The Lost Children: Vietnam

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“Rejoice O young man, in thy youth…”
– Ecclesiastes (from Platoon)

 

I had a strange thought today.

Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I have two fathers: my Dad, George, who raised me; and Jim, my birthfather.

My strange thought today was about Jim.

Jim was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He was based at Lai Khe, headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division and an important base for the outer defense of Saigon. The base had a sign over its gate that read, “Welcome to Rocket City”–in part because by 1970 it was, along with Khe Sanh, one of the most heavily-rocketed bases in South Vietnam.

Jim was in the Air Force, flying back seat as the weapons specialist in an OV-10 Bronco, the Forward Air Control “plane of choice” during the war. He and his pilot served the same type of duty as army scouts–ranging far ahead from the main detachment in search of NVA and VC troops. Once those troops were located, Jim, as the weapons specialist, would mark the target with white phosphorus. Then Air Force, Marine, or Navy aircraft–or artillery–would take over.

My strange thought came as I was watching the film Platoon this afternoon. I thought I remembered how many American soldiers died in Vietnam, but I wanted to be sure, so I Googled it. It was as I remembered: 58,220. I remembered the number from my teenage years, when I was fascinated by the Vietnam War and consumed anything I could find related to it–books, movies, TV shows, magazine articles.

But I never thought about the number. I knew it was a horrific amount of people, but I never thought until today that the majority of those killed in action were just kids–average age nineteen–who would never become husbands and fathers. I thought today about all the children that weren’t born because those 58,220 men were killed.

And then I thought of myself.

Jim survived. He wasn’t shot down. He didn’t crash. Despite being in a light, slow-moving aircraft far out in front of the main group for a full year, he did not go down. He survived.

Which means I survived, too.

A strange thought, like I said.

I’m here, but the children of thousands of other soldiers are not. This is devastating.

But this also means that I may have some role to play in the world, some purpose. As many Vietnam veterans themselves say, why did I make it when so many others did not? There must be a reason.

I suppose the children of veterans of World War II and Korea may feel the same way. A certain sense of grace or luck. Just one well-aimed rocket-propelled grenade, just one loose screw on a wing or engine part, and I would not be here.

I guess, in a way, we can all say that about ourselves. We would not be here if not for the ones who came before us. But there’s something about knowing your DNA survived a war when others did not that makes it different. They are the lost children of Vietnam–the ones who were never born.

As I said, I was always fascinated by the Vietnam War, even decades before I knew Jim served there. I cried at The Wall as an eighth grader, drawing stares from my classmates on a school trip. I felt something back then, staring at the black granite, I just didn’t know what.

Maybe now I do.

Adoption: The Double-Sided Sword

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Everything about adoption is double-sided, like a sword. And, like a sword, the issues of adoption cut both ways and they cut deep. Excalibur, the sword of the legendary King Arthur, was pulled from a stone–by Arthur–after dozens of unworthy men tugged and yanked but could not get it free. Like Excalibur, many of the issues surrounding adoption are stuck hard and deep and are nearly impossible to budge. The search for birthparents, medical histories, and understanding each other within the adoption triad all come to mind.

Now that we have the metaphors firmly in place, let’s explore the realities of the experiences of the people within an “adoption.”

For the adoptive parents, it is the act of acquiring a child, a child they have long waited for and are eager to love. This is the side of the sword that shines brightly in the sun–the side we all smile at and the side that warms the hearts of people not within the adoption triad. It is the fairytale side, the happy side. The side we all, including the adopted person, are expected to rejoice in.

For the birthparents, it is the act of relinquishment. It is the act of giving up a child, a child they have either carried themselves in their own body for nine months or whom they have helped to conceive. This is the side of the sword that is dull and tarnished–the side we do not think of, the side that is full of pain and guilt and regret and, sometimes, shame. It can also be filled with relief, but that relief may still be tinged with sorrow. This is the side that we all, including the adopted person, are expected to ignore.

For the adopted person, it is the dual acts of being abandoned and then received. This reflects both sides of the sword–the dark and the light. But for me, and for every adopted person I have ever known, the sense of abandonment is stronger than the sense of reception, no matter how loving the adoptive family. There is always a darkness inside, a sense of loss, because you were, as an infant, left behind, abandoned. This has been referred to as the “primal wound,” posited by Nancy Newton Verrier in 1993. This is the side of the sword we adoptees know very well because it is in our bones and in our blood, but non-adoptees might be completely ignorant of because they have not lived it. Their bloodline has not been severed.

I read a blog post yesterday in which adoption was described as “a monster.” I both agree and disagree. There it is, the double-sided sword again.

The part of me that agrees feels as the author felt–that in order for an adoptive family to be created, another family has to be destroyed. That is monstrous. That is the dull and tarnished side of the blade. That is the side of the blade full of grief and pain and feelings of abandonment and original trauma. I, personally, will never be whole, I know that. The monster took away my chances of ever reaching completeness the day I was born.

The part of me that disagrees is perhaps swayed by the fairytales and my own experience. The shiny side of the blade gave me my Dad–my best friend. My Mom loves me. I was given every material thing I ever needed as a child–summer camp, horseback riding, fishing. I have been more than blessed as an adult by the generosity of my family. I have aunts and cousins who are dear to me.

But I am still an adopted person. More importantly, I am still a relinquished person. And that blade cuts deep.

So, if I exhibit a sense of loss–or a fear of loss–or appear to have a basic mistrust of others, perhaps it is not such a mystery after all–it is the primal wound. Perhaps if you think back to when I was a tiny baby, alone, it will make sense to you.

When you think of the word “adoption,” please remember “relinquishment,” as well. The two go hand-in-hand.

Like a double-sided sword.

 

The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Newton Verrier (Amazon).

His Angel

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“He didn’t want you to be given up.”

Lori, my sister-in-law, Thursday night.

She was speaking of Jim, my birth father, and words he had spoken to her years ago about me–the child he called “his Angel.”

I didn’t know any of this.

I grew up knowing I was adopted. I grew up feeling like some essential part of me was somehow wrong, somehow missing. Off-kilter, out of step with the rest of the world. If the very people who created me were willing to give me away to strangers, then who would, really, want me?

But now I know Jim wanted me. And that has made all the difference.

I’ve cried a lot the last day and a half. Tears of finally feeling accepted. Tears of belonging. Not sad tears, at all. Tears of a sort of relieved joy—a feeling of fitting in at last to the place where I came from.

I have a picture of Jim from 1969, three years before I was born. The picture was taken at Lai Khe, South Vietnam. Jim is young and blond and confident-looking, leaning against a jeep with a cigarette in his hand. He has my cheeks. He has my chin. He has my hair. One of his grandsons, too, has my cheeks and hair. Mind-blowing, after a lifetime of being physically different than everyone in my family.

I never met Jim. He died before I was able to. We had a complex relationship in the years between my finding him and his death. He never told me what he told Lori. He never told me a lot of things.

He never told me I was his Angel.

But through the years, I’ve often thought of him as mine.

I miss you, Jim. Thank you for your words. I’ve heard you now, and it matters.