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My Brush With History

Worlds Apart

June 2024
3min read

The Air Force medevac plane taxied in. I felt a surge of apprehension. The plane stopped, and the ground crew wheeled over the stairway for disembarking. When the door opened, a very small girl appeared, excitedly waving. When I looked more carefully, I realized that she had no nose.

It was 1968. I had come to meet a group of five war-injured South Vietnamese children in need of medical care unavailable in their own country. The Committee of Responsibility, a voluntary organization with which I was involved, was bringing large numbers of these children to the United States with the permission and cooperation of both our government and South Vietnam’s.

Three boys between the ages of nine and twelve were coming to my community, a suburb of New York City; they would go directly to Nyack Hospital by ambulance. After seeing the children off, I drove home with two other committee members, talking anxiously about the three young boys entrusted to our care—Yen Van Doan, Le Sam, and Nguyen Lau. We all had a new sense of the magnitude of the job each of us had undertaken: providing a home and emotional support for one child during his recuperation. Ultimately, the children would return to their families in Vietnam.

My husband, Alvin, and I were active in the antiwar movement, but our wish to serve as a foster family was driven by more than that. With three healthy children of our own and a nice house in the suburbs, we knew we were enormously lucky. And that luck brought with it a responsibility for people not so fortunate. Yen Van Doan was one of them.

Al and I and our three sons—Shmuel, ten, Jonathan, eight, and Jared, five —started by visiting Yen during the weeks he was in the hospital, where he was receiving skin grafts for a leg wound suffered in a rocket attack on his village.

After he was released from the hospital, Yen came to live with us. He was very small for his age—twelve—but he was courageous, bright, and funny. As his wound healed, he walked first with crutches, then with a brace and orthopedic shoes.

Yen’s English quickly improved. Our own children and those in the neighborhood accepted him as a neat, if somewhat exotic, new kid, who was always ready to play ball or tramp in the woods behind our house.

There were problems—some of them medical, some emotional, some cultural. After all, Yen was an adolescent who had been suddenly transported to a country and way of life he knew nothing about. In Vietnam Yen’s parents were farmers, and he tended buffalo. Too poor to have attended school, he was illiterate in his own language. In our home he soon developed the ability to use the color TV, selecting his favorite programs. He learned a new language. He discovered underwear. He pronounced the Chinese meals we had in a local restaurant the “best American food.”

Yen was with us for nearly a year. His leg healed well enough that he could discard the brace and special shoes. He could even ride a bike. The wound left an enormous crater on his shin, but except for that he was a smiling, healthy thirteen-year-old.

Yen returned to his family in Vietnam in August of 1969, while the war was still going on. We had some news from him for a while but then were advised that it would be safer for him if we didn’t communicate; he lived in an area under Vietcong control.

A few years ago, with trade and diplomatic relations opening up between Vietnam and America, the time seemed ripe to look for Yen. We had not heard anything from him in more than twenty-five years, and we were not sure where he lived. How could we find him?

Someone suggested contacting our U.S. senator Alfonse D’Amato. His staff was very receptive but needed information we no longer had (Yen’s passport number, the address of his parents). The sponsoring organization had long ago gone out of business, but after many phone calls I learned that Swarthmore College had become the repository of records for all the peace organizations from that period. The helpful librarian of the Peace Collection there provided me with a copy of Yen’s file, and it contained the information I needed.

The senator took up our case with the State Department, and some months later we were able to write to Yen at his father’s address. In July 1995, through our senator’s office, we received a reply, which the staff had had translated:

“Dear Father and Mother: It has been many years away from you and the three brothers. And now I am very happy to receive news from the family and know about your health and your work. … After the war I got married in 1980. And today I have three sons. After I got married my work was very difficult. My wife and I went to a new economic zone in Daklak, but the work was not any better. Now I have returned to the countryside to work in the fields and raise animals. In the beginning the work was very difficult, but my brother, sister, and parents helped out and it made it easier. After returning to Vietnam I did not have the opportunity to study, therefore I forgot all of my English and can no longer read or write it.”

Since that first letter, we have been writing to Yen regularly, and he writes back. (The letters, in both directions, are translated by a Vietnamese friend of ours.) We sent Yen money to buy a bicycle for his children and to make repairs to his house. And we have exchanged many photographs. In the first batch from Yen, there was one of him wearing shorts. There on his left shin was the scar we remember so well. I have the feeling that Yen wanted us to know that this was really him, and that scar identified him in a way nothing else could.

The war is long over, and a united Vietnam now welcomes American businesses and tourists. My family is planning a trip next year so that our adult American sons can be reunited with their Vietnamese foster brother.

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