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From life of plenty to lifetime of battle

She started with the Viet Minh and is still warring against Agent Orange

Friday, April 28, 2000

By Reg Henry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HANOI -- A gray-haired grandmother who spent half a century in military service was telling her American visitors about women and war: "We have a saying, 'If the enemy comes to the house, the women must fight.' "

Professor Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, 70, a medical doctor and retired colonel in the Vietnamese Army, was 15 when she began her medical training with the Viet Minh in the fight against the French. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)  

She has seen a lot of war by any measure.

The life story of Professor Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, M.D., is extraordinary. Now 70 and a retired colonel, she began her medical training in Viet Minh field hospitals in the war of liberation against the French.

Speaking in Vietnamese with an English-speaking friend to translate, she recalled how she was at the climatic battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and was married in a bunker after it was over. She and her husband celebrated with wine and candy dropped by the French and meant for their own troops.

Her husband, Gen. Cao Van Khanh, was the commander of a famous Army unit, the 308, which was formed at the dawn of the revolution, and was one of the commanders at Dien Bien Phu. He later took an active part in the "American War." On the day that Saigon fell, he was pictured at a meeting sitting at the right hand of the overall commander, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.

None of this would have been predictable in 1945 when she was 15 and living in a big house in Hue, being educated in French, as a mandarin's daughter. Her husband, who was older and also from Hue, was a teacher at her school, although not of her class.

Her brothers were rebels in the Viet Minh, but she did not know it at the time, she said. When Ho Chi Minh declared his country's independence from France on Sept. 2, 1945, they were all caught up in the fervor. When Ho was forced to flee to the northern provinces by the returning French, to the revolutionary stronghold known as the Viet Bac, they left their privileged lives behind in Hue and went to join the revolution.

  PG series

Vietnam, 25 years later


"That was such an exciting and happy time. The teachers, the kids, we all signed up," she said.

She began studying medicine under some distinguished doctors who were also in exile. One of these was the late Ton That Tung, who years later was to make one of the first studies on the effects of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the jungles.

Working at Viet Bac was very hard, she said. First, they had to walk a month to get there, moving only at night to avoid detection. Operations were done underground in a space so cramped that dead bodies had to be moved quickly before rigor mortis set in. Otherwise, they could not be taken out. There was little medicine.

"As we were operating, people would be singing in order to forget the pain. We didn't have much at all in the way of painkillers."

As they operated, "the creepy crawlies -- leeches -- kept crawling up and biting us, but we couldn't do anything about it." To slap them would have meant getting their hands dirty.

After the French war, she settled down and had four children and finally graduated from medical school in 1958.

When war began again, she was stationed at the 108 Army Hospital in Hanoi and it was here that she first encountered strange birth defects in children whose mothers had been in the south, although at that time Agent Orange was unknown.

She also treated casualties from the Christmas bombing of 1972. "I was there for the entire time [12 days]. We had one bomb explode in the hospital. I came out of the operating room and boom! It was there."

The 108 Army Hospital also treated American prisoners of war, she said. They were always taken in secrecy under cover of darkness to avoid possible public retaliation.

Tragedy came to her after the war. First, her son died in a train wreck returning from service in the south. A bridge had been weakened by bombing.

"I was beside myself with grief and loss, sadness and stress." But she went to a meeting with her husband, where an elderly couple who had lost all seven of their children in the war spoke to the people. They said that it was "a tremendous loss but it was a necessary loss."

"My husband spoke to me and said not to be consumed with my own grief, that I was lucky to have children ... that I should have to think of those who have suffered much more than me."

The final blow came soon after with the death of her husband from a fast-acting liver cancer that she believes was triggered by his exposure to defoliants during the war.

An exceptionally gracious and polite woman, she struggled now to find the right diplomatic words. Her government, she believed, has been too gentle in pushing the Americans on Agent Orange, which is still causing problems.

"I've met a lot of Americans like you," she said to her guests. "They are wonderful people.

"It must be that the Americans don't understand the effects of this."

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