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In a bittersweet journey after 25 years, retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. returned to Vietnam Friday for the first time since he ordered the spraying of Agent Orange that he believes led to the cancer death of his son.

"It feels nostalgic," he said. "It's good to be back. I have for many years wanted to come to discuss important policy issues with the government of Vietnam."Zumwalt, 73, said before his trip that he was aware that some Vietnamese who blame him for their illnesses might not welcome him. But the Vietnamese government gave him a red-carpet reception.

He said the Vietnamese had invited him several times in the past, but the U.S. State Department recommended that he not come until the trade embargo was lifted against Hanoi. That happened on Feb. 3.

Zumwalt and a leading American expert on Agent Orange, Dr. Arnold Schecter, are on a weeklong visit to learn more about the health effects of the defoliant and to enlist Vietnamese scientists for proposed U.S. government research at American universities and medical schools.

Zumwalt is chairman of the Agent Orange Coordinating Council of U.S. veterans groups, including the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. He and Schecter will report to Congress and the veterans groups.

The retired admiral was scheduled to meet with President Le Duc Anh and with a legendary enemy, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. As leader of the North Vietnamese military, Giap frustrated American troops for years and led the communist north to a victory over the U.S.-backed South in 1975.

Zumwalt commanded naval forces in Vietnam from 1968 until 1970, then served as chief of naval operations until 1974, when he retired from active duty.

His eldest son, Elmo Zumwalt III, served in Vietnam from June 1969 until August 1970 commanding a patrol boat in the Mekong Delta.

He died of cancer in August 1988 at the age of 42. Agent Orange also was believed to have caused severe learning disabilities in his own son.

The younger Zumwalt was stationed in an area that was one of the most saturated with Agent Orange. "I operated in areas that were so heavily hit with Agent Orange that they looked like burned-out World War II forests," he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1985.

"I know that Agent Orange is not water soluble and that we swam and washed in the rivers and that we ate and drank the food."

Doctors here blame Agent Orange for a second-generation wave of cancers and birth defects.

The admiral has said he had no regrets about ordering the use of Agent Orange because it saved thousands of lives by stripping away forest cover along the rivers of the Mekong Delta, driving Communist troops a thousand yards back from the water's edge.

Before he used the defoliant, naval forces were suffering casualties at the rate of 6 percent a month, which meant that in a year's tour sailors had about a 75 percent probability of being killed or wounded. The use of Agent Orange, he said, reduced those casualties rapidly to 1 percent.

"We want to forget the past," said one of Zumwalt's hosts, Le Cao Dai, a former North Vietnamese Army surgeon and now secretary-general of a national committee investigating the effects of Agent Orange.