Agent Orange, Vietnam War, Operation Baby Lift
“I’ve watched bombs fall out of the sky and blow up the ponds where my mother, siblings and I had been sitting just moments ago, looking over my Mom’s shoulder as she held all three of us kids and just ran for our lives. We watched the ponds just explode and the water and debris come right at us. The force of it so strong, it had to be by sheer determination to live, and protect her children, she would make it safely to the tree line, so we could hide yet again. Oh, the heat that followed, to this day I still have horrible nightmares about so many things from back home.”
Linda is an Amerasian woman, born in 1972 in Saigon, Vietnam. The term Amerasian was coined to define Asian born children fathered by U.S. Military men, and has been used to describe children from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines in an attempt to stop the negative term half-breed. I called Linda on a spring afternoon. I knew I was about to hear a story so important, all I could do is take a deep breath to relax before dialing her number.
Linda is currently forty-one years old and married with two grown children. She told me that only now is she able to talk about her life in Vietnam before evacuating to the United States without having many nightmares in the nights to follow. Sharing that she didn’t understand why, while growing up she had so many recurring terrifying nightmares, Linda said it was finally, after a particularly rough night that she broke down and asked both of her parents to tell her if she was having just horrendous nightmares or if they were in fact suppressed memories pushing to come thru to the surface. Both of her parents confirmed her worst fears; that they were indeed very vivid memories of exact things that had happened in Vietnam before they evacuated. Linda had been just three years old when they suddenly left her homeland and her grandmother forever.
Linda’s mother, Xuan, lived in Saigon. She was marked from day one. You see, there was a myth in Vietnam that if you delivered twins, you had slept with two men. Her mother was an identical twin and as a result of the stigma, lived a very difficult life. At age sixteen, she was basically given into slavery by her biological father, whom she didn’t know. Given to a step-sister, Xuan was made to sleep outside on the porch and given only scraps of food after the rest of the household had eaten. She got word that the U.S. PX was hiring, and, knowing that she had to get away from her imprisonment, Xuan went and applied. Beaten severely by the other women who were also applying for the position, by some twist of fate she secured the job. It was during her time working in the PX that Xuan met the man who would later become her husband. William, A.KA. Sarge, courted her with a Coca-Cola and a Hershey bar one day. Xuan said no one had ever been kind to her and she had never tasted anything so sweet. They were smitten by each other. William set her up in an apartment away from her cruel life, but soon after, he was called back home because his mother was seriously ill. Xuan said she had thought it may be the last time she would see him.
Having already served five years in the military, when Sarge was home, instead of taking his discharge, he re-enlisted. His time and experience eventually placed him in an office job by the end of his career in Saigon, however, he had seen intense fighting in the jungles as an infantry man, and told Linda that he was sprayed with Agent Orange several times and that he practically bathed in the herbicide. Linda was born in 1972, and at two years old literally died of Malaria, but was brought back to life by a doctor under the eyes of Linda’s father, who Linda described as able to be an intensely intimidating man, and who threatened the doctor if he did not resuscitate his daughter. In addition, at three years of age, Linda was diagnosed with Spina Bifida.
The war continued, and on April, 4, 1975, a warning siren went off in her town’s square. Immediately jumping into action, Linda’s father gathered his family, telling them a jeep was on its way to pick them all up. Linda remembers walking outside and seeing a mountainside covered in troops advancing towards their village. At just three years old, she said she thought they were the good guys; they weren’t. The Viet Cong were quickly approaching. The jeep arrived and Linda recalls how quickly everyone was shoved into it. Throwing her into the back, Linda bumped her head and hit her knee. Also loaded into the vehicle was her grandmother, who cared for her and had never before ridden in a vehicle. Her father jumped in last as the Jeep was pulling away. Linda described a large field with several large planes, and her father rushing around trying to get the family’s papers signed. He was holding them all tightly, as the M.P.’s were yelling for women and children to board the next departing flight. Trying to separate Sarge from his wife and children, the M.P.’s were pushing him, shouting “Women and half breeds now!” “They will stay with me,” Sarge barked back, “We will stay together or we won’t go!”
The plane the family would have been on had he relented to the M.P’s took off, barely leveling out before exploding in mid-air. Linda remembers being on her mother’s hip, watching what remained of the plane fall back to earth, sharing that while she had no idea what she had just witnessed, it was the first time she ever saw her father cry. According to DOD figures, 138 people were killed in the crash, including 78 children and 35 Defense Attaché Office Saigon personnel. Linda’s grandmother’s evacuation was not approved, and the chaotic time at the airfield was the last time Linda saw her grandmother. With the rest of the family shoved onto a large cargo plane and headed for Guam, Linda said it was during a refueling stop in Guam that her little sister’s finger was amputated by accident in the door of the plane; an incident that delayed them two days while she received medical care.
Linda described another terrifying section of her journey to the U.S., sharing that at one point in the trip after Guam, she and her family were made to take refuge in an abandoned subway tunnel. Having to travel deep into it, there was no electricity and her father had only one small flashlight. They found there were other refugees deep inside, with mattresses lining the walls and a bucket used for a bathroom. Linda said they had no food or water and could not tell how many days passed in the complete darkness. She remembers being very parched, and that her father would leave the tunnel to try to find them food and water. Linda said she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be scared or not, whether bad guys were trying to find them. Taking her cues from her father, who didn’t seem scared, she said she tried not to be either. With no sheets of blankets, it was the first time in her life she had ever felt cold, it was always warm in Vietnam. There was also the day her father left to find his family some food and water but came back empty handed to his dehydrated, hungry family.
“He was so sad; he knew how hungry and thirsty we all were. The hardest part of the whole trip was seeing the look of defeat in his eyes. I remember thinking, what is this new life going to be like? He can’t even find us water. We had a home, why did we leave?”
Linda and her family relocated to Arkansas. The only “dark-skinned” child in her town, “I had never in my life seen so many white people,” she said, adding that despite getting beat up frequently, “I never got mad, I just figured they would eventually stop; I was a peaceful kid.” Linda said her mother clung to her traditional ways, refusing to use the modern appliances in their home and instead washing clothes on a rock in their bathtub and forcing her children to do the same. She raised her own vegetables and beef and fed her family traditional Vietnamese food from scratch. Linda shared that she had never seen the interior of a supermarket until she was much older, and that her aunt had to teach her how to buy things. This also made her feel different from the other white families; she just wanted to fit in.
Linda’s family continued to struggle, and her father’s drinking became progressively worse, and he would lash out at his children and wife. Linda described him as having terrible nightmares. Because of her broken English, Xuan was ridiculed by others when out in public, however no one dared said anything in front of Sarge; everyone was afraid of him. It was following a drunk- driving accident which injured someone that he later quit drinking. Linda said she misses her father, who died four years ago from complications of Alzheimer’s, having also suffered from heart disease and diabetes for years. Often wondering why his anger was almost never directed at her, Linda said when she was old enough she asked him. He replied that the day she was resuscitated because of Malaria, he made a pack with God that he would treat her like a treasure if she survived. Her siblings were not so lucky.
When she was young she worked as a cook and would often have to unload 100 pound boxes of meat. It wasn’t until she was 16 and collapsed at work and was taken to the hospital that x-ray of her back confirmed her Spina Bifida, a diagnosis her father had failed to mention to her. Linda had to eventually give up working and fought having to file for disability because she felt too young to be disabled. It wasn’t until after several episodes of having to be carried to her vehicle or into her home by her co-workers that she realized it was time.
Linda’s Spina Bifida has become complicated by Spondylolisthesis, a condition in which vertebra in the spine slip out of the proper position onto the bone below it. She’s had two spinal surgeries; one of which led to Osteoporosis, after a doctor actually shattered her hip. Her spine is not Linda’s only pressing health concern. Shortly after her children were born, she required a partial hysterectomy at the age of 24, and later, her ovaries were removed because of a rapidly growing cyst that grew from 5cm to the size of volleyball very rapidly. Linda’s medical issues continue with endocrine problems that include a thyroid goiter, and hormone dysfunction. At age, 35 she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Placed on heart medication and large daily dose of Lasix, there have also been times that due to extreme swelling, she has required hospitalization to drain fluid from around her lungs. In addition, Linda has Multiple Sclerosis. Today, she takes 17 different medications to keep functioning.
Mentally, Linda says she still has nightmares and struggles with extreme Panic Disorder. Sharing that there have been times she has left a full grocery cart in the middle of the aisle to make a quick escape, Linda said she finds it excruciating to leave the house, and when military planes fly over their home; she instinctively wants to fall to the floor. Linda believes her health conditions are caused by her father’s and her mother’s exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant the U.S. Military sprayed over Southern Vietnam to kill the vegetation. Veterans were told the chemical was safe, only to come home and become ill. Although the Veterans Administration has recognized Spina Bifida as a birth defect caused by Agent Orange in the Children of Male Vietnam Veterans, Linda has never filed for benefits from the VA because the VA will not recognize Spina Bifida Occulta, which is the type she believes she has. “I know I would have to get an attorney to fight it,” she said.
Many Children of Vietnam Veterans with Spina Bifida are turned down because they have Occulta type. However, sources have told (COVVHA) Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance INC. that some children of Male Vietnam Veterans have won suits against the VA to get compensation for Occulta type Spina Bifida. They have found the VA has granted compensation, in return for the cases to be sealed. Sources also report, the VA cannot claim that Occulta is an exception, Spina Bifida, is Spina Bifida and they cannot separate it from the other types and deny it. It is strongly suggested that those seeking a claim are acquire a lawyer.
Linda has never returned to her homeland of Vietnam, but she said she would love to go back and find where she came from. Also curious about her grandmother, wondering if she is still alive and wanting to pay her respects if she is not. She said her mother would never want her to go back to her homeland, as Xaun, who suffers from Diabetes and heart problems stemming from her exposure to Agent Orange, is terrified Linda would be held by communist and never be allowed to return. Linda does not share her Mother’s fears, and wants to visit Vietnam someday. As for Agent Orange, Linda has watched over the years, seeing the devastation it has caused to the children in Vietnam. She said her heart breaks when she considers the environmental damage, and she dreams of the day when Dioxin is out of the soil in Vietnam so no one else has to suffer. In the United States, she would like to see the government take the concerns of the Children of Vietnam Veterans seriously, with more research and compensation for the ill.
At 41 Linda, who lives with her husband and helps take care of her young grandchild, looks back at her life and finally understands the connection to the nightmares. She wishes the war wouldn’t have followed her into her current health, and now keeps a close watch on her grown children, both of whom have issues with their back. Having seen what their mother has gone through, Linda said both are afraid to be diagnosed. Choosing to ignore it in a sense may for them make it not seem real. For Linda it is very real.
© 2013 Heather A. Bowser, LPCC
(COVVHA) Children Of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance INC. All rights reserved.
BECOME A MEMBER OF CHILDREN OF VIETNAM VETERANS HEALTH ALLIANCE
YOU WILL RECEIVE A ONCE DAILY EMAIL OF ANY BREAKING AGENT ORANGE NEWS AND RELATED TOPICS IN ADDITION TO ANY COVVHA UPDATES
PLEASE ENTER YOUR EMAIL IN THE BOX BELOW, A CONFIRMATION LINK WILL BE SENT TO YOUR EMAIL. YOU MUST OPEN THE EMAIL AND CLICK THE CONFIRMATION LINK TO COMPLETE THE PROCESS.