Three red blankets, lying side-by-side in a ditch, might alone have been enough to catch the eye of 1st Lt. Jerry Hanson, in the passenger...

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Three red blankets, lying side-by-side in a ditch, might alone have been enough to catch the eye of 1st Lt. Jerry Hanson, in the passenger seat of an Army Jeep.

But what really got his attention was something sticking out of the blankets — “tiny little arms.”

It was a steamy May morning in 1972, and conditions in Vietnam were growing increasingly desperate.

As the United States extracted itself from its long military campaign, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese abandoned homes and possessions to flee the impending invasion by the North Vietnamese Army. Trucks weighed down with evacuees streamed south on Highway 1, the coastal artery near the camp where Hanson was stationed.

Bomb craters marked the countryside; war and disease combined for staggering death tolls.

But in the midst of this chaos, along that busy highway, a connection would be made that would change lives — and give Hanson, a medical corpsman, “a chance to salvage something good out of something really bad.”

“Do you mind if I bring her home?”

Inside the red blankets were three infant girls, all very sick, severely malnourished, badly dehydrated. In the day’s 100-plus-degree heat, they might have died by nightfall.

“We found out later this was like an anonymous drop-off point,” said Hanson, who now lives in Kingston.

Although an orphanage was not far away, it was full and refused to take any more children, so some families just dropped off their babies nearby, hoping for the best.

Baby girls, in particular, were regarded as having little economic value. Those fathered by American soldiers would have been outcasts in Vietnamese society. Even if they hadn’t been abandoned, Hanson said, these babies faced steep odds. Half the children in Vietnam died before their 12th birthday from cholera, yellow fever, malaria or other diseases.

The three infants, believed to be from separate families, were taken to a military field hospital where medics called them “Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod.”

Hanson felt a special connection to Blinkin’, just a week old when she was found. She had a fever of 103 and a fiery red rash running from her neck to her mid-thigh, but to Hanson she was a “beautiful little infant.”

The lieutenant and his wife, Judy, already had an adopted son, Erik, nearly 2, at their home in Burien. Judy was ill with diabetes and couldn’t have children, so the couple had talked about adopting a second child.

“If I can find a little girl,” Hanson asked in a letter to Judy, “do you mind if I bring her home?” He didn’t mention that he’d already found one.

The response came quickly. Judy Hanson not only was willing, she gave the baby a name: Amy Larraine.

Even so, the adoption was a challenge. Working through the local and district bureaucracy could have taken six months, but Hanson had only three months left in the country.

That’s when a Vietnamese Catholic nun he knew as Sister Theresa helped out. She took Hanson to her mother superior, who in turn spoke to the local bishop. “And within three or four days, it was done,” said Hanson. He brought Amy home with him in September 1972.

I should take you there someday

Over the years, Vietnam faded into the past. Hanson became a physician’s assistant, then went into the medical-supply business and eventually started his own company, Hanson Medical. Judy Hanson died in 1980, when Amy was only 8.

Although she grew up hearing the story of her adoption, Amy didn’t explore her Asian identity. She could count to 10 in Vietnamese, but only because Jerry taught her.

“As a kid, I wanted to belong, to assimilate with my friends, to do all the things that other girls did,” she said. “I didn’t want to be different.”

That changed in her teenage years, and in college she joined the Vietnamese Student Association. Still, she felt out of place. “They knew all about the culture. They knew what the clothing was called, what the food was called. They would talk to each other in Vietnamese, and I was lost.”

Amy heard about groups that would go to Vietnam on work missions, helping to plant trees. “But I didn’t want to go to plant trees with people I didn’t know … I wanted to go with my dad.”

Would Jerry Hanson return to Vietnam? “When I left, one of the things I said to myself was, ‘I’m never coming back to this place.’ ” Over time, though, his feelings changed. The country was at peace and it was, after all, his daughter’s birthplace.

I should take you there someday, he’d tell Amy — always a notion, never a plan.

Finally, in the spring of 2003, Amy seized the initiative. This time, when Hanson said they’d go Vietnam “one of these days,” she replied, “OK, I’ve got July and August. … If you bring it up, you’ve got to follow through with it.”

“Even the taxi driver was crying”

So during a hot and humid August of 2003, father and daughter looked out of a taxi window at a Vietnam that, to Hanson, seemed both familiar and strange. He saw the camp where he was stationed; some of the buildings still standing.

But even with the help of an interpreter, they couldn’t find what they sought most, the village where their lives came together. It simply doesn’t exist, at least by the name it had in the 1970s.

“We were just about ready to give up when we saw this one road that looked familiar,” said Jerry Hanson. “I thought it might be where the orphanage had been.”

They stopped at a relatively new building, a Catholic church and school, and the Hansons’ interpreter told a young nun their story. She got tea and returned with her mother superior, Terexa Nguyen Thi Thien Ly — whom Hanson recognized immediately as Sister Theresa.

“Were you … ?” Hanson asked her. “Were you … ?” she replied.

The sister even remembered Amy’s Vietnamese name, Tran Thi Phi, as it had appeared on papers found with her.

The nun asked what had happened to the other two girls. Hanson didn’t know. They were at least as sick as Amy when they were found, and he didn’t hear whether they’d recovered.

For three hours, the Hansons and Sister Theresa sat under a shade tree, retelling the story of the babies in the blankets. Hearing the details so close to where the events occurred triggered deep emotions.

Amy cried. Sister Theresa cried. “Our interpreter was crying … even the taxi driver was crying,” said Hanson.

For him, the visit back to Vietnam offered something else: “When you take part in some kind of conflict, even though I wasn’t a combatant, the war is always alive, always going on in your memory. And when you go back and see that it really is over, you can put it to rest.”

And for Amy, the trip connected two essential parts of her identity. “It was important to see where I’m from; I’m glad I had that opportunity,” she said. “But I know I’m very fortunate to have the life I’ve had.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com