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May 3, 2007

What Happened to These Children of War?

"I was one of the lucky ones"

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On April 2, 1975, Ed Daly, president of World Airways, made a radical decision: He would use his own plane to airlift orphaned children out of Saigon. The U.S. government refused to sanction the risky evacuation. The Saigon airport shut off runway floodlights to prevent takeoff. Fearing enemy gunfire, the pilot turned off the plane's headlights. In total darkness, World Airways flight "Operation Babylift" raced down the runway - and into history. Fifty-seven children were safely evacuated, and the media attention prompted President Ford to begin airlifting orphans the next day. Over the next several weeks, more than 2,700 children were evacuated. Tanya Bakal, now 31, was on the unauthorized flight.

I never met my father, an American soldier. I was 18 months old when my mother left me on the steps of a convent in Vietnam. She pinned a note to my chest, asking the nuns to watch over me. I never saw her again. I arrived in the U.S. a really sick baby. I had a hole in my eardrum, parasites in my stomach and a severe eye infection. But I survived. I was adopted by a family in Marietta, GA.

As a kid, everything frightened me - especially the sound of helicopters. There were other issues: I'd crawl into cardboard boxes around the house to sleep and wake screaming from nightmares. My parents would find food hidden in my drawers that I'd "stolen" from the kitchen. All were survival instincts from life in Vietnam.

Marietta was a conservative town. I tried to fit in - I wouldn't play with other Asian kids, because I didn't want to seem more "different" than I already felt. Things got bad in high school, though. One time, I was working at a store and a man came in for beer. I was only 16, so I asked him to scan his beer himself - legally, I wasn't allowed to. He started yelling these awful racial slurs at me, calling me a "gook." I'd never even heard the word before. I just stood there. That's what I always did when people teased me - I pretended it wasn't happening. Over time, it took a toll on my self-esteem.

A year ago, I started looking for my real parents. I'm married now, with three kids. Everyone in my family has a history except me; it's an empty feeling. The organization helping me, the MilkCare Foundation, posted my face on TV in Vietnam. For months, nothing. Then a few weeks ago, two women came forward saying they could be my mother! It's crazy. I mean, what are the chances? Still, if I ever meet my mother, I will say, "Thank you for loving me enough to try to protect me. Thank you for putting me somewhere you thought I would be safe."


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