Saturday, May 30, 2009

AGENT ORANGE: THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

By
Rena Kopy
Agent Orange Committee Chair
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On February 5th, 2009 I received an e-mail from a Vietnam vet named Paul Cox, that sent me hurling back to another place and another time, 25 years ago. Paul belongs to the Campaign for Conscience and Responsibility with regard to Agent Orange and its effects on the people of Vietnam. When I expressed surprise at being contacted, he told me that no matter which groups of Vietnam vets he spoke to, my name kept coming up; which created even more surprise because I was certainly a voice from the past. At the time of the contact I was still reeling from the death of my beloved husband, John, whose death at the hands of the chemical companies and the government use of herbicides, had just taken place on April 6th, 2008.

Paul wanted me to go to Paris, France, to testify before the International Tribunal of Conscience in May of 2009. At first the request was the same as someone asking me to go to the Moon and I politely said that while I would welcome the opportunity, there was no way that on a widow's pension, I could afford such a trip. I thought that the subject was closed until I received another email from the unrelenting Paul Cox, telling me that if I could go, all of my expenses would be paid for. After speaking to my sons, it was decided that I would be "jetting to Paris, in May"!!!!!!! More importantly, what that did for my deep depression over the loss of the person that made my life have meaning, was, that I could lash out against the forces that had taken everything from me.

As I prepared for my trip I began studying about the effects on the people of Vietnam; not the Viet Cong, the enemy, those horrible people, who never wanted us there in the first place, but the children, the grandchildren, the land they lived off of and the water that they drank. It was an eye-opening experience and one that suddenly had me by the scruff of my intellect and with a renewed anger that had governed my actions in the 70's and 80's, to a semi-successful end for the Vietnam vets, but with no success for the millions of vets' kids (like our own son) who were still dealing with their parents' service in Vietnam.
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The biggest difference between our children and the children of Vietnam was, quite honestly, that we lived in the USA and so, as bad as our childrens' health problems were and are, we had medical help and a standard of living that made the problems they were born with somewhat easier to bear, than the children who lived in the mudhuts of Vietnam. Our children could eat food and vegatables that did not grow in dioxin laced soil or eat fish that swam in dioxin poisoned rivers. And so, off I went to Paris, France...

One of my greatest apprehensions was that to the French people, I would represent the "Ugly American" and to the Vietnamese, I would be considered "the enemy". Neither of the scenarios came to pass. The Frenchwoman, Marie Helene, who was to be my hostess, was generous, intellectually challenging and treated me as if we had known each other for years and years. The Vietnamese people, including the infamous Madame Bing, were accepting, caring and actually grateful that I had come so far to champion their cause. I also met, Merle Ratner from the Campaign office in New York and Veterans for Peace. She had worked hand in hand with Dave Cline for quite sometime. The only element that could have been better thought out was the fact that it did not stop raining the entire time I was in Paris; but, even the "mighty activist" cannot stop the rain in France.

The first day that I was in Paris, we went to a dedication on behalf of Ho Chi Minh at one of the most beautiful parks I had ever seen. It was such an exquisite surrounding that I didn't even mind that we were all getting soaking wet standing in the rain. We then went to the VAVA office (Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange) for a meeting in preparation for the Tribunal the following day. It was at that meeting that I met the Vietnamese Ambassador to France and Madame Bing, who was the Vice President of South Vietnam. There was an incredible feeling of cooperation and purpose even though their was an obvious language barrier.

After that meeting I was dropped off at the Hotel where the New York lawyers who had represented the Vietnamese in the lawsuit, which turned out to be another rape committed by Judge Jack Weinstein of the Federal Court. It was at that meeting that I met Frank Cochran, a member of VFP out of Philadelphia and an Agent Orange cancer survivor. One of the attorneys, John Moore, prepared us for what was originally going to be a Q&A type of testimony. After that meeting, Frank and I began what turned out to be a daily adventure of getting lost in the Metro system under Paris.

On May 15th, 2009, the first day of the Tribunal, it became very obvious that everything I had learned about the problems created by Agent Orange in Vietnam, was merely a scintilla of the real story. Over 3 million children and grandchildren, not only of those veterans who served during the war, but, anyone who lived in the spray zones, were effected and the number was growing on a daily basis. Children, who survived birth, were born with missing or deformed limbs, missing eyes, brains and other vital organs and major neurological impairments, just to provide an idea of the extent of the problems. Mothers who were agent orange victims themselves were nursing babies with dioxin contaminated mothers' milk and had no choice but to provide this tainted nutrition because that was all they had to offer.
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There was also two other widows of Vietnam vets who testified about their loss and, quite honestly, the world's loss of two positive activists, three if you count my beloved husband, John. Both of these men had returned to Vietnam to give back to the people, for what they perceived that their government had taken away.

When I was called to give my testimony, it felt very strange that here I was in this foreign land, and that the calling of my name, exacted applause from the attendees. I later realized that, although I had been out of the fight for over 20 years, my friend and mentor, Dave Cline had never left the stage and with every speech that he gave, he honored my husband's fight to survive and the child we had together, by saying "my dear friends, John and Rena Kopystenski" or as Merle had told me, he referred to John and I as "the real deal" when it came to Agent Orange activists. So, it was not me they were applauding, it was Dave Cline and all he had done.

Instead of Q&A testimony, those who were to testify provided their own, mostly written speeches, including me. What I did before all else was to stand a picture of my husband John on the table before me and to introduce everyone in attendance to the subject we were discussing. I actually took a great amount of strength and confidence in having him right next to me. When I was done speaking I was amazed to look up through teary eyes, to see a standing ovation for the words I had spoken, even some of the judges were in tears and I was prompted by the reception, to state "I will not stop, I will not go away." I had remembered later that I had said those exact words during the testimony I gave before the Federal court in 1984.

The following day was filed with medical and scientific testimony as well as that of some of the Agent Orange victims of Vietnam. It was heartbreaking to hear from a father who had all of his sons die at a young age or the Korean vet who had to migrate to Amsterdam for the health care and the illnesses of his children. What become ever more clear was that the United States has taken no interest in what can only be recognized, under the Geneva Convention, as a war crime. Nor have they taken what this host nation seemed to take, moral indignation against such crimes when discussing the actions of another country, but not our own. How much money did the United States spend in reparations for Japan, or are presently wasting in Iraq? Does the fact that the chemicals sprayed, with full knowledge of their contaminated state, not only remains in the soil, water and atmosphere, and how it has accelerated in strength and damage done, not seem like a war crime to the politicians in Washington D.C.?

One of the points that I brought up and that was embraced by all, including the attorneys, was that the only lawsuit that stands a chance of succeeding, is a suit by the children of the Vietnam vets and the children of Vietnam against the chemical companies and the United States for war crimes. Children of our vets are not encumbered by the Ferros doctrine and the sovereign nation status will probably not hold up when dealing with birth defected children.

After the speakers were finished and the tribunal adjourned to await the verdict of the judges, Frank Cochran and I set out to do some sightseeing. I was leaving for home on the following day, early, and so it was decided that we would try to see as much of Paris as we could. I had declined staying any additional time because the concept of walking around Paris without Johnny held absolutely no appeal for me. Moreover, the idea of going to Paris without my husband seemed to make no sense. I had never expected to be made to feel so welcome by the French or the Vietnamese, nor did I expect to feel so comfortable with the French people, who were the most courteous and helpful people I have ever met. In a way, I regretted my decision to leave so soon after the tribunal ended, but I did have a family that had never been without me since the death of their father and grandfather.

Frank and I, in keeping with our new found tradition, immediately got lost. We had to constantly sit at one of those outside cafes to regroup over a 1664 beer (the French brand of lager) and share stories of our fight for the cause and our experiences over the years. It was as if we had known each other for a zillion years and we laughed so much we had to have another beer!!!!! And another one!!!!! We ended up forgoing a whole lot of sights and decided to walk toward where I was staying, which neither of us had a clue of which direction we were going to take. Frank was really in love with the Siene and we walked over it so many times that I think we were going to circles. Paris was lovely and one of the things that we kept doing is stopping our walk to both say, "My Lord, I'm in Paris!!!!!!" Boy, did we portray hard line activists or what?

My trip home seemed to take forever and with a 6 hour layover in Atlanta, I had made plans with Elton and Lynn Manzione to meet at the Atlanta airport, which even though we were both in place, could never get together because of the size of the airport. So, unlike Paris where everyone was so helpful, even with the language differences, I realized that I was back in the United States when I couldn't even get one American to assist me with finding where we had decided to meet and spend the first time in 25 years together. Final proof of the American experience of today's world is that when I finally landed in Las Vegas, the airline couldn't find my luggage.

WELCOME HOME?????????????????
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2 comments:

Chuck Palazzo said...

Rena, thanks so much for representing us all in Paris and for accomplishing what you did. Now its up to the collective "we" to follow-up, write letters, form sub-committees, and yes, "I will not stop, I will not go away."

As I have said in separate writings,in my opinion, its all about the kids now, the future generations and the environment. But it is up to us, to continue spreading the word, never take "no" for an answer and establish a concrete and real foundation which those that will follow us, will continue to see what you have started and to follow-through.

The atrocities the US as well as the chemical companies have done, the deaf ear of the US Supreme Court and the ongoing suffering of our fellow vets, kids,and offspring yet to be born - Americans as well as Vietnamese, is worse than criminal. The US Government, and all the cronies associated with it, including and especially the Chemical Companies and the Court systems at ALL levels can make this right. But first, WE have to make them right!

Semper Peace!
Chuck Palazzo
USMC
RVN 1970-1971

Anonymous said...

Thank you, dear Rena, for this so moving tale about your too short stay in Paris. Do come again and I shall do my best to negociate a no-rain week !
Amiti├ęs, MH.