Red Cross Volunteers - Vietnam Babylift
By Paula Richardson
A Red Cross volunteer cares for the babies of the Vietnam babylift.
I am so glad to see more and more stories are coming out about this Operation. For a long, long time it seemed not many people were interested and it seemed difficult to locate information, even from the Red Cross, with whom I had volunteer. To me it was one of the most humanitarian efforts of the Viet Nam War. To those people who organized and coordinated Operation Babylift and gave their lives for the Operation, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to have one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.
In April 1975 I was working at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in Long Beach CA. The word was spread around the yard the American Red Cross was in immediate need of Volunteers to care for children being airlifted out of South Viet Nam and brought to the Long Beach Naval Station. I didn't even hesitate, although I was a single, working Mom of a 5-year old son, I knew I had to volunteer my time for such a worthwhile cause. The out pour of Volunteers was amazing. I was a Red Cross Volunteer from the first day the children of Operation Babylift started arriving at the Naval Station through to the end of April 1975 when the last child left the Base.
If I remember right, they turned the Naval Station's Gym into a receiving area. The children would be arriving at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station and then bussed to the Naval Station. Once the children arrived at the Gym, they were examined by Naval Doctors and Nurses, then they were assigned to a Volunteer for further care during the duration of their stay at the Base.
I remember the orientation speech given to the Volunteers by the American Red Cross before we started receiving the children. We were told do not get emotionally involved with the children. They would only be there for a day or two, then transported to their adoptive parents or to other locations, if they did not have adoptive parents waiting.
It was all well and fine for the Red Cross to give that speech, but it was a whole different story when the precious cargo started arriving and coming through those doors of the Gym. Whatever the Red Cross had said was forgotten at that moment. As soon as you saw those scared little faces, the babies that were sick and looked so fragile, you were going to become emotionally involved no matter what.
This is my story:
While the first baby I was assigned to take care of wasn't the only child I was I took care of during the month of April, she is the one I remember the most, the one I've thought about for the past 27 years and wondered if she made it ok.
The baby's name was Tan (sic), she was about 2 years old and so very tiny. She had short brownish-black hair and the biggest brown eyes, (very frightened eyes). She was so fragile-her arms and legs so thin. Tan had arrived in the afternoon. After she was examined by the Doctor and prescribed with medicine, she was given to me for further care.
I bathed her, got clean clothes on her, gave her the medicine and held her while I gave her a bottle of sugar-water. I held Tan while she slept, a fitful sleep-she was so frightened. (I spent most of my time just holding her-hoping I could give her a sense of security and warmth.)
After spending about 6 continuous hours with Tan, some of the other Volunteers finally convinced me to take a break, Tan was sound asleep-so I figured it would be a good time to go. I was gone about 45 minutes. I came back to the sound of Tan crying hysterically. The Volunteers told me she woke up right after I left and saw I wasn't there and she just started crying, they said no matter what they tried to do she wouldn't quit. I picked her up and almost immediately she started to settle down. I didn't leave her again until about 10:30-11:00 that night. I went home completely drained, both physically and emotionally, but more important than that was the complete feeling of fulfillment that I had, it was so awesome. Just to know that, even if it was for only a little while, I made one baby feel safe.
I couldn't wait to get back the next day to help make another child feel a little less frightened, give them some sense of security amongst all of the confusion going on around them.
One way the Red Cross felt it would help the Volunteers become less emotionally involved with a particular child, was they would assign you a different child the next day. (I guess their theory would have worked if all circumstances would have permitted, and didn't throw glitches into the theroy.)
When I arrived at the Gym the next morning, about 8:00am, I was assigned to a child about 10 years old. He was a few pallets away from where Tan was. I noticed a little commotion surrounding Tan's pallet. When I got a chance, I walked over to see what was going on. I found out, that when I left her the night before-Tan had woke up and found me gone again. They said she started fussing and wouldn't eat. Things stayed that way with her all night. They were concerned that they couldn't even get her to take any liquids and were discussing taking her to the Naval Hospital to put her on IVs to keep her from dehydrating. Tan's arms were so tine I couldn't even picture them trying to get needles into her. I asked if I could try to get her to eat or drink some liquids before they made any firm decisions. They gave me the okay.
Tan was give back to me for one more day. I was able to get her to take in some liquids and later in the day she was eating soft foods. I bathed her, fed her and yes, I even got her to play. It was so amazing to see life come back into her eyes.
Later that afternoon of the 2nd day-I was talking to the Chief Peditrician-in-charge (who also happened to be my son's doctor), he asked me if I wanted Tan for my own, he said he could help with the process. I didn't know what to say-I wanted to say yes so badly-I would have given anything to be able to take Tan home with me. But the reality of it was I couldn't. I was a single Mom with a 5 year old son and had to work to support the both of us. I had been told these Orphans would have needed full time attention for about the first 6 month to a year. I couldn't have given Tan the attention she would have needed that first year and work too. I had to say no, it broke my heart. I didn't know what would happen to Tan if I didn't take her. I could only pray she'd be okay, and I was assured she would be.
I spent the rest of the day and that night with Tan, all the time wondering what would happen to my little girl. One thing I knew, she would be gone the next day.
I finally decided about 12:45 am that night it was time for me to leave, I knew the longer I prolonged it the harder it would be. I picked up Tan and just held her for about a half hour-then I kissed her good-bye and gave her to another Volunteer and got up to leave. As I turned to walk away, Tan started fussing, then woke up and started crying. I could feel my heart breaking when I heard her crying, but I new I had to keep walking, I had to let go. Walking out that door was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my entire life. All I could do is pray that she be ok, my little girl.
After that first week-end, I did continue to volunteer as much as I could. I assisted in the transporting of the chldren from the Naval Air Station at Los Alamitos to the Naval Station in Long Beach, and I helped with getting the children cleaned up, fed and settled for their brief stay at the Base. I saw Tan's frightened little face in every one of the children's faces that came through the Base. Then I would remember her smile just before she went to sleep the last night I was with her, and I knew these children would smile too and they'd be ok. Don't get emotionally involved, I guess the Red Cross didn't know just how precious the cargo was that was being delivered to us.