Expat Spotlight: Ben Quick - A Child of Agent Orange Builds Bridges in Vietnam
American expat Ben Quick, shaking hands with a Vietnamese veteran. Photo courtesy of Ben Quick.
The legacy of the Vietnam-American War lives within Ben Quick’s left hand. His father, an American veteran stationed in Tay Ninh and Cambodia, was exposed to the life-alternating Agent Orange chemical during his time abroad. This exposure was passed down to Ben who was born with stunted fingers on a balled-up fist.
This birth defect makes writing more difficult for Ben yet it does not stop him from telling his story. In heartfelt prose, Ben recreates the moment of his birth and the initial discovery of his affliction.
“The delivery went without complication,” he writes. “...But there was something else as well, something curious: although in every other way I fit the normal profile of a baby boy, my left hand was almost round, and at first glance, fingerless. Looking closer, one could see that there were indeed fingers in the flat bell of flesh and bone, but no space between them, and the bones were either misshapen or missing altogether. Instead of clutching at nipples and beards, it flew from side to side like the club on the tail of a prehistoric beast. My grandmother was horrified.”
Despite growing up in the American midwest, thousands of miles away from Vietnam, Ben felt a connection to the Vietnamese people because of his disability. Many in Vietnam were born with numerous birth defects, similar to Ben’s condition.
“My biggest impediment is that there are some things that I just can’t do and will never be able to do,” says Ben, when discussing his stunted hand. “For example, I can’t type without looking at the keyboard so it takes me a long time to write. But that is nothing compared to what the [Vietnamese] people here have dealt with and are still dealing with. That’s what brought me to Vietnam.”
His fascination with Agent Orange, its usage, and controversy, inspired him to further investigate this dark period of American history. In 2008, Ben published an article entitled Agent Orange: A Chapter from History That Just Won’t End, exploring the long-term effects of the chemical. For research, he visited the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center in Tuscon, Arizona, the final resting place of the American airplanes that dispersed toxic chemicals across Southeast Asia.
|An American aircraft, toxified by Agent Orange. Photo courtesy of Ben Quick.
Through his investigation into these airplanes, he learned that the crafts were still used by the American government or were sold off for various Hollywood productions. The Agent Orange chemical that resides within the DNA of millions of victims worldwide is also capable of remaining on metal, even years after its initial use. Thanks to Ben’s compelling journalism, he was able to highlight this grave oversight by the American military that could lead to more needless poisonings and deaths.
After Ben’s article was published, the American military took note of the error and chopped the airplanes down to the size of “less than a cellphone” to minimize its toxic impact before ultimately destroying them.
Research for his article eventually brought Ben to Vietnam in 2008, where he explored the previously war-torn nation for the first time.
“I wanted to experience Vietnam and see what was there and I just fell in love with the country,” says Ben. As a budding photographer at the time, Vietnam offered numerous photo opportunities from bustling city life to the rustic charms of the countryside.
In 2014, Ben came back to Vietnam not as a tourist but as a full-time resident, settling in Da Nang. From here, he befriended fellow Agent Orange victims and other American expats. Ben is quite fond of the hospitality of the Vietnamese people.
“I love Da Nang. The people are the main reason,” says Ben. “Last summer, when I was back in the U.S., I couldn’t believe how angry everyone was. Everyone was ready to fight just about anyone or anything at the drop of a penny. That’s not the case [in Vietnam]. Even the people who don’t have much are incredibly generous and relaxed. They treat people well.”
Since taking up residence in Da Nang, Ben continued to follow his passion for photography. He sought out quieter locations where he could capture scenes of hardworking farmers and unspoiled nature. Eventually, he came across Cẩm Đồng village just outside of Hoi An. At the heart of this community was a narrow wooden bridge over the Sông Cái river.
|Cyclists crossing Cẩm Đồng bridge. Photo courtesy of Ben Quick.
|Hardworking man under the harsh sun. Photo courtesy of Ben Quick.
While simply built, this bridge was essential for the villagers who used it to help transport farming equipment, harvested crops, and other necessities for Vietnamese farm life. Most of Ben’s early photos were taken at this site, as the bridge offered the perfect “stage” for snapshots of daily life in rural Vietnam.
Unfortunately, the bridge was recently destroyed during Central Vietnam’s devastating rainy season. This massive hindrance forced villagers to use small sampans to get to their farmland, making for a rather lengthy and dangerous commute.
Upon hearing the news, Ben immediately decided to help Cẩm Đồng village.
“This was personal to me because this was a place I had spent a lot of time taking photos and had gotten to know people there very well. When I learned this incredibly iconic bridge was gone I was shocked,” says Ben. “I saw a need to jump in and do what I can to help my friends.”
|Transporting bamboo. Photo courtesy of Ben Quick.
After speaking with the locals, Ben learned they needed around 20 million VND (just under 1,000 USD) to rebuild the bridge. With a set goal in mind, Ben started a fundraising campaign for Cẩm Đồng. He set up a PayPal donation link and asked Da Nang’s expats and American friends to consider helping out his new friends. Within a few days, Ben received enough money to rebuild the bridge.
American expat Brain Martin, currently residing in Quy Nhon, donated to the Cẩm Đồng cause. For him, the decision to do so was easy. “I wanted to donate for a variety of reasons but primarily to help a friend out with a project that I know is very close to him as he has spent much time with the people there and one thing that we both know from being in Vietnam for awhile is you grow quite close to the people you spend time with, especially photographing and filming. I also had the opportunity to visit the bridge several times when I lived in Hoi An. Is a truly magical place.”
|Off to work. Photo courtesy of Ben Quick.
|Building the new bridge. Photo courtesy of Ben Quick.
According to Ben, a majority of the donations came from Americans, most of whom he only knew through vague Facebook connections. Ben believes that many Americans follow his beliefs in further reconciling with Vietnam, even decades after the war.
“The U.S. has a history in Vietnam, especially in this region,” says Ben. “Cẩm Đồng is not that far from Mỹ Lai (the site of a brutal massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American forces). There are some things that America did during the war that are pretty heinous.”
Ben hopes that his actions work towards a sort of “healing” between the United States, his homeland, and Vietnam, his second home. He hopes more Americans can come and experience the magic of Vietnam for themselves.
“Because of the war, most Americans assume Vietnamese people hold grudges against America but no, they don’t. But [Americans] don’t know that until they come here.”
|Making friends with former enemies. Photo courtesy of Ben Quick.
|As a new monthly series for the Vietnam Times, the Expat Spotlight aims to highlight interesting members of Vietnam's diverse expat community. Be it through travel, charity, business, art, or diplomatic works, these expats have a deep love for Vietnam and wish to see it progress. Stay tuned to learn about the other expats and their various projects. If you would like to nominate someone for a future feature, please message the Vietnam Times via Facebook.
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