Operation Babylift (Vietnam Adoptions 1975)

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Adoptee Connection

By Tuan-Rishard F. Schneider

An American adoptee from Vietnam shares his life story.

Saigon, Viet Nam, 1975, and the Communists are taking control of the South. People are fleeing the streets, their homes, and their country. A young infant named Nguyen Ngoc Tuan was being prepared by an adoption agency to leave his country. Only 6 months old, Tuan didn't know what lay ahead of him. He and many other children who were infants during the war were released and placed for adoption by their parents. Some know why they were given up and some don't...and never will. But the general purpose was to make sure that the child was given a better chance to survive and live in a country that wasn't as war-torn as Viet Nam. Mothers' hearts were broken, releasing and placing their children up for adoption; records of families were lost, confusion was rampant, and parents were sending their children to a better and safer place, any way they possibly could.

I, Nguyen Ngoc Tuan, now 26-year old Tuan-Rishard F. Schneider of Minneapolis, MN, don't remember anything from my months in Viet Nam. The only thing I know now is that my past has many unanswered questions, and I plan on uncovering the answers.

Tuan with his foster motherI wasn't a part of the Operation Babylift, but a majority of all my new friends I now consider family were. I had been on a flight a month before the actual "Operation Babylift". In the waning days of the war, "Operation Babylift" was authorized by President Ford to evacuate some 70,000 Vietnamese orphans, many fathered by American GIs. By the time it was over, some 2,000 children were airlifted from the South Vietnamese capital as communist forces made a lightning-quick advance down the narrow country that ended with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Within the past 6 months, I have met some amazing Vietnamese adoptees. I have also learned that there was a crash during these flights. A C-5A Galaxy cargo plane, loaded with more than 300 infants, toddlers and caretakers, plunged from the sky, killing half of those on board. The plane crashed two miles from Tan Son Nhut Airport on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon back then. Thirty flights were approved, but the evacuation was just beginning when the worst happened. Shortly after take off, an explosion blew out the rear cargo door of one of the world's largest planes at the time. The pilots were able to turn the aircraft around and crash-land two miles from the airport. Skidding another 1,000 feet, the plane bounced up again before hitting a dike and shattering on impact in the middle of a rice paddy. The bottom half of the cargo compartment—filled largely with children aged 2 and under—was destroyed.

It was one of the final heartbreaking tragedies that tore at the hearts of an American public already numbed by the war's horrors. In the end, over 2,700 babies were brought safely to the United States.

Since my arrival, the most general idea of what people might think of us adoptees is that things are all right now; they aren't. For 25 years I lived in the shadow of adopted Koreans. There were always support groups, weekly summer camps, and other Korean adoptees for others to talk with. Being a Vietnamese adoptee, I never knew of one other adoptee from Viet Nam. I grew up feeling alone and totally different. I lied about who I was, or what ethnicity I was to fit in. I had on a lot of features that could be described as either Asian, Latin…etc.

Finally, 25 years later, a reunion for adoptees from Viet Nam. At first I was hesitant. I had met some great people online who lived near Baltimore and I had planned on going to visit them and not attend anything that had to do with the reunion. If it weren’t for my online friend Wendy making me go and meet some new people, I wouldn’t have ever had the greatest change of my life. A change that made me open my heart, and become a more peaceful and passive person. After meeting one adoptee after another, my life completely changed. It’s one decision I will never regret or look back on and think twice about. I am happy and feel like a piece of my sadness is gone and filled with a warm fuzzy feeling of strength. I belong, and I am not judged or alone anymore!

I am now amongst others who are exactly like me and have felt the same way I have for 25 years. Alone, scared, confused, frustrated, angry, violent, suicidal, depressed and hopeless. But now all that is gone. It’s like I was cleansed from all the negative feelings inside and reborn again. Reborn with hope, support, excitement, peacefulness, happiness, some answers, and mostly love in my heart for others…a love that wasn’t there for others when it should have been. My cleansing has given me a new sense to help others and live for tomorrow. It’s like God reached down and touched my angry dead heart and gave me a new one. One full of life and energy to spread love and joy to others I meet. I have patience for things I hated to wait for. I am mature about racism and prejudiced people. I know that discrimination will always be around regardless of what anyone does or says. My hand opens to teach instead of striking the first person that calls me a chink, gook, slant, slope, rice nigger, or yellow bitch.

How did all this happen you must ask? All from meeting another adoptee from Viet Nam that shared the same difficulties that I have endured for 25 years. That’s all it took to cleanse me, to lift the anger, hate and frustration of my inner anger. Growing up, other Vietnamese people didn’t really associate me with themselves. I had white parents, white friends, and a sister who was an adoptee from Korea. My facial features aren’t exactly similar to my other Vietnamese friends, so the assumption I was Korean was the first prejudgment (thus living in the shadow of the adopted Korean; also, Minnesota has the highest adopted Korean rate in the United States). The cleansing all started from a handshake from a Russell, then Mark, then Chris, then Jono, then Josh, and then others followed. For once in my life, I stood alone, but more loved and accepted than I have ever felt. A feeling I will never forget and a feeling that brings joyful tears to my eyes each time I think of it. Maybe it’s from being overwhelmed by all the great people I met, the wide interest in my stories by the press, or the doors of support opening for me. I’m not sure and it’s all so great and I don’t want the feeling to ever go away. I do know that the last day of the reunion I met an amazing woman. Kelly is her name. She was a survivor from the C-5 crash. I didn’t even know there was a crash. Over 200 babies crammed into one little plane and she survived, along with my buddy Mark...amazing! I learned so many things about other adoptees, Viet Nam, who I missed being and now what I want to become. As I was at the airport I noticed how filled it was with my new friends and family. I wait with all of them as they boarded their plane and went on their way. Some of them I might see again, some I might not. But I stand alone again, like I did when got off the plane here.

Before all my farewells I heard from some of the other adoptees that there was another reunion in Estes Park, Colorado in July. Without a hesitating, I quickly responded with the biggest smile, “You better believe I’m going to be there!”

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