Author Examines Life After Operation Babylift

Dana Sachs i i

Author Dana Sachs is a lecturer at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Cornelia Faddoul hide caption

itoggle caption Cornelia Faddoul
Dana Sachs

Author Dana Sachs is a lecturer at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

Cornelia Faddoul
The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam
By Dana Sachs
Hardcover, 288 pages
Beacon Press
List price: $25.95

In 1975, the U.S. government airlifted nearly 3,000 displaced children out of wartime Vietnam. "Operation Babylift," had the best of intentions, but it also had profound consequences.

To begin with, many of the children were too ill to survive the flight, and one of the planes crashed, killing nearly 80 children. Also, the documentation on most of the children was sketchy at best, and at times, falsified. Some of the children were not actually orphans.

In The Live We Were Given, Dana Sachs explores the legacy of the evacuations. She focuses on the actions of three adoption agencies that were responsible for evacuating more than half the children. And she tells the stories of the children and their adoptive American parents.

Many of the Babylift adoptees are both grateful to their American families, and saddened by the murky — or altogether missing — details of their early lives. Many don't know their real birth dates, or their original names or the names of their Vietnamese family members.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Thirty-five years ago, South Vietnam was in chaos as its army crumbled and the communists marched on Saigon. Over those few weeks in April 1975, the U.S. government evacuated thousands of children in a dramatic series of flights called Operation Babylift. At the time, it seemed moral and humane - a rescue, or, as some called it, a miracle. With the perspective of time, Operation Babylift raises some profound questions. Most - but not all - of those children were orphans. Almost all of those who did leave family behind never saw them again. And some of those children ask to this day: What were they thinking?

If you've adopted or been adopted from abroad, is a child better off in poverty in her homeland, or with a life of poverty elsewhere? Excuse me - with a life of plenty elsewhere.

Tell us your story. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, James Lovell of Apollo 13 on the future of America's manned space program. But first, Dana Sachs joins us. Her new book is called "The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam." She joins us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.

And thanks for being with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. DANA SACHS (Author): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And as part of this story, you go to a reunion that some of these children who were evacuated from Vietnam 35 years ago attended. And I'm just going to read you a short paragraph: I couldn't ignore the miracle - I had to call it that - of what I saw in front of me, the sickly, young war orphans who had been strapped onto those jetliners had become a group of remarkably healthy-looking adults. Here was one obvious measure of Operation Babylift's achievement: These people looked great and were successful, too.

Ms. SACHS: Right, right. It was amazing to see that, because the photographs were just devastating. I mean, these children looked like they could die. And when you saw the adults in Boston where we all met, they were very healthy looking. They were successful - I mean, not all of them, but the ones that were there seemed like they had had really good lives. So it was impressive.

CONAN: Yet some of those people you talked to at that conference had profound doubts about the wisdom of what they had gone through 35 years ago.

Ms. SACHS: Well, they weren't necessarily questioning the evacuation completely, but they were questioning the way that it was executed, because many, many, many documents were lost on children, and so many of the adoptees that I've met who are adults now have absolutely nothing about their past. Part of that is because a lot of them arrived at orphanages with no information. They were abandoned or they were war orphans that weren't - that, you know, the information just wasn't available. And that was true for a lot of them. But in a lot of cases, it seemed like there was not much effort made to keep track of where these children came from, so that when they got older, they could have a little bit of new - or, information about their past.

CONAN: And as you mentioned, most, but not all, were orphans. Those who were not orphans, for the most part, never have a chance to be reunified with their families.

Ms. SACHS: That's right. I just - I can't emphasize enough what kind of panic and chaos was going on in Vietnam during that last month or six weeks of the war. I mean, it was just the time when nobody knew what was going to happen. Nobody knew how many more days there were before the communists took over. And the people who were running these orphanages were kind of in a state of panic to try to get their children overseas to the adopted families that were waiting for them.

But there were also a group of other people who were parents who were worried that their children would be killed by the communists when the communists arrived, and those were often the birth mothers of Amerasian children. And they tried to get their children onto the baby list because they thought they were saving their children's lives. And then after the war ended and it became evident that the communists were not going to kill these children, there was no way for them to get their children back.

CONAN: Because nobody knew where they were, or there was no mechanism for this.

Ms. SACHS: There was no mechanism for that. Exactly. Some of the birth mothers did actually escape Vietnam themselves, and they ended up in the United States. And they - some of them made strong efforts to get their children back or find them. But there was a lot of difficulty there because the U.S. government didn't really want to get involved in it. It was too complicated to try to sort it out. And adoption agencies were trying to put the children into adoptive families as quickly as possible. So they were not encouraging - or I would say they were very discouraging to these families. So there were a lot of lawsuits.

CONAN: We're talking with Dana Sachs about her new book. She's written about Vietnam for many years, but her new book is about Operation Babylift, 35 years ago this month, when the government of South Vietnam was collapsing and there was great panic in that country about the future of many of its children.

800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Is a child better off with a life of poverty in his or her country, or with a life of plenty elsewhere? Give us a call. We'll start with Roger, and Roger's with us from Rockford, Illinois.

ROGER (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

ROGER: We have an adopted Vietnamese son. He come over here in April of 1975, shortly before Saigon fell. I think he was on the last commercially scheduled flight out of Saigon. But I - he's done very well for himself over here. He's - in fact, he went back to Vietnam in 2003 to live and work teaching English and to experience his motherland country, and is still there and married with two children.

I think part of the controversy about the baby lift can come from the fact that even though she says that the Amerasian kids were not harmed by the communists, we - when we went back on our first trip in 2003, we had two biracial girls - black American fathers and Vietnamese mothers -with us on the tour. And they encountered hostility at the airport when we checked into Saigon. In fact, one of the customs people there said you're not Vietnamese. And so I think part of the consternation about taking children out, some of it - I think Mary Nelle was right, and here's a big shout out to you, Mary Nelle. We've met her a couple of times.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROGER: That some of these children I think would have died, if not probably at the hands of the government, certainly due to neglect, disease and whatever. And I'm really sorry that there were children who were let out without paperwork so that they could've been reunited with their mothers. But as she says, I think at that time in Saigon, everything was just totally pandemonium.

CONAN: Dana Sachs?

Ms. SACHS: That's right. It was total pandemonium. As far as the Amerasian children, I agree with you. They had - generally speaking, they had really, really difficult lives. I'm just - I'm trying to make a distinction between the rumors that were circulating among the birth mothers before the communists arrived, and that - those kind of rumors were just horrible, what - the kind of brutality that would be put upon these children, you know, their livers ripped out and eaten. And this -it was the kind of thing that put these women into total panic. And I think it...

CONAN: He is right. We've seen reports in the years since that Amerasian children in Vietnam were discriminated against. They weren't murdered.

Ms. SACHS: They were. Absolutely. Right, right. I think, though, that a number of these women now who gave up their children, if they had known that there would be discrimination versus having their children murdered, they might have settled for discrimination and keeping their children with them.

CONAN: Roger, is your son doing - your adopted son doing well?

ROGER: Yes, he is. He's teaching at an Australian university in Saigon right now and is planning on coming back to the U.S. next year with his family. He wants to go to graduate school here and stay over here for a while.

CONAN: All right. Well, Roger, thanks very much for the call, appreciate your I'm sorry, you want to...

ROGER: I just wanted to encourage Americans who haven't seen Vietnam to go sometime. It's a beautiful country. We have found nothing but friendliness from the people there, including our daughter-in-law's Vietnamese family. Even though they don't speak English, some of their children do, but we managed to figure out that we really like each other a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. SACHS: Great. Yeah, I agree with you on that.

ROGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.

Ms. SACHS: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. You tell this story, at least in considerable part, through the story of one of these children. Tell us a little bit about Nak Ahn(ph).

Ms. SACHS: Well, she was she was an Amerasian child who was about six or seven years old when the communists were about to invade, and her mother had raised her in Da Nang, and her father, who was a GI, had left a few years before.

And this little girl, her photograph is on the cover of my book with her mother, and when you see it, you can see that the mother is completely Vietnamese-looking and the child is a little blonde-haired girl, and they don't look like they're related at all, really.

So this mother is one of those who I spoke to who was just in a panic. She would put a scarf over her daughter's head before they went out because she was so afraid of people attacking her little girl because of her relationship with America at that time.

And so she sold everything she had to take her daughter down to Saigon and get her on the plane.

CONAN: Her daughter and her seven other children.

Ms. SACHS: And her seven other children, right, because she really thought her daughter would die. So the whole family gave up everything they had and became refugees and took a refugee ship down to the south in order to get this little girl on the plane.

CONAN: And she was then evacuated to the United States, grew up in Florida, and, well...

Ms. SACHS: No, in the Northeast.

CONAN: Excuse me, in the Northeast. Excuse me, her friend grew up in Florida. And in the Northeast, and at the end of the book returns to Vietnam.

Ms. SACHS: She does. I mean, the story is really touching. Her a lot of times you hear about the adoptees going back and looking for their birth families. What happened in this case was that in the 1990s, maybe 10 or 15 years after, after the war ended, Vietnam began to open up to the West a little bit, and a group of these birth mothers took their documents that they had from their children and began wandering the streets of Da Nang, and when they saw a Westerner, they'd go up to them and say: These are my documents. I have a daughter. I have a son overseas. Can you help me find my child?

And so Mrs. Han(ph), who is Ahn's mother, did this for a long time, and she had no luck, and then one day she met a man who looked at her documents and told her that he worked for the Red Cross. And he said: I'll see what I can do.

And a few weeks later, maybe a few months later, Ahn, who was then living in Wisconsin and had just had a baby of her own, was taking a shower, and she told me that her mother-in-law came and knocked on the door and said come downstairs, come downstairs as quickly as you can, there's someone from the Red Cross down here, and they found your mother.

And they all raced over and went - and she saw a photograph of her birth mother for the first time, and she hadn't remembered what she looked like. She said, oh, now I remember what my mom looked like.

CONAN: We'll talk more with Dana Sachs in just a moment. Her book is "The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam." Is a child better off in poverty in her homeland or with a life of plenty elsewhere? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Gerald Ford announced Operation Babylift on April 3, 1975. Money from a special foreign aid fund for children was used to fly thousands of Vietnamese orphans to the United States to new homes. As Dana Sachs tells us in her new book, the exact number of children who were evacuated is impossible to know. Many records are incomplete. Some don't exist at all. And the operation's legacy includes some difficult questions.

Her book is titled "The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam." One of the adoptees she spent time with for the book describes sketchy, dream-like memories of his life prior to the airlift. You can read more about her lunch with David Fisk in an excerpt at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've adopted or been adopted from abroad, is a child better off in poverty in her homeland or with a life of plenty elsewhere? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org.

And this email from Cher(ph) in Jamesville, New York: Are the kids we adopted from impoverished places better off here? A question as the mother of a child from the streets of Calcutta that I often ask myself. Mostly I think yes, but sometimes, when my child was younger and would look at Indian women with such sadness, I wonder, and when I see her struggle with the high expectations of a middle-class American family, where she is learning impaired, I sometimes think being a wife and mother there would be, if not better, at least easier in some profound way. I have no answers.

Ms. SACHS: That's really interesting. I had a conversation with one of the adoptees who his name is Burt Ballard(ph), and he, he had a very good childhood in this country, and he was an infant. So he has no memory of his life in Vietnam, but and he's very well-educated. He's done extremely well in this country, and now he's adopting a child himself from Vietnam.

And we've talked a lot about this question of: Should international adoption continue or not? And he said basically that he thinks that as long as there are children who need homes, we have to have some form of international adoption, but the issue is: Can we find a way to do it that is transparent and ethical and takes care of the families on both sides, and the children?

And I don't know the answer to that. You know, we're trying, but the stories keep coming up about problems with it too.

CONAN: And the fundamental question you get to in your book: Is adoption about the benefit for the child, or is the adoption about parents who want a baby?

Ms. SACHS: Yeah, yeah, and I think we try to say it's for the child, but we have to keep that in mind all the time, and it's a confounding issue.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is John, John with us from Toledo.

JOHN (Caller): Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: I'm a Vietnam veteran, and I just returned - my fifth trip back to Vietnam about eight days ago. And I work with a group of people in Toledo, a nongovernmental organization (unintelligible) mostly veterans that built schools in Vietnam. We've built over 40 schools and medical clinics.

But the experience that we have is going back and helping veterans heal as well. So I was there nine days ago and met a young woman when I was in Ho Chi Minh City who was an adoptee through Operation Babylift, and happened to run into her. She was there with her husband and two children, returning for the first time.

And she's a nurse living in Denver, and her purpose was to share with her family roots and discover some of that again but also to look for ways to do humanitarian works with the children in Vietnam.

And I was incredibly moved by that and humbled by it as well, and I would have to echo your earlier caller's remarks about Vietnam being an incredible country with (unintelligible) the people are incredible and people shouldn't miss out if they ever have the opportunity.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that, John, appreciate the phone call.

Ms. SACHS: It's been interesting. Just the past few weeks, there's a lot of Babylift adoptees who are returning to Vietnam, and I've been sort of keeping up with it on Facebook. They're posting all the time, and a lot of them, as the caller said, have been doing charitable work, and some are trying to find their birth families, and they're traveling around the country.

And it's so it's really heartwarming to read their posts and hear what kind of experiences they're having, which generally seem to be completely positive.

CONAN: Yet as welcoming as the Vietnamese will be, those people are no longer truly Vietnamese.

Ms. SACHS: Well, that's something that they have been dealing with their whole lives. I mean, what is their identity? They sometimes, you know, they say that inside they feel like they're Americans or whatever nationality they've been raised in, but on the outside they look Vietnamese, but they're certainly not considered Vietnamese by the Vietnamese, or not exactly in the same way.

CONAN: Yeah, so it's there is no home to return to in some profound way.

Ms. SACHS: I think they they're trying to figure out what their relationship with Vietnam is now and maybe forging something new out of that.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Maggie(ph), Maggie with us from Eastpointe in Michigan.

MAGGIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Maggie, go ahead, please.

Ms. SACHS: Hi.

MAGGIE: Hey, I had the chance to go on a medical mission to Haiti in 1996, and I happened to be visiting an orphanage, and I asked the man who runs all those operations down there: How do you feel about us Americans thinking about adopting your Haitian children? And he said better any life than no life at all. And if you've ever visited an orphanage in any of those countries, you realize that they will have no life if they stay.

If they leave, he said, you know, my ideal is that someone would take one of these children, educate them in America, but give them pride in their homeland, and maybe they could come back and actually help us lead the country, that we're so desperate for people to be raised and have the opportunity to get the skills to be able to lead. And so I'm all for international adoption.

CONAN: And Dana Sachs, you wrote a piece that was also published in the paper that raised some of the same questions raised by Operation Babylift, raised again after the earthquake in Haiti.

Ms. SACHS: Yeah, I mean, I think again the big danger is when there's some kind of disaster or war, losing children out in a panic and just saying, okay, we've got to get them out right now because - whatever, they're going to die or whatever, you know, they're going to be in some kind of danger.

I think I was impressed by the way that the Haitian government and the U.S. government handled the scandals as they erupted with the children in Haiti recently, because they said we have to take our time with this, and instead of immediately putting the children that were taken out of Haiti into adoptive homes, as soon as questions came up, they put them into a foster situation with Haitian caregivers and just said let's slow it down and figure out what's going on here.

CONAN: These were questions about whether they were truly orphans.

Ms. SACHS: Right, right, right.

CONAN: And Maggie's point, though, that maybe these children, if they're truly orphans and stranded in a place like well, not stranded - if they're growing up in poverty in a place like Haiti, or you can name any number of other countries around the world, that they would have an opportunity to come here, get educated, or go to Canada or wherever, and have an opportunity to return to their country to provide that educated elite that is so sorely needed.

Ms. SACHS: Well, we are I mean, I think that's exactly what we're seeing in Vietnam right now with the Babylift adoptees going back and trying to sort of figure out what their relationship is there, and they're I wouldn't say they're taking a leadership role in Vietnam, but they're taking a kind of visionary role of trying to do something for the people there. They're going to orphanages, and they're really thinking about these issues from a very personal point of view.

So yeah, I mean that's possible. It's hard to see them going back and being, you know, normal members of Vietnamese society, but maybe it's a new group of people that can contribute to their country.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Maggie.

MAGGIE: Welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Scott: Thank you to Dana for telling the story of a remarkable group of people. I was three years old when my parents adopted a young boy from Operation Babylift. That young boy would become a wonderful brother, someone whom I feel close to, as I do my natural brother.

Seven years ago, I returned with my adopted brother to the small village in which he was born. Seeing young men of an age similar to my brother's, I was amazed at how different and how much more difficult his life would have been.

There may be controversy today, but here's one American who thanks God his brother arrived here 35 years ago.

Ms. SACHS: I've certainly heard that a lot, and I think, I think particularly the children who were clearly homeless, I think that their situation is it seems much better. It seems like they've had a very, very good and positive experience by growing up overseas and being able to go back to their homeland.

The complicated situations are in these maybe 20 percent where they had family in Vietnam that gave them up out of a panic, and so there were families torn apart, and those situations are really pretty heartbreaking.

CONAN: You also point out that these were even the tip of the iceberg is giving it too much credit. There were maybe 900,000 quote-unquote orphans in Vietnam in 1975, the vast majority of whom were in the care of extended families in their villages.

Ms. SACHS: Right, right. I think the American public got an idea of Vietnam at that time as really not being able to take care of their children because they would see the orphanages full of children and they would see the homeless children on the street.

But the situation was really helped by the fact that Vietnamese were taking in children. They were the ones who were really to the extent that anyone was dealing with the problem of homeless children or children in need, it was the Vietnamese themselves taking them in, child by child and family by family.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tom. Tom's on the line from Portland.

TOM (Caller): Yeah, thanks for taking my call. I'm a dad of a daughter from China, and my daughter's 10. And so nine years ago my wife and I flew to China and became parents.

And the one thing that I want to point out is that obviously, international adoption is, you know, different from country to country. And it also has changed a lot over the years. We went back to China a year ago and took our daughter back and visited where she's from and spent a half a day at her orphanage. And it was the most extraordinary life-affirming experience I can hardly imagine. It was truly a blessed experience.

CONAN: And describe it a little bit if you would, Tom.

TOM: Well, I think the thing that was most essential is, for all intents and purposes, this orphanage was her home. She came into care as a very small infant. The people who cared for her as a baby were her, in fact, her family. And the thing that was most extraordinary was that the nanny that she had when she was a baby was still there. And it was quite a reunion between my daughter and her nanny.

CONAN: But - go ahead. Dana, go ahead.

Ms. SACHS: So was the thing that was moving to you is the relationship between these caregivers and the children that seemed...

TOM: Absolutely.

Ms. SACHS: Uh-huh.

TOM: Because it was - there was no question. I mean, there was no question that these folks love these kids.

Ms. SACHS: Uh-huh.

TOM: And they were thrilled that one of them came back, because by far and away, almost all of them, they never see again.

And you could tell that, you know, kind of the grief of seeing so many kids go away was kind of salved by one of them coming back. And my daughter's grief over not knowing her birth family and knowing so little of her own personal story was, you know, kind of addressed and salved in the same - at the same time.

CONAN: It's interesting he uses the word grief, Dana Sachs. It's the same word you use to describe some of these children 35 years after Operation Babylift, kids who will never find their families.

Ms. SACHS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is - in a lot of ways, this is a story of grief. You hear about - he's talking about the caregivers, and I heard stories - I interviewed a few of the caregivers who worked in these orphanages and the sadness that they felt when the children left -I mean, they really were like mothers to these children. And they're - I mean, when people are moved from country to country, and especially children, it causes a lot of pain, even if in the end, it's the best thing for those children.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tom.

TOM: You're very welcome. Thanks for the show.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

We're talking with Dana Sachs about her book, "The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to - this is Donna(ph). Donna calling from Cincinnati.

DONNA (Caller): Yes. Hi. My question is in response to a comment that one of your earlier callers made. I believe he said his son is there teaching English now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DONNA: But he mentioned that on the tour, there were two Amerasian -well, they're adults now - there with him, and he said they were basically discriminated against. They were told that, you know, they weren't Vietnamese. So my question to your guest is, is there a difference in the discrimination between children who are half Asian and half American depending on the color of the father? If the father is a black American or if he is a Caucasian American. Is there a difference? And if so, does that still exist today? And if you could, you know, elaborate on that for me, I'd appreciate it. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks.

Ms. SACHS: Yeah, sure. Yeah. There is discrimination based on the color of the skin. I mean, I think that African-Americans are something that is more strange for Vietnamese. They've seen less of that. And they do discriminate more against children who are of African-American descent than the Caucasian ones. And there was a lot more concern during the Babylift for those kids, that those African-American, Amerasian kids would be taken out of the country because of that. And I think when they go back, they feel it too. It's just - it's very strange to Vietnamese. And so, I think that - I think a lot of those children have suffered.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tricia(ph). Tricia with us from Nashville.

TRICIA (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

Ms. SACHS: Hi.

TRICIA: I guess what I'm calling about is I'm actually the adoptive mother of a child who is half Filipino and half Caucasian. And then we also have a nephew who is adopted from Russia. And the comment of is a child better off in an economically developed country of wealth or the poverty in which they were born, that is not the issue. The issue is the birth mother making the best decision that she can make in that moment of whether she can parent that child or not. And we really just have to support those birth mothers when they make those decisions because they're doing the best they can with what they have in front of them.

Ms. SACHS: I totally agree with you. I think that this is something that adoption agencies and the governments that are involved in adoption need to really, really focus on because there's a lot of problems with the ways that the birth mothers are given information.

There was just a case out of Vietnam a few weeks ago where birth parents in some village up in the mountains were told that their children were being taken to the coast - down to the coast for school and that they'd be back in a few years well-educated and those children were sent overseas for adoption. So those women were making - they were making the best decisions that they could make. And who wouldn't make a decision like that? But the information that they got was wrong.

TRICIA: Right. And that's the responsibility of our government when we (unintelligible).

Ms. SACHS: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And the agencies, as Dana Sachs points out, some of this was amateur hour.

Ms. SACHS: Some of this was just corruption.

TRICIA: Yeah. That's exactly it. And then the other thing on the discrimination issue, you know, we live in a wonderful community, but my son frequently - a parent will say to me, well, where is he from? And he was actually born in the United States, but, well, he's Asian. He's not American. And we hear those comments frequently. So I think it's also not just the other countries and how they treat children that have been adopted overseas.

And people tend to put nationality and race in one category, and they are two very different categories. My son's race is half-Filipino, half-Caucasian, but his nationality is American.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that, Tricia. We appreciate it.

TRICIA: Thank you.

Ms. SACHS: There's a funny story in my book where one of the adoptive mothers talked about walking down the street with her tiny baby right after the baby left and an American came up to her and said, well, can he speak English? And she said, he's a baby. He doesn't speak anything yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Dana Sachs's book is "The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam." She joined us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. Thanks very much.

Ms. SACHS: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, three famous astronauts blast President Obama. Stay with us, this is NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'The Life We Were Given'

Cover of 'The Life We Were Given'
The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam
By Dana Sachs
Hardcover, 288 pages
Beacon Press
List price: $25.95

One afternoon during the conference, I walked to Dorchester's Pho # 1 Restaurant with adoptee David Fisk, a shy and gentle engineer who'd flown in from Southern California for the reunion. The Vietnam Adoptee Network had by then existed for about five years and, because most of VAN's members had no known biological relations, they had quickly coalesced into a kind of family for each other. As we sat in the crowded noodle shop that afternoon, I sensed that David felt impatient to get back to his friends, but he was too polite to show it, resolutely sharing with me the facts he knew about his past. He believed he was the son of a Vietnamese mother and an African-American G.I. father, and his light brown skin and curly black hair made him look more like a black American than a Vietnamese. Unlike most of the Babylift adoptees, he was old enough to remember his birthparents, too. In fact, he had memories of both his life in Vietnam and his evacuation to the United States.

Despite the memories, the holes in David's history were huge. He didn't know the names of his birthmother or father. He didn't know his original legal name, though he remembered being called "Hen Ly." He didn't know where he was born, or even his age (he was born sometime between 1967 and 1969, which made him anywhere from six to eight years old when he arrived in the States). He believed that he had lived in Saigon, but he couldn't know for sure. Because he arrived in the U.S. with almost no identifying information, he had to rely on his own 30-year-old memories to fill out his history. Those memories had the wispy, almost supernatural quality of dreams.

Practically speaking, David's present-day life would have been better served if he had remembered specifics, like birthdates and names, but the human mind doesn't work that way. David's memories seemed absolutely random. Or, perhaps they did have a logic, but it was a logic that he could no longer understand. In one memory, he had been cut accidentally on his hand with a nail clipper and an older girl — maybe a sister? — seemed to have helped him care for the wound. "I can still see the scar," he told me, stretching his hand across the table for me to look at. I wasn't sure if he was trying to prove his point, or if he wanted to share with me this single piece of evidence that connected him to the life he'd led in Vietnam. In any case, though I carefully peered down at the smooth skin of his hand, I couldn't make out a scar there. David pulled his hand back and said, half-apologetically, "It's very light, so you can't see it now." But it was clear to me that he saw it.

He described other memories as well. He could remember being frightened by a Vietnamese soldier who had lost a leg, but "I didn't know there was a war going on," he told me. He remembered a little girl, who might have been a younger sister, and that she had odd scars all over her legs. He remembered a tall, black man in army fatigues, whom he believed to be his father. "I liked it when he came around," he said. David could not remember the face of his mother at all. He didn't live with her and, in retrospect, he believed she worked as a prostitute "because she was really well off." Although he rarely saw his mother, he felt that he had always been able to count on her to reappear. "I didn't feel insecure," he told me, "because I knew my mother would always come, because she always came back and visited or at least brought me to someplace else." His memories were vague, but on this point he seemed certain. "She always came back," he said.

Over the years, David had cobbled together a scenario for his early life, a story based on his own memories, some educated guesses, and the few bits of factual information he had managed to procure from his adoption agency, which had not been forthcoming. The story goes like this: His father was a black G.I. His mother, a prostitute, had three children and enough money to pay other people to care for them. Eventually, she placed David and his younger sister in boarding school, but she continued to visit them. After David had spent about six months in the school, a Dutch priest arrived and took him to an orphanage filled with babies. He spent a few days there. Then, he was taken to the airport, put on a plane, and flown out of Vietnam. He ended up in South Florida with his new adoptive family, the Fisks, who lived in the town of Homestead. The Miami Herald and local television covered his arrival at the airport and the moment he first met his new family.

It took him about a year to learn English. Once, a Vietnamese speaker came by to translate, but, other than that, he was on his own. He couldn't remember ever being told that he had a new family now. He couldn't remember any explanations. "I just got used to the fact," he said. "I just got used to it."

There were moments during that conversation, when David spoke of his birthmother, or of his arrival in the States, or, now, of that year spent adjusting to his new circumstances, when the various tragedies of his life became so apparent that, instead of pushing harder, I had to glance past them and move on. The scar on his hand was a scar I couldn't see, but these other scars became more visible. I was coming to realize that the reserve I had taken at first to be shyness was, more likely, inexpressible grief.

Almost an hour had passed since we'd arrived at the restaurant. We finished our coffee, then walked back up the road toward the community center hosting the reunion. It felt refreshing to be outside after sitting in the stuffy restaurant. As we walked, David told me that he didn't have any complaints about his adoptive family. He simply didn't feel close to them. These days, his attention focused on Vietnam. He had traveled there several times in recent years, spending many hours in Saigon, searching for clues to his past.

I looked at David. In a few months, I planned to leave for Vietnam to conduct research on the Babylift. "If you have some names of orphanages or anything," I told him now, "I'm happy to go by and check them out."

David shrugged. "That might be good," he replied. He looked more hesitant than pleased, though, as if he wouldn't let himself place too much hope in such efforts.

Excerpted from The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam by Dana Sachs. Copyright 2010. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

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