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Helping and Loving Orphans : An Lac Adoptee

An adult adoptee describes his meeting with Betty Tisdale, who brought him out of Vietnam duirng Operation Babylift.

By Bert Ballard

I tried to focus. I was waiting to reunite, after twenty-five years, with the woman who brought me out of Vietnam. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to react. What do you say to the woman who saved your life? How do you prepare for a reunion you have been looking forward to all of your life? In the brief months before Betty walked through the gate, I recalled how I came to be waiting in the Denver airport.

Like many in the early 1970’s, my parents watched pictures of orphaned Vietnamese children on the evening news and decided to adopt. In their research, they found Betty Tisdale, an extraordinary woman who was single-handedly supporting an orphanage in Saigon called An Lac – “Happy Place” in Vietnamese.

An Lac was operated by a woman named Madame Ngai a former northern Vietnamese aristocrat who had a heart for children. When she moved those she cared for from North Vietnam to Saigon in South Vietnam, a United Stated Navy doctor named Tom Dooley assisted her. His guiding philosophy was to provide an “education and healthy body” to orphaned children. When Dr. Dooley assed away, he passed his legacy onto Betty.

When it was time to evacuate the children from An Lac in April 1975, right before the fall of Saigon, Betty, Madame Ngai, and others created names and birthdays so the government would allow us to leave the country. In fact, only children under ten years of age were able to go; 181 were left behind. I was given the name Vu Tien Do II.

I was approximately three weeks old when I was evacuated. I had made-up name, a made-up birthday, and no past. I had no known ties to my birth family. I don’t even know how I arrived at the orphanage.

In May 1975, my new parents received a phone call that they could pick up their new infant. It was an exciting time for them, but a scary one as well .I can only imagine the nervousness and anticipation they were feeling as they drove to see me for the first time. When they first held me, they knew it to be true. They named me Robert Loran Ballard after my two grandfathers.

I always knew my life and story were unique, but it wasn’t until college that I became serious about understanding my story. During my junior year of college, a friend of mine introduced me to LeAnn Thiemann and Carol Dey, two extraordinary women who traveled to Vietnam and helped bring out babies at the end of the Vietnam war Meeting them, reading their book, and hearing firsthand about their experiences as they brought out babies and children during the last days in Saigon spurred me on even more.

In June 2000, I attended a twenty-five-year reunion of Operation Babylift children. Fro me, it was like finding long lost brothers and sisters. It was finding a group of people who related to my experiences growing p. It was being around others who could understand the uniqueness that came with being multiracial and multi-ethnic. It was being around others who also didn’t know their parents.

That’s when I learned Betty Tisdale was coming to Colorado.

And so, standing at the gate on a cold November morning in 2000, I held my breath as the seconds felt like years. Twenty-five years ago, I was separated from Betty; in a few moments, I was going to be reunited.

She walked into the airport terminal. I recognized her. She recognized me. We embraced. It was like coming home. It wasn’t an overwhelming feeling of emotions or elation. It was subtle, like God whispering his comfort in my ear.

Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time with Betty. We held hands and hugged like a mother and son. We laughed and joked like family. She told a lot of stores I learned where my name came from and why I had the birthday I did. I was told about why I have nerve deafness in my ears and why she thought my birth parents dropped me off at An Lac. I got to hear firsthand of the last days when she evacuated the children from An Lac and how Dr. Dooley inspired her to become involved. I heard her sadness regarding those she left behind and how they were living in Vietnam today.

As w spent time together, I realize that this is what Dr. Dooley and Betty had strived so hard for.

I think often of Dr. Dooley and the inspiration he provided and how proud he would be of Betty’s courageous effort in recus8ing 219 children. And me.

Dr. Dooley passed on this legacy to Betty Tisdal. Today, I have an education. Today, I have a healthy body. Today, I have countless opportunities beyond what either Dr. Dooley or Betty ever imaged.

I will continue their legacies.

Return to beginning of this series about the An Lac Babylift

This article by Bert Ballard is excerpted with permission from the inspiring book, Children Soup for the Adopted Soul.