundly disabled youngsters.
His wife Melinda accompanied him, and also volunteered at the school.
The couple spent two weeks at Morning Star, working an average of eight hours a day and helping students of all ages. Melinda worked primarily with the younger children, while Mansfield taught the older students. He praised the school’s staff as being highly qualified and knowledgeable — although they were often charged with working in challenging conditions, such as a less-than-modern building.
Then there was the heat: The temperatures in Hanoi regularly soared into temperatures of 110 to 115 degrees, Mansfield said.
Still, there were plenty of opportunities to enjoy the city; the Mansfields occasionally took time to visit Hanoi’s famous Hoam Kiem Lake. The couple also met numerous other volunteers from around the world.
Overall, it was an excellent experience, although heartbreaking at times.
“You do everything with them,” Mansfield said of the Morning Star students. “You have to be very patient.”
Although there was an unspoken understanding that many of the students’ birth defects could be credited to the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, it was not something that was ever discussed openly among the school’s teachers and staff, Mansfield said. In general, the Vietnamese people did not want to discuss the war, he continued.
“They didn’t bring up the war unless you do,” Mansfield said.
He believes part of that is cultural; the Vietnamese are simply not grudge-holders, he said. Mansfield has lived in several Asian countries, including a year teaching in South Korea. Vietnam continues to hold a special place in his heart.
“I’ve been around the world twice, and that’s still my favorite country,” he said. “I love Vietnam.”
Post-trip, he plans to incorporate his Vietnamese experience into the teaching of his history classes. The curriculum will include “Vietnam Now,” a book by former Vietnam War reporter David Lamb.
“It’s a great book,” Mansfield said. “The reason I use it in class is it gives both sides of the story.”
For more information on the Morning Star Center, contact Mansfield at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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E-mail Elizabeth Kellar at email@example.com.