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HANOI — A jungle raid in January 1962 in which U.S. helicopter pilots ferried South Vietnamese troops to attack soldiers from the North was one of America's first major operations in the Vietnam War.
This year, the U.S. government and war veterans are commemorating the war's 50th anniversary. In Vietnam, people remember other dates.
Among the anniversaries they marked this year for "America's War," as it is known here, was the 51st anniversary in August of the U.S. Army's first use of the herbicide Agent Orange.
The U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of the herbicide over forested terrain in Vietnam to kill leaves and plants and deprive the enemy of cover to conceal fighters. Vietnam's state broadcaster called it "the largest chemical warfare campaign in the history of humankind."
Vietnam claims the herbicide caused dozens of illnesses in millions of Vietnamese, from cancer to infertility to heart failure and birth defects. The United States has said there is no proof the traces of dioxin have done this and refused for years to discuss the issue.
As the hard feelings between the two countries have softened, so, too, has the U.S. stand on Agent Orange. The United States recently began a $43 million joint project with Vietnam to clean up the site of the former American air base in the central port city of Danang where Agent Orange was loaded onto helicopters and planes for spraying.
"Agent Orange remains among the most sensitive issues in U.S.-Vietnam relations," says U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear. "However, U.S. engagement has succeeded in changing the tone of dialogue," and joint work has strengthened relations, he says.
About 3 million Vietnamese and approximately 58,000 Americans died in a decade-long war to prevent communist North Vietnam from conquering the Republic of South Vietnam. The war ended in 1975 with a victory for the North and defeat for the United States, whose troops abandoned the country two years beforehand.
Lingering health claims are not all that was left unresolved between the two sides in the war's aftermath.
The United States has spent millions of dollars searching for the remains of 1,500 of its servicemembers who were declared missing in action during the war. Vietnamese families saw about 300,000 soldiers go missing in action.
Today, some families resort to spirit mediums to find their loved ones, commonplace in a society that often consults fortune-tellers.
Nguyen Huy Cueng, 67, says he consulted a psychic who shut her eyes, prayed in a soft voice and invited his brother's spirit into her body. Then she sketched the location of his brother's grave.
"She's found over 900 bodies, and the government supports her," he says, clutching a worn map that marks the spot where the psychic said his brother lay after being killed in combat in 1967.
Family members have spent months digging without success, but he's encouraged that the Vietnamese army, after a government decision last year to help locate the dead, is searching the same location. Cueng has searched for seven years.
"We must find his body or bones and bring them home, to feel closure and relief that he'll be close to his relatives," says Cueng, a veteran of the war.
The lack of government help in his long quest has not caused Cueng to turn against the Communist Party, of which he is a member.
"Vietnam has had to prioritize economic development, and too many people died in the war; they were chaotic times," he says. "There's a lot to fix in Vietnam, but that doesn't mean our one-party system is wrong."
He has not changed his view of America much either.
"I watched the Americans. They were very tall, white and handsome. But I had to kill them. I hated the U.S. government, not the people," he says.
Cueng has enjoyed meeting U.S. war vets, describing them as "polite and friendly," but he remains wary of the U.S. government, he says. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi hopes that will change over time and with more help from the United States.
For years, the U.S. Embassy has funded support in Vietnam for people with disabilities, regardless of cause. The U.S. Congress has appropriated $63 million to help Vietnam locate spots where Agent Orange was used, assess environmental effects and help with cleanup.
Among the projects will be an environmental assessment of the former Bien Hoa base in the south, Ambassador Shear says. Although Vietnam says Agent Orange has caused diseases, the United States maintains that scientific evidence does not exist to show the ailments were caused by unintentional traces of dioxin in Agent Orange.
At 103 Military Hospital in Hanoi, Maj. Gen. Hoang Manh An has been treating those who say they have illnesses from exposure to Agent Orange.
"Millions of victims have received no treatment to date and are in dire need of help," he says. "Most of them are very poor and can't afford transportation to hospital," let alone medical bills.
An has been treating patients using the "Hubbard method," a detoxification program of sauna sessions, exercise and vitamins named for Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Adherents claim it improves one's quality of life, and An says patients "feel happier and healthier." There is no scientific evidence it works.
Tens of thousands of U.S. veterans were also exposed to Agent Orange. Many claim they, too, were sickened by the dioxin in the herbicide, saying Parkinson's, heart disease and lung cancers were brought on by it. The evidence is problematic.
Dioxins are chemical byproducts from the combustion of organic matter, such as the burning of trash or forest fires. Some studies found that heavy exposure to dioxins can come with an increased risk of birth defects and cancer. No definite link has been established regarding trace amounts in Agent Orange.
"Virtually every aspect of the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam is infused with uncertainty and/or controversy," according to "Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange and U.S.-Vietnam Relations," a report in August by the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "There is limited information about the long-term effects of Agent Orange on the environment and people of Vietnam."
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently ruled that numerous ailments are presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange among the Vietnam veterans who have them. The ruling meant these veterans would qualify for certain benefits that had been denied.
Medical groups, such as the American Diabetes Association, say the evidence of a link between exposure to Agent Orange and the ailments listed was "modest." Well-known advocates for veterans, such as Republican Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn, said the presumptions went too far.
Apart from the herbicide controversy, the U.S. Embassy is working on other fronts to help Vietnam overcome other leftover hazards of the war.
Unexploded bombs and land mines present a constant danger in Vietnam. In central Quang Nam province, more than 1,000 people have been injured or killed since 2004, according to the Mines Advisory Group. The United States funds the group's implementation of a $1.6-million effort to clear the province of mines.
Some veterans say Washington and Hanoi must step ups assistance.
Nguyen Ba Dang is one of several disabled war veterans who transport goods around Hanoi on three-wheeled auto rickshaws.
"The government support is barely enough to eat each month, so we must find other work," says Dang, 60.
In September, Dang signed up for a medical program, run by Vietnam but funded by the United States, to assess his war injuries.
"I have often heard the USA will do this and that, but nothing has happened yet for me," he says. "The Vietnamese government should also do more to help us. We should learn from the USA; they take care of veterans' families, too."
The U.S. efforts to smooth the relationship have won some converts.
"I hated Americans when I was young," says Tran Thi Nguyen, 30, a waitress in Hanoi's old quarter, recalling TV documentaries and the stories of older relatives. "I feel better about America now. They now know what happened before was bad, and now they try to fix it."