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Vietnam War babies: grown up and low on luck

An obscure U.S. visa program once offered great hope for children fathered in Vietnam by GIs.

Consular officers have no ironclad criteria expected of applicants. But these days, they typically request parents’ residential certificates or birth records. Many of these documents were never issued in wartime Vietnam or destroyed after reunification.

Most AmerAsians with proof that solid have long since emigrated to the U.S. The remaining AmerAsians’ best hope is finding their actual father via the internet and persuading him to compare DNA samples. Illiterate day laborers, however, are unlikely to access Google, punch in hazy details and sift through the results.

That chore is instead assumed by an unlikely AmerAsian ally: a working-class Danish furniture painter named Brian Hjort. Though lacking any personal connection to America’s war in Vietnam, he is obsessed with tracking down veterans who left kids behind.

Hjort, 40, has stayed in touch with AmerAsians since the early 1990s, when he stumbled upon war orphans while backpacking in Ho Chi Minh City. “Even though they had nothing, they took me in. I knew I had to help them out,” he said. Hjort went on to devote his spare time and money to connecting AmerAsians with their fathers. He has completed dozens of “closed cases,” he said.

“I’m just Googling and Facebooking guys’ names, units, veterans’ groups, uploading photos,” said Hjort, who maintains a database of AmerAsians’ photos and personal details at his website, “Working on just one case leaves you brain dead. You’re trying to go 40 years back in time.”

Cases often go cold, he said, when he runs out of cash for DNA tests or father-finding expeditions in the United States. “You don’t have to be the Red Cross to help,” he said. “But I’m damn poor myself. I need help with this.”

Even when Hjort is lucky enough to locate a father online, men and their families are not always receptive to a European stranger with revelations about offspring in a far-off land.

“They can be pretty rude. Two times, guys tried to put me in court for harassment,” Hjort said. “I’m like, come on, do you want to do a DNA test? Who’s going to draw the gun first?”

Those who accept the truth often pay a heavy price.

Army veteran James Copeland, 65, kept his half-Vietnamese daughter’s existence secret until this year. “It had been a long and worrisome 40 years,” said Copeland, who lives in northern Mississippi.

When his 14-month deployment ended in 1970, he was forced to leave behind a pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend who worked as a housekeeper at Bien Hoa Air Base. “We just lost contact. The people I knew that were left over there, they rolled out and I had no way to get in touch.”

Through Hjort, he found his daughter living in Pennsylvania. With her mother, the housekeeper, she had relocated to the States after securing an AmerAsian visa in the 1990s.

“I felt like a big weight was taken off of me,” he said. His wife, however, felt the exact opposite sensation.

“It’s a bad situation at home. I still don’t know what the outcome will be with my wife and children,” said Copeland, his voice trembling. “All these years, I had tried to block out a segment of my life. But you can’t do that.”

“In a combat zone, you adjust to your surroundings or you don’t make it. I think we all made mistakes,” he said. “I have friends who think they might have left a child there too. But they don’t want to search. They don’t want to know. They just want to forget.”

Over the years, Hjort said, the AmerAsian cause has lost its allure.

AmerAsians are no longer the doe-eyed, pitiful kids that provoked Connecticut House Representative Stewart McKinney to label them America’s “national embarrassment” in the 1980s.

They are older, broken down and sometimes sick. So are may of the former GIs. “The U.S. did just enough to say, ‘Hey, we did something’ and left the others behind,” Hjort said. “Now they’ve got wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s no money. Almost no one is interested.”

Almost no one except AmerAsians like Dang, who fears his father is dead and has pursued DNA links with far-flung relatives in America.

“My mom tells me she stopped dad from grabbing me as a baby and putting me on a plane before he deployed home,” Dang said. “I almost made it out then. I will never stop trying.”