The Legacy of Agent Orange

James Rhodes, 65, grew up in Alabama and went on to play trombone in the Troy University band. He was drafted into the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War in 1969. He went on search and rescue missions, and somewhere during his time in country, was exposed to Agent Orange, the pesticide deployed by the U.S. government, which has in subsequent years been shown by various studies to have caused lingering health problems for service members and civilians. He was honorably discharged from medical complications he traces to his exposure to the toxic chemical.

Agent Orange, manufactured by Monsanto and Dow, was used by American – authorized by President John F. Kennedy as Operation Ranch Hand in 1961 — and South Vietnamese forces to destroy crops and defoliate the trees and bushes of the North Vietnamese enemy.

Rhodes, who now divides his time between Alabaster and Vietnam, has written a book about his experience in the war and in dealing with the after-effects of Agent Orange. The book, Diary of a Former Enemy, is published only in Vietnamese, and proceeds from its sale go to Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

Rhodes shared a little history with Weld for this interview.

Weld: What is the book about?  

James Rhodes: My war and Agent Orange experience, written as therapy. … My Veteran’s Administration therapist, years ago, suggested I do this, but I don’t think they ever thought it would actually go to print and be a bestseller. Who knew?

Weld: So, what happened to you in the war? What was the effect of Agent Orange on you?

JR: Have had 14 “growths” cut out of me — none by the US government. … [I became a] participant in the Agent Orange legal action where veterans got shafted by lawyers. … I was at the high end of the scale; I got $6,000 — that is, $1,000 [per] year for six years — while the lawyers got millions.

Weld: How did you come to be in Vietnam?

JR: I went to Vietnam because my name was not George Bush and I could not hide out in the Alabama National Guard; my name was not Bill Clinton and I could not protest; … my name was not Dick Cheney and I could not claim to be 4-F; and I was not skilled enough to flee to Canada and be pardoned by President Carter!

The USAF [recruiter] promised me I would be in the band. Ended up as a crew chief on a search and rescue team.

Weld: What is your relationship with the country of Vietnam today?

JR: I love Vietnam. The people have been great to us. They actually saved my life, as I could not get treatment for any of my Agent Orange conditions in this country. The Vietnamese had pity and compassion for me. They treated me as a long-lost relative. They are better Christians than any preacher you will meet in this country. Being around poor farmers whose only goal in life is to make Buddha, Jesus, or Baha’u’llah proud puts life in its correct focus, I think. We [he and wife Nina Avina-Rhodes] spend a great deal of time in the Hanoi area.

We attempt to spend three-to-six months a year there. When I am there I teach at the university where the U.S. State Department sent me in 2011 — the National Academy of Journalism and Communication in Hanoi. I spent all of 2009 in Hanoi.

Weld: What is your background?

JR: I was a Fulbright educator at Hoc Vien Bao Chi Va Tuyen Truyen (the National Academy of Journalism and Communication). The students are great; the staff and administration are great; public transportation is cheap and they have socialized medicine because, unlike here, people don’t object to paying taxes as long as it benefits others.

Working with the Vietnamese has been great therapy for me and a tremendous religious experience. I have gotten to know, as serious personal friends, people at Vietnam Television International; Voice of Vietnam; Vietnam News Agency; Bao Dien Tu (the government’s online daily); and Quan Doi Nhan Dan (the Army online daily). I have worked for the Vietnamese government at Vietnam Television International, Bao Dien Tu and Quan Doi Nhan Dan.

Weld: Tell us a little about your family.

JR: Dad “Dusty” Rhodes (Navy WWII vet) of Matthews, Alabama; MVP 1954 World Series. Brother David Ronald Rhodes (Wetumpka), 22 years USAF and Army, misdiagnosed after his military [service], which resulted in his untimely death years ago.

Weld: Can you please elaborate?

JR: He had five cancers that went undetected until they killed him. How in hell does this happen?

Weld: Where is the book being released?

JR: Released last month, only in Vietnam, with all my proceeds going to Vietnamese victims of herbicidal poisons — they’re fourth-generation now.

Do note that New Jersey veteran George Mizo was wounded in combat, sent to Japan for mending and returned to combat. He was then wounded a second time and sent to Japan to mend and also returned to combat. After the third time, he refused to go back to Vietnam and was given a less than honorable discharge — something Bush, Clinton and Cheney did not have to worry about.

He founded, with his German wife, an American 501(c)3 organization to assist the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange after the war ended. That facility still exists today in Hanoi. It is the Friendship Village. Shortly after its completion, Mizo died of an Agent Orange-related illness. He is my hero, as are all the people who look after these unfortunates.

Some funds [from the book] go to the Friendship Village. Some go to other facilities, of which there are many, as there are many victims countrywide.