Former Navy Nurse Raises Awareness About the Lingering Effects of Agent Orange

Susan Schnall and a group of children at Tu Du Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City, in 2008.

Susan Schnall and a group of children at Tu Du Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City, in 2008.

On August 10, 1961, the United States military first sprayed Agent Orange, a defoliant containing a particularly toxic dioxin compound, in Vietnam. Fifty-five years later, the effects of this and other chemicals linger on. And 48 years after former naval nurse Susan Schnall was court-martialed for protesting the Vietnam War, she visited Vietnam for the first time and witnessed these effects firsthand.

“In all my years in health care, I have never seen children with such severe birth defects,” Schnall said during an interview with AJN. After her court-martial, Schnall went on to have a successful 30-year career in hospital administration. After retiring and visiting Vietnam, she decided she needed to do something about what she witnessed there.

Schnall joined a group called the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, made up of American Vietnam Veterans, Vietnamese Americans, social activists, and community leaders. The group aims to educate the public on the repercussions of the chemical warfare used in Southeast Asia and tries to get the U.S. government to compensate the more than 3 million Vietnamese people still suffering from the chemicals’ effects.

Schnall and some colleagues from the group also formed a science public health committee made up of nurses, scientists, and university professors to review the literature on the long-term effects of the chemicals’ exposure. The group’s goals are to educate the public, and to provide educational resources and nursing and medical care to those in need.

The group has also lobbied to introduce HR 2114 (the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015) in the U.S. House of Representatives. If passed, this bill will provide assistance both to victims in Vietnam and to the children of American male veterans whose health issues are linked to their fathers’ exposure (currently benefits are only provided to children of female veterans).

To read more about Susan Schnall and her efforts, see the August Profiles, “Peace and Reconciliation.” To read a 1968 AJN editorial about Schnall’s court-martial, click here.

Managing editor, American Journal of Nursing

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