04.14.14

Students connect with Vietnam

Travis Atwater and Jaime Morrill grew up in Irondequoit and are graduating this spring with social work degrees from The College at Brockport.

But their college experience has taken a global turn, with both of them completing their schooling this semester more than 8,300 miles away in Da Nang, Vietnam, as participants in the Brockport Vietnam Program.

The program — established 15 years ago — is unusual in several respects. It is known as the oldest program connecting a college in the United States with Vietnam. And unlike most college study abroad programs, Brockport's program actually has the students work with local population.

In Vietnam, this takes on added importance because of the legacy of bloodshed left by the Vietnam War.

Both Atwater, 28, and Morrill, 23, are too young to have a memory of this war that engulfed Vietnam and divided the American public over the U.S.'s military involvement in this Southeast Asian nation.

The scars of war, however, became readily apparent when, as part of their fieldwork, they conducted their first home visit.

Bedridden was a frail 25-year-old man whose father, according to Atwater, had been exposed to Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant — linked to birth defects, cancer and various disabilities — that was widely sprayed by U.S military aircraft to destroy the jungle foliage that opposition forces used for cover.

"He was like a vegetable on a bed," said Morrill during a recent long-distance interview via Skype with her and Atwater.

Ken Herrmann talks about the Brockport Vietnam program. James Goodman

Program's outreach

Brockport's Vietnam Program was started in 1999 by Ken Herrmann, an associate professor of social work. A Vietnam veteran who had been stationed near Da Nang in the late 1960s, Herrmann became a professor who never put his Vietnam experience behind him.

As a member of the Brockport faculty, he designed a program that not only immerses participants in Vietnamese history and culture but helps the local population.

"Students began working with the poorest of the poor — people forgotten by history and certainly forgotten by America," said Herrmann, who continues to direct the program.

Although Herrmann has been an outspoken critic of the U.S government's resistance to helping Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, his program in Vietnam has gained the respect of U.S. officials there.

"Brockport has helped lead the way in growing educational linkages between the U.S. and Vietnam," said Robert Ogburn, deputy principal officer of the U.S. Consulate General in Vietnam.

Ogburn's statement goes on to say: "Herrmann and his program team have helped to broaden the perspectives of their social work students through an intensive program in Vietnam that truly shows what Americans can do to build meaningful relationships overseas."

The growing relationships between the United States and Vietnam, Ogburn noted, includes person-to-person contact: Vietnam now ranks eighth among nations sending students to study at U.S. colleges.

About 200 students — some from Brockport, the rest from other colleges — have over the years participated in the program, in which students choose to live, study and make a difference in Da Nang for a month or a semester. Eleven students are in the current group.

Herrmann set up a nonprofit organization to fund this fieldwork, which includes the American students making weekly home visits like the one Atwater and Morrill made to the incapacitated man.

The students make these visits a couple of times a week, typically going to two to four families on a given day. They give $50 worth of Vietnamese money to the families, along with food and household goods.

In addition, Atwater and Morrill have been helping, usually twice a week, at the Da Nang Social Welfare Center, a government-run complex of buildings that, they say, houses between 150 and 200 people at a given time.

The residents range from the homeless elderly to orphaned children. Many of them have mental or physical disabilities.

"No matter which direction you look, you see a need not being met," said Morrill, who noted that she and Atwater were so struck by what they saw that they decided to extend their month-long stay to a full semester.

The long-distance interview with Atwater and Morrill — supplemented by additional comments from emails — was conducted after they completed a recent weekly session of the course that they are taking with Herrmann. They are also taking a full course load in Da Nang.

Using Skype, Herrmann begins his Tuesday session at 7 a.m. — 6 p.m. in Da Nang — from his home computer in East Pembroke, Genesee County.

Vietnam is a developing country, with a communist government that, at least in Da Nang, is just beginning to put the kind of services in place that social workers here are accustomed to delivering.

The welfare center is so short of staff many of the residents can't get the care they need. During one visit, Morrill found youths with disabilities — in different buildings — tied to chairs so they wouldn't hurt themselves.

"After seeing this, our main focus became creating change at this facility," Morrill said.

Atwater added: "We make sure that as soon as we get to the center we untie the boys and other residents who are treated similarly, and walk with them around the center. We sing to them, talk to them, and try to offer other positive stimulation."

Morrill and Atwater have teamed with a social work professor from Da Nang University and are getting students at the school involved with helping the welfare center.

Herrmann and his wife, Susan, are also using Skype to conduct a Wednesday long-distance social work class taken by these Vietnamese students.

"It's a major problem," said Herrmann about trying to provide humane treatment at the welfare center.

Orange's legacy

The 25-year-old man Atwater and Morrill visited in their first home visit gets extra money from the Vietnamese government because he is a victim of Agent Orange.

But it's the man's mother who takes care of him.

"His bones are brittle and stiff and he was so skinny that I could fit my hand around his thigh," said Morrill. "He is unable to swallow food so feeding him is quite a treacherous process that entails his mother slipping food down his throat."

Atwater said that the mother was so diligent in caring for him that he didn't have bedsores — but she feared how her son would fare without her.

"While she was telling us about her situation and the struggles she deals with on a daily basis, she began to cry. She was afraid of dying before her son," said Atwater.

Agent Orange, named after the orange stripe painted around the 55-gallon barrels that stored this defoliant, was made from two potent herbicides and contained the toxic chemical dioxin.

Beginning in early 1960s, the Department of Defense launched a program of extensive spraying of Agent Orange to defoliate forests and cropland that opposition forces were using to hide in what was then South Vietnam.

"By the time the program was called to a halt in 1971, herbicides had destroyed an estimated 4.5 million acres of Vietnamese countryside," wrote Fred Wilcox in his 1983 book Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange.

Wilcox, who is now on the faculty of Ithaca College, documented how, when U.S. Vietnam veterans began to show the effects of exposure, federal agencies and the companies that produced Agent Orange denied it was the cause of these health problems.

Eventually, the Department of Veterans Affairs began to make monthly compensation payments — based on the severity of the disability — to veterans with illnesses associated with Agent Orange.

"V.A. currently presumes that some diseases resulted from exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange," says the department's website.

But even after establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, the U.S. government has been resistant to helping the estimated 3 million victims in Vietnam who have suffered from Agent Orange exposure.

Herrmann expressed his frustration in a 2005 opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper about the federal government's policy. "It denies any connection between Agent Orange and the millions in Vietnam who were repeatedly drenched in the 20,000,000 gallons of this toxic chemical," he wrote.

More recently, the U.S. government has spent money on the cleanup of a large contamination in the area of the Da Nang Airport, where Agent Orange was stored, while legislation introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., would provide medical and rehabilitative services to Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.

Chuck Palazzo, who is a U.S veteran of the Vietnam War now living in Da Nang, told how students from the Brockport program work with the disabled in Da Nang, "many of which face day-to-day hardships as a result of the Vietnam War and the ongoing issues of Agent Orange which continue to this very day."

Lasting impressions

The fieldwork performed by the students in the Brockport program — its most distinguishing feature — has helped an estimated 30,000 Vietnamese since its inception in 1999.

"This is a long-standing program, well structured, and has a tremendous impact on the local community," said Ralph Trecartin, assistant provost for international education at the college.

Both Atwater and Morrill tell of their attachment to the Vietnamese people and raise the possibility of returning to Vietnam as professional social workers.

"In bigger cities," Morrill said, "social work is advancing and becoming more recognized. However, it is not well known or understood in Da Nang."

And she noted: "To most Vietnamese citizens, social work is considered charity. It is something that people do out of kindness — not something that is professional or paid."

Atwater told of the challenges of trying to help in an unintrusive way.

"You just figure out how to make connections with other people. That's the foundation of social work. It doesn't matter whether they are from your culture or not," he said.

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