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.

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.