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The War Cradle Operation Babylift - Interview Shirley Peck Barnes

Interview By Allison Martin

Interview with Shirley Peck Barnes, author of the The War Cradle, a riveting account of Operation Babylift in Vietnam 1975. Her book chronicles the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese children to America during the last days of American presence in South Vietnam.

How did you become involved in the Vietnam Babylift?

Shirley Peck Barnes: Probably my basic human concern for children in trouble. Like most people, I can't read about/or hear of children being hurt. I want to go sock somebody.

Driving home late one night, during a Denver snowstorm in March 1975, I tuned-in to a newscast telling of the plight of the Vietnamese War orphans during the last days of Saigon. Friends of the Children of Vietnam, a Denver agency who ran orphanages in Vietnam, was in crisis in wanting to get the children out of the country and to homes that welcomed them all over the world.

Along with my strong feelings for children, there were other significant factors that came into play. I was the mother of four children, including twins and an adopted child. I was an Air Force wife, and as a single girl had a tour of duty as a secretary in the orient during the Korean War years. I had some first- hand experience in seeing children of war in distress. Further, I had just been appointed to open a new healthcare facility, still vacant, which was in close proximity to Denver Children's Hospital.. It was a natural "coming-together." Ironically, the new building was constructed on the very site that Children's Hospital had its beginnings in a Victorian mansion in 1910. That this site would be a haven for children in distress twice within a century was seen as a visible act of destiny.

I have often reflected that if I had left the office earlier, as planned, and had not heard the newscast, I would have missed the moment in history all-together. I do not believe things happen by accident, I am more inclined to believe they happen by design. Operation Babylift will go down in the annals of history as one of the most humanitarian gestures of our lifetime.

What would you like people to gain from the book?

Shirley Peck Barnes: Most importantly to reflect on what war does to children and to be their voice. The lessons of Vietnam go unheeded. It is still with us, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Middle East, Ireland... there is no "war cradle" ... no protective environment for the children. We are often tangled in "causes and reasons" for war and the incidents that perpetuate it. But, if we were to place emphasis on WHAT war does to children, I think the diplomats might make a greater effort to take their arguments to the peace table, rather than the battlefield.

In readingThe War Cradle, the reader gets an insight into the tragedy of war, and its lasting effects on its smallest victims. Within the book are many testimonies, written by the adoptees themselves, which validate that they will bear the scars of war throughout their lifetime. Another issue is the desire of adoptees to search for their roots, to gain answers, when often there are none. It is a reality that all adoptees feel a void unless they have genetic answer; it is an issue that renders the adopted parents helpless. Since little has been written about Operation Babylift, The War Cradle provides a better understanding of how it all happened and of the circumstances and the individuals involved.

While adoption is often necessary and the list of couples wanting children is long, more focus needs to address unwanted pregnancies and the parenting of children that are unwanted or cannot be cared for. Nothing can erase the sense of abandonment that most adoptees endure throughout their lifetime.

What advice do you have for adoptive parents?

Shirley Peck Barnes: Often times new parents fall victim to the temptation of family and friends who give too much advice on adoption and how to raise an adopted cild. Open adoption, too, has become a much discussed subject and for some too liberal to implement. Bonding occurs immediately and although the adoptive parents have accepted the child into their hearts and are the legal parents, society still perceives you as a second-best choice which is often demonstrated by offering too much sympathy to an adoptee. "Have you ever tried to find the real parents?" is a question both adoptive parents and adoptees must deal with. Frankly, adoption is nobody else's business and society would do well to remember that. Let the family develop as a normal family. It would do well for parents to discuss and alert siblings to the false intents and outside intervention that is harmful and infringes on the bonding and trust that is established between the adoptee and parents. I highly recommend building a trust with your child. Let him know that you are the one who will "step up to the plate" anytime he/she needs help.. And if he needs a kidney, he's got it! From the moment the adopted child is placed in your arms, he/she is your own. Go with your gut feeling and all your love. It will be the vanguard that protects against adversity. Remember, a child from the womb is a walk with nature.. Taking a child that is not your own, is a walk with God.

As for the adoptees role and responsibility... it is the same as for any child. Love, honor, remember and be loyal to the people who loved and raised you. You have the same responsibility and obligation to your parents as any child born unto this world.

What advice do you have for parents raising children adopted internationally?

Shirley Peck Barnes: I want to scream it from the highest tower.. It's not color that separates or instills bigotry.. It's Behavior! If this were not true, God would not have made all the flowers a different color... each decidedly different and beautiful.

Maintaining a link to the child's heritage may or may not apply. It often depends upon the age of the child. Most foreign-born children become Americanized and are not interested in their foreign culture. Since we are a nation of immigrants we often absorb various cultures and traditions. It most probably is wise to leave the choice to the adoptee. As an adult he/she will either express interest and find the path to his culture or not consider it important to him.

Showing interest in all cultures and traditions is the path most Americans take. We celebrate St. Patrick's day, Octoberfest, Cinco de Mayo, attend Chinese restaurants, and respect a number of traditional customs and holidays that are a part of the American culture. Families who participate and show interest in the various ethnic cultures are fostering understanding and acceptance.

Shirley Peck Barnes is the author of The War Cradle