SALTILLO, Miss. — Soon after he departed Vietnam in 1970, Spc. James Copeland received a letter from his Vietnamese girlfriend. She was pregnant, she wrote, and he was the father.
He re-enlisted, hoping to be sent back. But the Army was drawing down and kept him stateside. By the time Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, he had lost touch with the woman. He got a job at a plastics factory in northern Mississippi and raised a family. But a hard question lingered: Did she really have his child?
“A lot of things we did in Vietnam I could put out of my mind,” said Copeland, 67. “But I couldn’t put that out.”
In 2011, Copeland decided to find the answer, acknowledging what many other veterans have denied, kept secret or tried to forget: that they left children behind in Vietnam.
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Their stories are a forgotten legacy of a distant war. Yet for many veterans and their half-Vietnamese children, the need to find each other has become more urgent than ever.
The veterans are hitting their mid-60s and early 70s, many of them retired or infirm and longing to salve the scars of an old war. And for many of the offspring, who have overcome at least some of the hurdles of immigration, the hunger to know their American roots has only grown stronger.
“I need to know where I come from,” said Trinh Tran, 46, a real-estate agent in Houston who has searched in vain for her GI father. “I always feel that without him, I don’t exist.”
By some estimates, tens of thousands of American servicemen fathered children with Vietnamese women during that long war. Some of the children were a result of long-term relationships that would be unimaginable to the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where interaction with local people was minimal. Others were born of one-night stands. But few of the fathers ever met their offspring, and fewer still brought them home to America.
After the war, those children — known as Amerasians — endured harsh discrimination and abject poverty in Vietnam, viewed as ugly reminders of an invading army.
Shamed by reports of their horrible living conditions, Congress enacted legislation in 1987 giving Amerasians special immigration status. Since then, more than 21,000, accompanied by more than 55,000 relatives, have moved to the United States under the program, and several thousand more have come under other immigration policies.
Many arrived expecting to be reunited with their American fathers. But the U.S. government did not help in that cause, and only a tiny fraction — perhaps fewer than 5 percent — ever found them.
So many Amerasians continue to search, typically working with little more than badly translated names, half-forgotten memories and faded photographs.
And some veterans are doing the same, driven by heartache, or guilt, to find sons and daughters.
Yet against the odds and despite the many years, children and fathers sometimes find each other.
Cuong Luu was born in Vietnam, the child of a U.S. soldier who met his mother when she cleaned his apartment. The soldier left Vietnam before Luu was born, and his mother lost contact with him. Soon after, she married an American who worked for the military. He moved the family to the Virgin Islands when Luu was a toddler.
Luu inherited many of his father’s features, and in the black neighborhood of St. Thomas where he grew up, he was taunted for being white. His mother also shunned him, he said, perhaps ashamed of the memories he evoked.
By 17, he was living on the street, selling marijuana and smoking crack. At 20, he was in prison for robbing a man at gunpoint. When he got out, his half-sister took him to Baltimore, where he resumed selling drugs.
But then he had a daughter with a girlfriend, and something inside him changed. “I worried I would just go to jail and never see her,” he said of his daughter, Cara, who is 4.
He decided he needed to find his biological father to set his life straight. “I wanted to feel more whole,” said Luu, 41. “I just wanted to see him with my own two eyes.”
He discovered references to Jack Magee on a veterans’ website and, through Facebook, tracked down a man who had served in the same unit.
Luu had his DNA tested, and he had a match. In November, Magee, a retired teacher from Southern California, visited Luu on his birthday. An awkward relationship, full of possibility, but not untouched by resentment and wariness, was born.
Magee now calls his son weekly, checking to make sure he is still working in his job cleaning hospital rooms in Baltimore. He also shipped a used Toyota Corolla from California to Luu, who had been commuting by bus.
“I was stunned he was out there,” Magee, 75, said in an interview.
Now that he has found his father, Luu said, he feels stronger. But the discovery, he has realized, has not solved his problems. What can a former felon do to make a better living? Go to college? Start a business? Drug dealing remains a powerful temptation.
“I just wish I had met him before,” Luu said. “He could have taught me things.”
Brian Hjort, a Danish man who has helped Luu and other Vietnamese track down their fathers, said Amerasians often had unrealistically high expectations for reunions with fathers, hoping they will heal deep emotional wounds. But the veterans they meet are often infirm or struggling economically. Sometimes the relationships are emotionally unfulfilling.
“I try to tell them: I can’t guarantee love,” Hjort said. “I can only try to find your father.”
Hjort, 42, an industrial painter from Copenhagen, is among a small coterie of self-trained experts who have helped Amerasians track down fathers, mostly pro bono.
Working in his spare time, he has found scores of fathers, he estimates. Some had died, and many others hung up on him. But perhaps two dozen have accepted their children. And in recent years, veterans, too, have begun asking for help. James Copeland was one.
In 2011, Copeland, by then retired, began reading about Amerasians’ miserable lives in Vietnam. Appalled, he decided to search for his own child.
He found Hjort and sent him money to visit Vietnam, where he tracked down the brother of an Amerasian woman who was living in America.
Hjort sent a photograph of the woman and her mother to Copeland, and he instantly recognized the mother as his old girlfriend. His hands were shaking with excitement as he dialed the daughter’s number and asked: “Is this Tiffany Nguyen?”
He visited her, her mother and her three brothers in Reading, Pa., where she runs a nail salon at the Walmart. Nguyen and her three children spent Thanksgiving 2011 with him in Mississippi.
“There were a lot of years to cover,” Copeland said. “I can sleep a lot better now.”
But the reunion has also brought him unexpected heartache. His wife became furious when she discovered that he had a Vietnamese daughter, and she demanded that he not visit her. He refused: Nguyen is his only biological child.
After 37 years of marriage, he and his wife are separated and considering divorce, he said.
His wife did not respond to efforts to reach her for comment.