Nguyen Nguc Phuong is 33 years of age and a confident, articulate public speaker – comfortable on a podium in front of an audience. He is resourceful and self-motivated, as seen in his decision to leave school at 16 and relocate to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, to learn to be a mechanic and an electrician.
Nguyen later returned to his hometown of Danang, one of Vietnam’s touristy cities, and opened his own repair shop. However, after seeing the impact of Agent Orange – a defoliant sprayed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to destroy the crops and jungle upon which the Viet Cong relied for food and cover – he decided he wanted to volunteer his time to help the children born mentally or physically handicapped due to the herbicide’s tragic and grotesque effects.
“I wanted to become a teacher to do something for them,” he says, pointing out to over 40 children and teenagers at the Danang Peace Village – a center run by the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin to care for children and teenagers affected by Agent Orange.
But Nguyen’s story is not typical of a thirty-something bored with a day-job and seeking a socially-responsible career break.
Nguyen Nguc Phuong’s father fought in central and southern Vietnam for 10 years up to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and sometime, somewhere along the way, came in contact with some of the 76 million liters of Agent Orange that was sprayed on the Vietnamese countryside up.
As a result, Nguyen is only 95 centimeters (a little over 3 feet) tall and weighs in at a meager 20 kilograms (approximately 44 pounds). “My sister is the same size like me” he says. “When I was born I weighed only 800 grams and was less than 20cm long.”
“I was very angry because I did not know when I was younger why I was left like this. I wanted, I still want, to be a normal person but I know I am not in a good condition,” says Nguyen. “The salary is very little here but I don’t care, I know the center doesn’t have much money,” he says. “But I want to help the other kids who are worse off than I am and help them have a better future.”
Some of Nguyen’s colleagues share similar stories. Now 24, Hoang Kim Nguyen lifts a blouse sleeve to show blotchy, discolored arms. “I don’t know why I have this,” she says, “but my mother worked at Danang airport during the war so I guess it is from Agent Orange.”