Look deep into their eyes and you will find hope
Everywhere in Vietnam, the children shout “Hallo!” Toddlers, teens, school children and street kids. On bike baths, from cars, buses and motorbikes. In the restaurants and museums. They see a Westerner and it is a jubilant moment. “Hallo! What’s your name?”
Vietnam is a particularly young country. Nearly half the population is under 25 and almost 70 percent were born after the end of the Vietnam War. English is taught in all the schools. To Vietnamese youth, war — against the French, Americans, Kymer Rouge, Chinese or otherwise — is what they read about in history books. Vietnamese children–and for the most part their parents–have only known peace, independence, unity and progress. Any reason to wonder why they are so joyous?
Wasn’t always so. In 1971, I spent a lot of my time, “ghosting” at the Van Coi Orphanage and others like it, beyond the gates of our base at Chu Lai. Back then, half of Vietnam’s population was estimated to be under 14-years-old. We may never know exactly how many children were orphaned by the war. One conservative estimate of the time said 700,000 were left homeless or maimed. But the real number, in my opinion, is more likely in the millions.
So-called Amerasians, Vietnamese children fathered by Americans, were believed to number in the tens of thousands. As the North Vietnamese Army noose tightened around Saigon and the last vestiges of the Vietnam Republic in April, 1975, thousands of infant Amerasians were evacuated to the U.S and elsewhere in dramatic fashion–Operation BabyLift. Again, precise numbers are in dispute, with some evacuation estimates under 3,000 and others in excess of 10,000.
I returned to the site of Van Coi this year. It is now a government-run, vocational-training middle school for young women. I was prevented from walking the grounds, but during my tour, I watched and documented soldiers of my division orchestrate holiday parties, donate food and clothing, and even build a new building at this and other orphanage sites.
Sister Helene, a nun of the Love of Christ order, started working with orphans in the city of Tam Ky, north of Chu Lai in 1968 with 50 children who were abandoned either by impoverishment or the death of their parents from hostilities. She founded Van Coi in the tiny hamlet of An Tan, outside the gates of the Chu Lai Americal base, as the number of orphans swelled. When I met her, she and sister Yvonne had more than 230 orphans in their charge, with more showing up every day. I recall many a sweaty work session when shirtless soldiers wielded sledges and hammers and saws at Van Coi, while bedraggled infants looked on from fly-ridden cribs, and toddlers clung to the hands and legs, and snuggled in the arms, of any GI visitor who’d share an affectionate moment, no matter how fleeting. I called those children that I met in 1971, Orphans Of the Storm.
No US solider was closer to the orphans of Van Coi at the time than Tom Brogan, a Chaplain’s assistant for the Americal Division. After the war, Tom searched and searched to learn the fate of the nuns and children of Van Coi. “I looked for them for years,” he said. “Finally, I found them in 2008.” As I prepared for my return visit, Tom filled in the blanks of the orphanage’s fate after the Vietnam war ended.
“Van Coi nuns and 250 orphans were booted from the orphanage in 1975 with just the clothes they had on. Among the refugee melee, they walked to Da Nang. No shelter nor food for them there, so back to Chu Lai they trekked. Children died in such numbers their burial sites are unknown. 100 orphans and the nuns were evacuated off Chu Lai beach to Saigon. Sister Helene was allowed to open a new orphanage nearby: Xuan Tam in Xuan Loc. 50 of the surviving orphans were adopted into the community. A small number have since returned to the Chu Lai area. Some of the still-surviving orphans are now in the United States. Xuan Tam continues to be a functioning orphanage with more than 50 children. Surviving orphans and their families now gather every April 26, the anniversary of Sister Helene’s death in 1987.”
Tom has returned to Vietnam for some of these reunons. Tall and sinewy, quick with a smile or a helping hand, Tom is literally and figuratively a giant among the orphans of Van Coi, past and present. He maintains a Facebook page for the Van Coi legacy and remains in touch with Sister Yvonne, the nun I interviewed in 1971, who took charge of the orphanage after Sister Helene. Today, he teaches English to the Vietnamese community in Dorchester, MA.
Fred Vigeant of Stratford, CT, was a young Iieutenant Information Officer for Americal in 1971. He spent boo-coo hours with Vietnamese children in Chu Lai schools and orphanages and also with Montagnard families on remote artillery firebases of the surrounding highlands. Fred’s camera was always at the ready. As you’d expect of any war photos of children, Fred’s have a poignant narrative. Yet, another quality penetrated Fred’s lens and incised so many of his prints: hope. The children’s situation was immensely sorrowful. Their faces often dirty, their skin riddled with sores and wounds. Their living conditions were dangerous and dismal, their history was a nightmare. So often, however, Fred found hope in their eyes.
I see that hope today in Vietnam, under far far better conditions. From the poor and quiet rural countryside, to the bustling, burgeoning urban centers, Vietnamese youth are war-free, energized, living on cellphones, and optimistic about their future.
I envy them. I want to be young again. I think of my own children, now grown to adulthood, and recall the elixir their youth induced in me. I yearn to again experience childish enthusiasm, its boundless joy, the bring it on and don’t spare the speed optimism and voracious appetite to drink up, eat up, devour whatever life delivers. I want to see life as the children of Vietnam see it: the yellow brick road ahead; not the deathly path behind.
I know that won’t occur. But what I can do is shout—as gleefully as I can convince myself—to the children, to everyone, to the world:
“Hallo! My name is Fred!”
And then, hope……