She Fled Saigon As A Child. Now She's Seeing Parallels In Afghanistan Thuan Le Elston of USA Today talks with Scott Simon about her experience fleeing Saigon as a child at the end of the Vietnam War and how she relates to the current crisis in Afghanistan.

She Fled Saigon As A Child. Now She's Seeing Parallels In Afghanistan

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1029958787/1029958788" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thuan Le Elston has watched the scenes from Kabul - the helicopters lifting off long lines at foreign embassies, people climbing compound walls and trying to throw themselves onto planes - with a particular and personal ache. In 1975, she was among those families of South Vietnamese who'd worked for U.S. forces and were desperate to leave before North Vietnamese forces rolled in. She is now a member of USA Today's editorial board and joins us.

Thank you so much for being with us.

THUAN LE ELSTON: Thank you, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: What goes through your mind when you see those scenes from Kabul?

LE ELSTON: It's more than seeing scenes. Because my husband is an editor for a defense contractor, we have numerous friends and colleagues who are Afghan Americans who are trying to get their family members out. We just heard that a family member managed - with Visa approved by the U.S. managed to make it to the airport with instructions. You know, very specific - if you can make it through the Taliban gauntlet, go to this gate. And yet he made it through and had to turn away. He saw a woman die in front of him. So, yeah, it's - I can't even watch TV anymore.

SIMON: You were a third-grader, I gather, in Saigon, 1975. Your father was the managing editor of a newspaper. And when you wrote this article in USA Today, it just struck my heart. He came home and said, our world is coming to an end.

LE ELSTON: As a third-grader, it was all fun and games. You know, I mean, mom was making backpacks. We'd never had backpacks. We'd never had tennis shoes. And all of a sudden, she bought us tennis shoes. And then the morning after, the South Vietnamese president resigned. We were in a taxi. I'd never been in a taxi. That's considered a luxury. And we were going to the airport. I'd never been on an airplane. This is all an adventure. And we were leaving with one of my cousin's families. And my cousin, while we were standing in line at the airport, she gathered some rocks into a bag that she put into her pocket, and she said, you know, Vietnam's earth. And we didn't even dare to go to the bathroom because we were afraid of losing our place in line. And what if they called our name? But finally, we got on a Pentagon C-130 cargo plane. As we were lifting off, U.S. soldiers were going around looking out the windows. And my dad asked why, and they said that we had been shot at. But luckily it was nighttime, so only the wings were nicked. And so - yeah.

SIMON: What is it like to be told, OK, you get to pack one bag, one small bag, put your life into it and leave?

LE ELSTON: I don't think I believed it. You know, the adventure inside me, I don't think I ever fully grasp what we were doing until the plane was taking off. And we landed in Manila, and we spent the first night at a U.S. base in the Philippines. And it was just like sleeping bags as far as the eye can see. And that was when I really got it. Still around me, the adults were saying maybe in a month, we can go back. There was just such a sense of denial. One night in the Philippines and then a week in Guam - and it was the week in Guam, April 30, when Saigon fell. We were in a Quonset hut, and the BBC was on announcing the Fall of Saigon. And my dad was translating the radio to the rest of the hut. And it was utter silence. That was when I think it really hit me we're not going home. And I - some child cried, and my dad said, well, the adults can't cry. You know, everybody was just too numb when we heard that. That was when it hit.

SIMON: I have to ask, at this point in the week, you've probably heard some voices in this country who say they don't want a flood of Afghans coming into the U.S. What would you say?

LE ELSTON: People forget that American public sentiment of the Vietnam War was so down in '75 that a lot of people didn't want Vietnamese refugees. Jerry Brown, then governor of California, he sent an aide to the airport to try to stop planes from landing with refugees. You know, he's changed his mind, and he's progressed a lot. But there was a reason why our buses were always at night - to avoid attention, to avoid protesters. It's the same thing.

You know what's surprising, is that yesterday we've been emailing and calling different refugee community centers in the area to try to see how we can help. And an Ethiopian refugee agency is now helping Afghan refugees. And yesterday, my husband, my mother-in-law and my youngest son, who's 14 years old, they went to a halal grocery store, bought food, brought it to the refugee family and met them. So Americans are stepping up. And this Ethiopian - again, Ethiopian refugee agency - said that they're very lucky. A lot of donations have coming in. A lot of volunteers have signed up. Americans are stepping up. I just - there's no official word.

SIMON: Is there anything you'd like to say to some Afghan families who are here now?

LE ELSTON: My heart is with you. This is, unfortunately, your time for your tragedy to unfold. It's as if Washington and the Pentagon, it's as if they learned nothing from the Fall of Saigon. They were stunned at how fast communist forces came down from the DMZ. This time, they're stunned about how fast Kabul fell. At least in '75, the U.S. ambassador then pushed and begged for some semblance of an evacuation plan, even though there were tragedies all over the place, but people were being evacuated. This time, there's nothing that you can see. It's just horrifying. It's just a million times worse.

SIMON: Thuan Le Elston is a member of USA Today's editorial board and author of the forthcoming book, "Rendezvous At The Altar: From Vietnam To Virginia."

Thank you so much for being with us.

LE ELSTON: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.