40 years after the fall of Saigon, Americans' children are still left behind
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Vo Huu Nhan was in his vegetable boat in the floating markets of the Mekong Delta when his phone rang. The caller from the United States had stunning news — a DNA database had linked him with a Vietnam vet believed to be his father.
Nhan, 46, had known his father was an American soldier named Bob, but little else.
"I was crying," Nhan recalled recently. "I had lost my father for 40 years, and now I finally had gotten together with him."
But the journey toward their reconciliation has not been easy. News of the DNA match set in motion a chain of events involving two families 8,700 miles apart that is still unfolding and has been complicated by the illness of the veteran, Robert Thedford Jr., a retired deputy sheriff in Texas.
When the last American military personnel fled Saigon on April 29 and 30, 1975, they left behind a country scarred by war, a people uncertain about their future and thousands of their own children. These children — some half-black, some half-white — came from liaisons with bar girls, "hooch" maids, laundry workers and the laborers who filled sandbags that protected American bases.
They are approaching middle age with stories as complicated as the two countries that gave them life. Growing up with the face of the enemy, they were spat on, ridiculed, beaten. They were abandoned, given away to relatives or sold as cheap labor. The families that kept them often had to hide them or shear off their telltale blond or curly locks. Some were sent to reeducation or work camps, or ended up homeless and living on the streets.
They were called "bui doi," which means "the dust of life."
Forty years later, hundreds remain in Vietnam, too poor or without proof to qualify for the program created by the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987 that resettles the children of American soldiers in the United States.
Now, an Amerasian group has launched a last-chance effort to reunite fathers and children with a new DNA database on a family heritage Web site. Those left behind have scant information about their GI dads — papers and photographs were burned as the communist regime took hold, and memories faded. So DNA matches are their only hope.
New season, fresh hopes
Ho Chi Minh City in spring. The apricot flower trees, symbol of the spring festival of Tet, are in bloom. A never-ending parade of motorbikes swirls around traffic circles. High-end stores such as Gucci sparkle near chain restaurants such as KFC. There's scant evidence of the American military presence, save for a rusting helicopter in the yard of a museum devoted to communist glory.
But family secrets are buried like land mines.
Trista Goldberg, 44, is a Pilates instructor from New Jersey, proud to call herself Amerasian, and founder of a group called Operation Reunite. She was adopted by a U.S. family in 1974 and found her birth mother in 2001. Two springs ago, she arrived at a house in Ho Chi Minh City where 80 people had gathered to provide DNA samples. She hopes to use potential matches to help make the case for about 400 whose applications for U.S. visas are pending further verification.
"With a twist of fate I could have been one of the ones who stayed back," she said.
More than 3,000 Vietnamese orphans were evacuated from Vietnam in the chaotic final days of war. The lives of the rest changed with the 1987 act, which allowed 21,000 Amerasians and more than 55,000 family members to settle in the United States.
The "dust of life" suddenly became "gold children." Rich Vietnamese paid to buy Amerasians, only to abandon them once they arrived in America, according to the former U.S. Marine and child psychiatrist Robert S. McKelvey, who wrote "The Dust of Life: America's Children Abandoned in Vietnam."
In part because of such fraud, the United States tightened its screening procedures, and the number of immigrant visas issued dropped dramatically. Only three were issued last year.
Nhan had traveled from his home in An Giang for Goldberg's DNA collection session. He is a quiet man, a father of five with a third-grade education, a wide smile and ears that stick out slightly.
His mother had told him he was the son of a soldier when he was about 10.
" 'Why do kids tease me all the time? I get so upset, sometimes I want to hit them,' " Nhan recalled saying. "She paused for a while and told me I was a mixed kid. She looked sad, but my grandparents said they loved me the same. It didn't matter."
After Nhan and the others gave DNA samples, they settled back to see whether this new technology would give them a chance at the old American dream.
In the fall, Bob Thedford's wife, Louise, a genealogy buff, logged on her account with Family Tree DNA, which is cooperating with Goldberg's effort, and saw a surprising result. It was a new match for her husband, a father-son link. The son was Nhan.
Louise had long suspected that her husband might have had a child from his days as a military police officer in Vietnam in the late 1960s. She had found a picture of a Vietnamese woman tucked inside his wallet shortly after they wed.
The news was more of a shock to their daughter, Amanda Hazel, 35, a paralegal from Fort Worth.
"To be honest, the first thing I thought was, 'Are you sure this isn't a scam?' " Hazel recalled.
But pictures of Nhan arrived a short time later. He was the image of his late grandfather, Robert Thedford Sr., a Navy veteran who had fought in World War II. "You look so much like your grandfather PawPaw Bob," Bob told his son.
Thedford, a strapping Tarrant County deputy sheriff known as "Red" for his auburn hair, had met Nhan's mother while he was at Qui Nhon Air Base. His memories of her are hazy, and his family said he rarely spoke of the war.
"He would never sit down and lament on it," his stepson, John Gaines, recalled. "When I asked him, 'Did you ever shoot someone?' he said, 'Yes, but you have to understand there are reasons behind that, and it's part of war. I'm not going to sit here and explain to you what that's like.' "
As Thedford was teaching Hazel to swim and ride a bike in suburban Texas, Nhan was growing up on his grandparents' pig farm, swimming in the river and getting caught stealing mangoes. The disparity in their lives was not lost on Thedford.
"He just kept saying, 'I didn't know,' " Gaines said. " 'I didn't know how to be there, or I would have been there. All I can tell you is I was surprised, and I hate finding out 45 years later.' "
Tentative contacts followed, although Nhan speaks no English and does not have a computer. E-mails were exchanged through intermediaries, packages followed. Nhan sent sandals he had made and conical paddy hats; the Thedfords sent Nhan a $50 bill and Texas Rangers gear. "Is there anything you need?" Robert Thedford kept asking.
Then there was the emotional first Skype call, when both men cried seeing each other for the first time.
"He looked like me," Nhan said after. "I felt like I connected with him right away."
But last August, Thedford, 67, who had previously been treated for skin cancer, fell ill again. The cancer had spread, and he had a series of operations, the most recent on April 3. As the Texas family rallied to care for him, Vietnam receded.
'My son in Vietnam'
Recently, Nhan Skyped with Hazel from a dusty computer in the back of a friend's sewing supply shop in Ho Chi Minh City. She spoke from her living room, her dogs running about.
Nhan asked how his father was doing.
"He's doing good. He can sit up in a chair now. They're working with him," Hazel said. "I feel bad not connecting sooner, but Mom and Dad think about you and talk about you all the time." Thedford had been showing pictures of Nhan to the nurses in the hospital and saying, "This is my son in Vietnam."
Nhan submitted the results of his DNA match to the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City in December 2013, asking for a reconsideration. But he has not heard back. A State Department spokesman said that privacy laws prevent discussion of any case.
Hazel says that the family is all for helping Nhan immigrate to the United States, even as she knows that the transition would be difficult. "It's going to totally throw him for a loop," she said.
But for now, theirs is a story without an end, the way the war itself is a wound that never completely healed. The story keeps spiraling forward, like the DNA double helix that brought them together.
Nguyen Ly Hien Nga in Vietnam and Magda Jean-Louis and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.