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Working toward healing

Posted on December 7, 2021, by Christina Manweller

Paulette Peterson CoL, PhD, started a school for orphans in Vietnam in the 1970s and went on to spend a career helping military veterans.
Photo courtesy of Paulette Peterson

Building a preschool in Vietnam

Paulette Peterson CoL had started preschools in the U.S., so when she arrived in Vietnam in 1974, she went to work establishing a preschool at an orphanage. She teamed up with a local woman to develop activities and lessons adapted to the culture. Lessons included working on numbers and language skills — for instance, identifying objects and building vocabulary. “Some of the kids had polio and physical limitations so we did physical activities in the water, we sang songs.” Local men carved animal puzzles made of wood: elephants, giraffes, lions; they also made tables and chairs for the school. Paulette had to leave abruptly when she learned her father was ill with cancer.

Providing therapy to vets

After returning to the U.S., Paulette, who was working to complete her PhD in psychology, answered a help wanted ad for a counselor to work with vets returning from Vietnam at the Readjustment Counseling Center in New York City. She was hired and stayed for 29 years. Paulette says it was an honor to assist and be with the veterans and their suffering. They often have difficulty with personal relationships and employment because of their war experiences and trauma. She helped them see how the war experiences were impacting their present lives and to evaluate and adjust as needed. Insights often led to significant life changes. For instance, a vet who had been a medic felt as if he was a failure because soldiers he treated had died. Paulette explains, “Through therapy he was able to experience the grief he felt and see his self-blame was a substitute for feeling loss. He went on to become a psychologist.” Paulette is deeply thankful to those she was able to help.

Agent orange history in Vietnam

It is estimated that about 19 million gallons of Agent Orange (so called because of the color of the stripe on its barrels), which includes the extremely toxic contaminant dioxin, was used to destroy crops and defoliate forests by the U.S. military in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. By the late 1960s, doctors in Vietnam suspected the chemical agent was causing congenital abnormalities.

According to the Red Cross of Vietnam up to one million Vietnamese have been disabled or developed health issues as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. In the 1970s high levels of dioxin were found in South Vietnamese women’s breast milk. U.S. military veterans who served in Vietnam were found to have high levels in their blood.The U.S. government has documented increased occurance of Hodgkins lymphoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, certain leukemias and other cancers in military veterans exposed to Agent Orange. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposed Vietnam War veterans have been shown to have children with increased rates of birth defects.

The U.S. government has provided compensation to about half of veterans who have filed claims, but has been slow to compensate Vietnamese who were exposed and widespread environmental damage has not been fully addressed.

Addressing Agent Orange

In 2010, Paulette Peterson CoL traveled to Vietnam as a member of the Common Cause Interfaith Delegation on Agent Orange to assess the effects of the herbicide/defoliant. She met with public officials, health and environment experts and Vietnamese citizens. At Da Nang, where the U.S. military handled nearly three million gallons of Agent Orange, she saw dead ground. All these years later, nothing grew.

In the report she put together for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) she wrote, “We believe that comprehensively addressing the environmental and human impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam represents a moral imperative even as we recognize that we cannot replace all that was lost.”

The group’s recommendations included providing upgraded services as well as advancing the rights of those with disabilities, cleaning up the dioxin at the primary contaminated sites and helping the Vietnamese develop needed skills within their own non-governmental organizations.

Paulette has been part of the Loretto Community since 1974, first as a vowed member and now for many years as a comember. She currently serves on Loretto’s Community Forum.


Christina Manweller

Editor of Loretto Magazine, Christina’s nonfiction and poetry has appeared in numerous publications. For many years she served as Director of Communications for a Colorado-based peace and justice organization. Her background also includes English and writing instruction at a local community college, digital and print design work, and photography. One of her joys is visiting the Loretto Motherhouse once or twice a year.
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