On Aug. 9 in Da Nang, Vietnam, uneasy handshakes and awkward smiles marked the beginning of a four-year, $43 million U.S. effort to eradicate traces of Agent Orange from the site of a former American air base there. "This morning we celebrate a milestone in our bilateral relationship," said the American ambassador to Vietnam, David B. Shear. "We're cleaning up this mess."
In the 40 years since its military ceased spraying the toxic herbicide over Vietnamese foliage, the United States had repeatedly denied requests by the former enemy to clear the Southeast Asian country of a lingering contaminant the Vietnamese blamed for two generations of sickness, deformity and death. But now, with at least some of the deleterious effects of the Vietnam War's Operation Ranch Hand defoliation campaign recognized, America was finally "doing the right thing."
A parallel scene was being played out 8,700 miles away that same day in Alexandria, Va., in the home of the late Lt. Col. Richard S. Christian, an Army veteran and former staff member of The American Legion. Christian as a stalwart campaigner on behalf of U.S. troops hurt by Agent Orange, also had "done the right thing."
A small delegation from Legion headquarters in nearby Washington gathered in the living room of the home bought by Christian and his German-born wife, Julita, just about the time Operation Ranch Hand ended to pay tribute. Years earlier, Christian also had met Washington's resistance to recognizing the human effects of the vegetation killing spray. But he, like the campaigners half a world away, eventually prevailed.
Christian died on Jan. 20 at age 80. A Washington Post obituary told a bit of his story:
"....born in New Jersey...Christian joined the Army at a young age. It was while serving in Korea as a young platoon leader that he received a battlefield commission to become a Captain. In addition to serving in Korea, he served several tours in Germany and in Vietnam. His numerous military medals include the Purple Heart, as well as the Silver Star, which was awarded to the platoon he led in Korea. After retiring in 1971 from the Army Adjutant General's Corps, Col. Christian worked as a civilian for the Department of Defense. After leaving DOD, he worked for the American Legion. In these positions, Col. Christian was a strong advocate on behalf of veterans on issues related to Agent Orange and POW/MIA. Col. Christian was a brave, quiet man who led by example. He was a man of honor and integrity..."
As the Legion contingent gathered around Mrs. Christian, her husband's accomplishments were summed up simply by Legion counsel Ron Simon. "He was a truly great hero," said Christian's friend and collaborator. "He changed history."
Columbia University's Dr. Jeanne Stellman, famed for her work in identifying the geographical reach and toxic effects of Agent Orange exposure, was there, too. She noted Christian's selflessness. "I think the most incredible thing was how humble Dick was," she said. "He was not a boastful person. He was not full of himself. He was full of his causes."
The man who worked most closely with Christian in his Agent Orange campaign was former American Legion D.C. office executive director John Sommer. Sommer, now retired, bore a gift for Mrs. Christian. Before presenting it to her, Sommer remarked, "Besides being a dear friend and a colleague, Dick was a mentor to me. I learned so much from him about many things. Dick was held in highest esteem by everybody in the Legion, which is why our National Executive Committee wanted to adopt a memorializing resolution for Dick."
He then read the elegantly framed document, which said, in part:
"WHEREAS, It has pleased almighty God, the Great Commander, to summon to his immortal legions our beloved comrade...tireless advocate for veterans exposed to...Agent Orange...
"WHEREAS, (he) fearlessly stood up for his fellow veterans when federal agencies and institutions disputed epidemiological evidence of a connection between Agent Orange exposure and the identified diseases; and
WHEREAS, Veterans receiving Agent Orange benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs today can trace the relief they receive to (his) work...
"RESOLVED , (that) this memorial resolution be presented to the family of Lt. Col. Richard S. Christian as a token of our common grief in honor of a Legionnaire and colleague who made a difference in the lives of countless veterans and their families."
Mrs. Christian, visibly moved, accepted the plaque-mounted resolution and responded by producing two letters of condolence received by her family shortly after her husband's passing. The first was a handwritten note from former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagal. "I was a great admirer of his work, integrity and leadership," Hagal wrote. "I had the opportunity to work with him in the early 1980s when I was deputy administrator of the VA and chairman of the Agent Orange payment program. He will be missed by many. Dick truly changed the entire Agent Orange debate and helped so many."
The second note, read aloud by Mrs. Christian, was from a Vietnam War veteran now living in Mililani, Hawaii. It said: "May God wrap his arms around you during this time of your loss. Please know that this family thanks him for fighting for the veterans and their families who have suffered from Agent Orange exposure. Because of him our family is being helped by the VA. Because of him our family is able to have a future. Because of him our son is getting help with his college education. Because of him this veteran who is 100 percent disabled due to Agent Orange exposure is getting the medical attention he needs. Because of him we can pay our mortgage and live in our own home. A simple thank you is not enough."