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The Children They Left Behind

Three decades after the Vietnam War, new grass-roots efforts are underway to reunite thousands of Amerasians with their GI fathers in the United States. But indifference, corruption, and government red tape stand in the way.

When Clint Haines last scoured the highlands of central Vietnam, he was part of a US Army "hunter-killer" team, an airborne cavalry unit that swept low over the treetops, drawing fire from an invisible enemy and calling in strikes on hidden encampments. Thirty-two years on, Haines has returned to his old battlefield with the same stomach-churning, heart-pounding thrill of mission he felt every morning he boarded his helicopter in 1971. Only this time, Haines is not hunting for Viet Cong -- he is searching for the child he fathered and has never known.

Haines long ago traded his jungle camouflage for a baseball cap and chinos, and his waistline has bloated from three decades of fast food and hard knocks in a succession of jobs and marriages. His weapons retired, he is armed for this mission with a dreamy black-and-white photo of a Vietnamese woman with cascading hair and movie-star looks: 20-year-old Nguyen Lieu, his first love, the pregnant fiancee he left behind when his request to extend his tour was denied. Haines, then 19, promised to return for her and marry. They had one exchange of letters, via another GI, but then the intermediary was sent home and Haines and Lieu lost touch. The war raged on, Lieu's village fell to the North, and going back was impossible.

"It was a terrible goodbye. My intention was to finish my tour in the service and go back and get her," Haines, now living in Oregon, says ruefully. "The paperwork to get married before I left was horrendous; I didn't even try. I was young, I was dumb. What did I know? I got one letter, wrote back and included a $100 money order for her in the name of that GI. I never heard back. I wonder if she ever got it. I never even found out if our baby was a boy or a girl."

Haines is one of a small but growing number of Vietnam veterans who, after years of battling postwar demons, are finally trying to come to terms with their nagging consciences -- and with the children they left behind. Despite a US law committed to bringing "home" all children of Vietnam War relationships, thousands of half-American children are estimated to have never made it out. Branded "bastards of the enemy" in the country of their mothers, they are all but forgotten now in the country of their fathers.

Three decades, six careers, four marriages, and three other children later, Haines, now 52, is still haunted by thoughts of his firstborn child. It was difficult to travel to Vietnam before diplomatic relations were restored in 1995, and even then, Haines, like many other vets, had neither the financial means, the local contacts, nor the emotional readiness to begin his search. But finally, last year, retired and living on veteran disability payments for Agent Orange exposure and secure in a supportive marriage, Haines was ready to turn back the pages of his life.

Through the Internet, Haines found Brian Hjort, a 32-year-old blacksmith in Sweden who was moved by the miserable plight of Amerasians he met during a 1992 trip to Vietnam and has devoted his spare time and modest funds to helping from afar. Haines also found Rich Collins, a 35-year-old Amerasian civil servant in Los Angeles who was adopted and raised in the United States and wants to find his Vietnamese mother and American dad.

Haines and Collins started planning a trip to Vietnam, and a broader vision soon emerged. With Haines's connections to other vets and his past experiences as a union organizer and private investigator, with Collins's expertise in law-enforcement search tools, and with Hjort's link to Amerasians through a Vietnamese friend who acts as a translator, they are driving a campaign to reunite the long-lost children of Vietnam vets with their fathers in the United States.

In less than a year, they have tracked down enough clues to match 29 fathers with their now-grown children. Their shoestring nonprofit operation, Amerasian Child Find Network (www.amerasian-childfind.org), invites men to register and submit whatever they know about their child or old girlfriend on a database. In six months, more than 200 fathers have signed up, and the website is the 27th most visited among the top 100 sites for Vietnam veterans.

Among vets who have just started looking for their kids, the common feeling is that they must do the right thing while there is still time. Haines's own search this year in the village of An Son turned up contradictory leads and troubling rumors that Lieu had become a prostitute and abandoned their child. This month, he is back in Vietnam searching for clues for himself and other fathers. "These kids are Americans, and they deserve to be here," Haines said before leaving. "Except by an accident of where they were born, they would be here."

But for those who do manage to find each other, the ending is not always a happy one.

NO ONE KNOWS HOW MANY CHILDREN were born in Vietnam to GIs, US government employees, and civilian contractors during the war, but estimates run as high as 50,000. In 1969, at the height of US involvement, there were 541,000 US servicemen in Vietnam, most with easy access to local female companionship. Operation Babylift in the final days of the war brought 2,000 orphans to the United States, some of them Amerasians, but tens of thousands were left behind.

When the war ended, their nightmare began. To be Amerasian in postwar Vietnam "was to be a child growing up in the hands of your father's enemies," writes Dr. Robert McKelvey in his book The Dust of Life: America's Children Abandoned in Vietnam. A Vietnam veteran and now professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, McKelvey adds, "The hatred for your father and his country was directed against you, even though you were innocent of any wrongdoing."

Contrary to the one-night-stand stereotype, most Amerasian offspring were the product of longer relationships. Some mothers were bar girls who stopped working when they found a steady boyfriend, but most were poor young women who worked as maids, kitchen staff, secretaries, or laundresses on or near US bases, according to a 1992 study for the US Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Yet the assumption that their mothers were prostitutes stigmatized the mixed-race babies from birth. In Vietnam's patrilineal society, children with no father have no status. Worse still, when the communists triumphed, the mothers of Amerasians were denounced for having consorted with the enemy.

Vo Thi Vinh, now 57, worked as a bar girl in Nha Trang and bore two sons two years apart by clients who had become her steady boyfriends. While she was pregnant, both men were transferred. Vinh's sagging, papery skin and arthritic limp hint at the hardscrabble life that followed. In a two-room concrete-floored hovel down an alley from a reeking garbage dump in one of the worst slums of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), she has lived for more than 20 years with her sons, Vo Anh Quan, 34, and Vo Van Dang, 32, who now have wives and children of their own.

Both of her sons were fathered by black GIs, and with their chocolate skin and kinky hair, their heritage was too obvious to hide. In 1977, Nha Trang authorities seized her home and threw her belongings into a truck. She and her sons were packed off to a labor camp in a remote jungle west of Nha Trang. "Local communist militiamen armed with guns were waiting for us when we arrived. We were told to clear the jungle and build our own homes from wood," says Dang, who was only 6 at the time, through a translator. "They put us in the middle of nowhere -- no chance for a job, no school, no water, no power, no food, no rice. We dug our own ground wells. We went to the jungle to find plants and catch field mice and bats to eat."

After two years, their mother mustered up the courage to escape and fled with the boys at 4 o'clock one morning, walking until they hitched a ride on a logging truck and made their way to Saigon.

Derided as "con lai" (half-breeds) or "bui doi" (children of the dust), Amerasian children were routinely denied schooling or were bullied by classmates and teachers alike. The brothers' faces harden at the memory of the cruel chant "Go back to America, you dirty blacks!" Quan fought back with his fists, getting into trouble with police, who later routinely accused him of mischief he hadn't done. Like many Amerasians in Vietnam, both men are illiterate in Vietnamese and speak no English.

Trying to get work was no easier. They were barred from government jobs, military training, even factories. So Quan and his mother buy plastic containers and resell them in street markets, earning $3 a day. Dang does odd jobs at construction sites, restaurants, and loading docks, scraping together $50 a month.

Both have married Vietnamese women, but even that was not easy. At the marriage registry, a police guard asked if Dang's wife was "thinking clearly" to marry a black man at the bottom of society.

Asked if she ever considered giving up her children to avoid being punished as a collaborator, Vinh stiffens. "These are my flesh and blood -- I could never abandon them. Whether they were handicapped or Amerasian, I could never give them up to save myself," she says, weeping softly into her sleeve. "I know many prostitutes in Nha Trang who gave up their babies, but I think they were heartless, bad mothers."

Life was indeed worse for those whose mothers abandoned them to the streets or sold them to "adoptive" parents who often worked them like slaves. They had no one to navigate the visa bureaucracy for them, no one to pay bribes to Vietnamese authorities, no one to plan a daring escape by boat.

IN THE MID-1980S, A SPATE OF PRESS coverage of the appalling conditions of Amerasian youngsters living on the streets of Vietnam spurred an outcry in the United States over the debt Washington owed these children. In December 1987, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act. The program (and Vietnamese refugee programs that preceded it) has enabled 23,643 presumed half-Americans born between January 1962 and January 1976 -- and 63,912 of their immediate relatives -- to immigrate to the United States, according to State Department statistics. The criteria were intentionally lenient; at first, blue eyes and fair locks or black skin and kinky hair were all it took to get a visa. Though the process may have been harder for children of Hispanic or Asian-American GIs, the initial acceptance rate was 90 percent.

But the popularity of the cause faded and skepticism grew as these "poor, barefoot, snotty-nosed kids who everyone loved," in the words of a US State Department official involved with the program in Washington, grew into adults. Moreover, fraud was uncovered. Human traffickers were making big money from rich Vietnamese who posed as relatives to get a free pass to the United States. In return for this piggybacking, the poor illiterate Amerasian applicants had their paperwork done but usually got no money. Often, they were abandoned by the fake families after they reached the United States.

The United States began to assume fraud. Acceptance rates dropped dramatically, and by the mid-1990s, officials announced that the Amerasian tide had run its course. "They could be children of British or Russians or Africans. We weren't the only ones in Vietnam," the State Department official said in a recent interview, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A half-"American" face soon was no longer enough; an applicant needs photos, letters, a marriage or cohabitation certificate issued by Vietnamese authorities, even though most women say they destroyed such evidence or had it taken from them after the communist victory.

From a peak of 19,000 immigrant visas for Amerasians in 1989, just 23 Amerasians who had applied in previous years were granted visas in the last fiscal year, along with 48 relatives, according to the State Department. A backlog of 670 cases has yet to be decided.

Gil Watts is a US businessman and Vietnam vet based in Ho Chi Minh City who has befriended and compiled files on 200 mixed-race Vietnamese unable to get visas to the United States. Watts, who is married to a Vietnamese woman and has five Amerasian children from two marriages, says he has met scores of Amerasians in every district that once hosted a US base. He estimates that thousands of Amerasians born during the war have been unfairly rejected or never got processed.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, US immigration programs are under tight scrutiny, along with the identity of prospective immigrants. Citing security concerns, officials put the Homecoming program under review in July 2002, and new applications were halted. Watts, Haines, and others fear that untold numbers of legitimate half-Americans may now never get out. "My sons grew up without fathers, outsiders in their own country," says Vinh, who first applied for a US refugee visa in 1981 under a United Nations-sponsored program. Six years passed before she heard back from the Vietnamese government, which co-administered the program; she was informed that the application had been received.

Three years later, she got a letter from police saying the local government needed to do more paperwork in their case. Another three years of unexplained delay passed before a letter summoned Dang, by then 21, for an interview. First he had to convince Vietnamese officials that he was Amerasian. Three days later, an American interviewer looked at his rounded eyes, probed his matted hair, examined his hands, and approved him. But his mother was rejected; they had no ID cards to prove that she was the woman on the birth certificate. Dang didn't want to go without her and asked for an appeal. They still have the yellowing, dog-eared paper trail. But they never heard back again. Ten years later, Dang has a wife and two children, and he has to apply all over again.

"America is my fatherland -- I have never belonged here. I have had a very hard life, and I want to go to America so my children will have a chance at a better life," says Dang, delicately pulling from its plastic cover a copy of the fresh application he submitted this July. He paid a translator $40 to write a two-page letter and is still awaiting a reply. If his case is classified as a new one, it will languish until the fate of the Homecoming program is decided.

Desperate after delays of more than a dozen years, some have taken extreme measures. Le Thi Dao, 32, who has been rejected three times despite her black skin and Afro, tried to commit suicide outside the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City last year by swallowing a bottle of pills.

Others, such as Tran Van Hai, 32, fell victim to traffickers who troll outside the consulate looking for dejected applicants. Ten minutes into recounting his many traumas, Hai flees to a bathroom to vomit and cry. His eyes red and puffy against his jet-black skin, he notes quietly that the biggest irony in his life is that he is considered American by Vietnamese, and Vietnamese by Americans. Ho Chi Minh City shopkeepers ask how he learned Vietnamese and charge him higher "foreigner" prices, refusing to believe he is local. Hai has applied to the Homecoming program four times since 1989 without success. One form letter informed him that he does not have "the physical appearance characteristic of Amerasians."

One day, outside the consulate, he was beckoned by a well-dressed Vietnamese woman who told him that if he ever hoped to get to America, he had to do what she said. Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuong had connections with corrupt police who provided fake identity papers. Hai believes she also had associates at the US consulate. The same Vietnamese employee of the consulate who ignored him days earlier smiled sweetly and arranged a swift interview with an American officer when Hai returned with fake papers, he says.

The catch was that he had to take a fake family who, he later was told, paid Phuong $20,000. Hai refused; he had a real wife and children. He says Phuong threatened to have him killed if he didn't cooperate.

The same woman exploited Nguyen Thanh Hien, 31, and his two brothers, all supposedly fathered by the same white GI. After their father left and Saigon fell, the three brothers were abandoned to the streets when their mother married a Vietnamese man who rejected them. Years later, they tried and failed to get US visas, and Phuong beckoned to Hien outside the consulate and said she could help. Instead, Hien says, she used them as "revolving doors," scamming rich families by charging several for a chance to leave with the same brother. All the while, they were still sleeping on the streets and Hien's brothers contracted pneumonia. Phuong, worried they would try to leave without a fake family, refused to give them a document they needed to visit a free clinic at the International Office of Migration. Hien buries his face in his hands and weeps till his chest shakes, barely choking out the horrible ending: Both of his brothers died.

Appalled by these and other horror stories, Watts organized half a dozen victims to give evidence. Phuong and 10 others were arrested, and the Amerasians were assured by the US Consulate that they could reapply for visas legally. Nearly two years later, none has gotten final approval to leave Vietnam.

Officials at the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City refused to be interviewed for this article. A State Department official said the government takes claims of fraud seriously and denied that any consular employee had been implicated in this case. The last time local consular staff were fired or prosecuted for working with traffickers was in the mid-1990s, the official said.

Watts recently formed Amerasian Hope (www.aahope.org), a nonprofit group cosponsored by his veterans' chapter in Minnesota; it hopes to advocate for Amerasians seeking visas at the US Consulate and improve living conditions for those who cannot leave Vietnam. "I look at their faces, and I see my fellow soldiers' faces," Watts says, gesturing at hundreds of photos of indigent Amerasians he has scanned into his computer.

Many of these grown men and women share a fantasy that their fathers are searching for them and will rescue them from misery if they can only get to the United States. Yet of those who have made it to the United States, only 3 percent have found their fathers, according to an Ohio State University study.

Nothing has really changed for Hien. He got a US visa more than a year ago but was stopped first by Vietnamese bureaucracy and now by an FBI background check required by Homeland Security, which, he is told, will take six months to a year. He lives in semi-hiding, fearful that associates of the traffickers he helped bust will kill him. The brothers who were his only family for 25 years are dead, and he is still in Vietnam. "There is no future for me here, no life, only misery and death. I am American, and I deserve to find my father," he says. "But I may be dead, like my brothers, before I ever get there."

In the popular musical Miss Saigon, a group of vets returns to Vietnam a few years after the war to search for the soldiers' children, singing: " 'Bui doi,' the dust of life. / Conceived in hell and born in strife. / They are living reminders of the good we failed to do."

In reality, few men ever bothered to look. And for those Amerasians who do manage to find their fathers in America, author McKelvey writes, "a deep cultural divide and unfulfilled expectations make most reunions unsuccessful, disappointing, and painful."

Two weeks into his tour with the 101st Airborne Division in Phuoc Vinh, William T. Lovett of Smyrna, Georgia, met a young woman named Nguyen Thi Hien at a party on base. They started dating immediately, and he rented her a two-room apartment, where they slept every night for nine months. Hien became pregnant. Lovett happily told his parents and siblings, and his sister sent a package with maternity and baby clothes.

Then, 17 days before Hien was due to deliver, in September 1968, Lovett got an "early out" and was ordered to depart in 24 hours. He tried to persuade Hien to come, but she didn't want to leave her mother and brother and worried about giving birth on the airplane. They locked themselves in her apartment and cried all night, as Lovett stroked her stomach to feel the tiny kicking feet of their unborn child and whispered to the baby that they would be together soon.

Hien wrote to him once to say they had a healthy boy, she recalls, but then lost her wallet with his address in it. Lovett wrote back asking what she had named him, but by then Hien had moved to the countryside, and the letter never reached her.

In 1971, Lovett married an American woman with whom he has had five children, but he never forgot Hien and their son. In the early 1970s, he contacted the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which sent a representative to look for her in Phuoc Vinh and Vung Tau, where her family was from. After the war, he created a file with the US Embassy in Bangkok and the Red Cross and asked them to look. He sent her photo to adoption agencies and asked them to show it around in case anyone recognized her.

Two years ago, through an American human-rights lawyer who works with Vietnamese refugees, he was put in touch with Hjort and his friend Phan N. Hung, who later cofounded the Child Find Network with Haines and Collins. Hung placed an ad for Lovett headlined "Searching for My Family" in a Ho Chi Minh City paper alongside an old photo of Hien. Two days later, Lovett's mother received an excited call from Ho Chi Minh City. It was Hien.

Her son, Nguyen Thai Quoc, recalls that he was shocked when his mother rushed to the recycling dump where he works to give him the news: "My heart was racing, tears were streaming down my face, I couldn't work. I was so happy and proud to have a real father, to find my true origins."

So began a long-distance reunion that has continued for two years. Quoc, Hien, Lovett, and Lovett's mother have been writing, e-mailing, and exchanging packages, family photo albums, and occasional phone calls. "Dear Hien, I have so many things to say to you, but I do not know what to say first," Lovett wrote in his first e-mail, recounting the many attempts he made to find her and their son. "I am now 56 years old and I am much wiser than I was when I was 23. Thank you for being the best mother in the world to our son."

In another e-mail, he wrote, "I could not forgive myself for not being there for you and my son. I hope everyone in your family qualifies to come to America. Some day we will talk a long time and laugh about our experiences. You and I are survivors."

Lovett sent Hien and Quoc his Army records, proof of his searches, and photos of himself and a pregnant Hien, so that Quoc and Hien and their families could get visas under the Homecoming Act. At first, Hien's husband didn't want to come. Lovett's wife and children also needed time to come to terms with the prospect of a forced family reunion with strangers.

They had plenty of time. A year later, they were still waiting. The US consulate told Lovett that despite ample documentation, he would have to send a DNA kit to the consulate to have Quoc tested. He sent one himself in June of last year and was told it never arrived. His laboratory sent another via FedEx in March of this year, and it was returned with a note saying the lab had not written his case number on it. A few months ago, a Vietnamese who identified himself as a consular employee called Hien's home several times while Quoc was out but refused to leave a message. Quoc worries that it was someone who wanted a bribe or was a trafficker. Lovett told him not to worry.

Lovett reassured Quoc in an e-mail: "When you get to America, we will talk long hours and make up for lost time. We will see each other soon. I will feed you some American food, OK? I love you. Be patient, be wise. Your father, Bill Lovett."

By July of this year, everyone was getting impatient. "I don't care if I go to the US or if Bill Lovett comes here, I just want to meet him. I really need to meet my father as soon as possible," Quoc said mournfully, fingering a cross he now wears in recognition of Lovett's faith that Jesus reunited them.

Then, in mid-September, a bomb dropped. The third DNA kit had arrived, Quoc was tested at a US-designated lab in Ho Chi Minh City, and now Lovett's lab said he was not Quoc's father. Hien burst into tears over the phone, saying it was impossible. Quoc turned ashen, said nothing, and has started drinking.

Lovett went numb when he heard the news. "It took me 35 years to find him, and there has never been any doubt in my mind or hers that the baby was mine." He is sure Hien was not seeing other men during the nine months they were together, but he concedes that maybe she was with someone else in the two weeks before they met. Still, he has his doubts about the DNA test; Quoc wonders if he was given a negative result because he failed to offer a bribe to the Vietnamese doctor.

"I'm thinking about how Quoc must be feeling," says Lovett. "Two years ago I found him, and he had elation and hope -- and now this happens. As far as I'm concerned, nothing has changed. If I can't be his father, I can be his stepfather. I certainly have an emotional and spiritual connection with him. I was there for all nine months he was growing, and his little feet were trying to stick out of her belly." If Quoc still wants to come to the United States, Lovett says he will sponsor him and support him.

But the State Department official contacted for this story says that if the DNA doesn't match, Quoc doesn't qualify. Unless he can prove American parentage through DNA, he has no option other than the low-odds "visa lottery" that is open to any prospective immigrant.

Asked about Lovett's doubts about the conduct and accuracy of the test, the State Department investigated and found that, in violation of department policy, no US official was present during Quoc's DNA test. The consulate has agreed to retest Quoc at the government's expense, but the results of that test will be final.

If all fails and Quoc cannot come to America, Lovett says he will do what he can to continue the relationship from afar. "This was about making peace with myself. But I still feel responsible for him, for the son I always thought I fathered," he says. "The sad thing is, everywhere the US Army has gone, there are stories like mine."

Indira A. R. Lakshmanan is a member of the Globe staff and served as the paper's Asian bureau chief.

Former bar girl Vo Thi Vinh in Ho Chi Minh City with her sons, Vo Van Dang (left) and Vo Anh Quan. Former bar girl Vo Thi Vinh in Ho Chi Minh City with her sons, Vo Van Dang (left) and Vo Anh Quan. (Photo / Indira A. R. Lakshmanan)
<b>Clockwise from top:</b> Nguyen Thi Hien's son, Nguyen Thai Quoc, holds a photo of William T. Lovett, the US soldier who lived with his mother in Vietnam; Lovett in an undated photo; Hien as a young woman. Clockwise from top: Nguyen Thi Hien's son, Nguyen Thai Quoc, holds a photo of William T. Lovett, the US soldier who lived with his mother in Vietnam; Lovett in an undated photo; Hien as a young woman. (Top photo / Indira A.R. Lakshmanan)
<b>Clockwise from top:</b> Vietnam vet Cliff Haines, who last saw his pregnant fiancee, Nguyen Lieu, in 1971, searches for his child in Vietnam; Haines in Vietnam; Nguyen Lieu. Clockwise from top: Vietnam vet Cliff Haines, who last saw his pregnant fiancee, Nguyen Lieu, in 1971, searches for his child in Vietnam; Haines in Vietnam; Nguyen Lieu. (Top photo / Indira A.R. Lakshmanan)
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