An open letter to Vietnam veterans
By Aryn Lockhart, 17th Training Wing Public Affairs / Published November 21, 2017
Dear Vietnam Veterans,
I feel a deep connection to all of you. I am a Vietnamese adoptee, born in Vinh Long, Vietnam. In 1975, with the fall of Saigon imminent, President Gerald Ford sanctioned a humanitarian effort to mass evacuate thousands of orphans to their adoptive families throughout the world. This historical operation was known as Operation Babylift, and I am one of those orphans.
The initial flight was an Air Force mission using the massive Galaxy C-5A cargo plane. In a cruel twist of fate, the inaugural flight ended in tragedy. Fifteen minutes into the flight, the cargo door blew off causing a rapid decompression and forcing the pilots to return to Tan San Nhut Airbase. With no hydraulics to control the plane, the pilots instinctively maneuvered the aircraft. Despite their valiant efforts, they fell short of the runway by two miles. The airplane, the size of a football field, crashed into fiery pieces spread across the rice field. 135 lives were lost; children, escorts, humanitarians, and military members died April 4, 1975. Eleven Airmen are on the Wall amongst the brothers and sisters you served with. It was the remarkable skills of Air Force pilots Capt. Bud Traynor and Capt. Tilford Harp that ensured 178 people survived that tragic crash. My adoptive parents have always believed I am a survivor of that fateful flight.
On Nov. 18 I spoke and participated in a pinning ceremony for the 50th commemoration of the Vietnam War at Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas. The Wall That Heals was on display, and it was the perfect backdrop for the ceremony. This half-scale replica of the Vietnam War Memorial was powerful and majestic as it spread 250 feet across the Fort Concho parade ground.
Braving the West Texas winds, this day was to honor the families of fallen veterans and to celebrate living Vietnam veterans. As the crowd began to fill to capacity, my nerves started to grow in magnitude - never had a speaking engagement been so important to me. Before the ceremony, I stood before the 1975 panel on The Wall That Heals. As I saw my reflection staring at me through the names of the C-5A crew members, I felt the pressure and the weight to convey my appreciation. Looking up beyond the individual panel, I was washed into the sea of 58,318 names surrounding me. How could I possibly find the right words to honor these men and women?
As I took my place at the speaker podium, my words and my pace were rushed. I had placed such a monumental weight upon myself to find the right words, the best words to convey my thoughts. With the Wall That Heals behind us, I glanced up and looked into the crowd. I felt the wind whip around me. I took a deep breath and slowed down. Each name on The Wall That Heals provided me with strength. I focused on my one solitary intention – to tell my story and convey my gratitude.
While many of you fought on the grounds of my homeland long before I was born, it does not diminish the importance you play in my life. You were called halfway around the world to serve. I will never fully comprehend the sacrifices you endured during the war. I will never know the tremendous amounts of loss you felt for your fallen brothers and sisters in arms. I will never know what it meant to return to an ungrateful nation that spat on you and turned its back on your service.
I want you to know, I was brought to America where I have led an amazing life of endless opportunities and blessings. I graduated from Virginia Tech with a major in Communication Studies and minors in Psychology and English. I continued my education with Webster University and received my master’s degree in Business. I have worked for the Department of Defense for the past 23 years, and I now work for the same Air Force that initiated Operation Babylift.
Twenty years ago, I met Regina Aune, the medical crew director and survivor of the C-5A crash. As a young lieutenant, she withstood her injuries suffered from the crash and waded through the mud of the rice fields to help survivors to safety. Retiring as an Air Force colonel, she continued to influence Airmen throughout her career. Together Regina and I forged a lifelong connection and bond that helped us both heal from the tragedy of the C-5A crash.
With these opportunities, I met other adoptees and surviving crew members. In addition to Regina, I met retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar who was the loadmaster on the C-5A. The three of us travelled back to Vietnam to pay our respects and honor the lives lost in the tragic accident. During our trip we visited young orphans. As we played with these children, laughed and interacted with them, Ray and I forged a heartfelt bond.
I met soldiers who were stationed hundreds of feet away from my orphanage. I travelled the world to meet nuns who helped take care of me in Vinh Long. I even travelled to Malaysia to pay my respects to the nun who chose me for my adoptive parents and died in the C-5A crash.
During this 50th Commemoration of the Vietnam War, I met a Gold Star Daughter for the first time. Her father was killed in action when she was just 3 years old. Her mother persevered through unimaginable loss and resiliently raised three children on her own. My gratitude instantly extended to the family members who were left behind.
As I concluded my speech, my hope was that I honored the names on the wall behind us. I then participated in the pinning ceremony for the Vietnam War Commemoration. These ceremonies recognize, thank and honor the United States military veterans who served during the Vietnam War. It was an emotional moment to place the commemorative pin on Regina. This was a simple gesture and I firmly embraced her. I wanted her to feel the deepest levels of my love for her role in my life. Where words might fail me, I hoped my embrace would speak for itself.
I am writing this letter to thank you. I want you to know there is not a single day I am not grateful for my life. And I am not the only one. There are thousands of Vietnamese adoptees who have flourished with the opportunities we were given and deeply appreciative for the sacrifices so many made for us. Until my final days, I will tell this story to anyone willing to listen and I will live my life in humble gratitude to honor you.
With my lifelong appreciation,
U.S. Air Force Col. Ricky Mills, 17th Training Wing commander, speaks during the 50th Vietnam War Commemoration at the Fort Concho parade ground in San Angelo, Texas, Nov. 18, 2017. Mills made note of the 11 buildings on Goodfellow that are named in recognition of Vietnam veterans, including Albert Tijerina. (U.S. photo by Airman 1st Class Randall Moose/released)
U.S. Air Force retired Col. Regina Aune receives a Vietnam veteran lapel pin from Aryn Lockhart, 17th Training Wing Public Affairs visual information specialist, during the 50th Vietnam War Commemoration at the Fort Concho parade ground in San Angelo, Texas, Nov. 18, 2017. Lockhart and Aune were both part of the humanitarian mission to evacuate orphans to their adoptive families known as Operation Babylift (U.S. photo by Airman 1st Class Randall Moose/released)
Debra Tijerina Brown, Gold Star Daughter, speaks during the 50th Vietnam War Commemoration at the Fort Concho parade ground in San Angelo, Texas, Nov. 18, 2017. Brown received the Gold Star in recognition of her father, Albert Tijerina, who died in 1971 when Brown was three years old. (U.S. photo by Airman 1st Class Randall Moose/released)
Gary Jenkins, 17th Training Wing Public Affairs audio visual production specialist, receives a Vietnam veteran lapel pin from Aryn Lockhart, 17TRW/PA visual information specialist, during the 50th Vietnam War Commemoration at the Fort Concho parade ground in San Angelo, Texas, Nov. 18, 2017. The purpose of the pin is to recognize, thank and honor United States military veterans who served during the Vietnam War. (U.S. photo by Airman 1st Class Randall Moose/released)
A child studies The Wall That Heals, a half-scale replica of the Vietnam War memorial, during the 50th Vietnam War Commemoration at the Fort Concho parade ground in San Angelo, Texas, Nov. 18, 2017. The wall is approximately 250 feet in length, constructed of powder-coated aluminum, supported by an aluminum frame, and is made up of 24 individual panels. (U.S. photo by Airman 1st Class Randall Moose/released
Veterans stand in recognition of their branches’ song during the 50th Vietnam War Commemoration at the Fort Concho parade ground in San Angelo, Texas, Nov. 18, 2017. The event recognized, thanked and honored United States military veterans and the families of those who died during the Vietnam War. (U.S. photo by Airman 1st Class Randall Moose/released)
The U.S. Air Force Galaxy C-5A crash site located just outside of the Tan San Nhut Airfield in Saigon, Vietnam, April 4, 1975, resulting in 135 fatalities and 178 survivors. This was the inaugural flight of President Gerald Ford’s humanitarian mission to mass evacuate orphans to their adoptive families known as Operation Babylift. (Courtesy photo from U.S. Air Force retired Col. Bud Traynor/Released)
U.S. Air Force retired Col. Regina Aune, Aryn Lockhart, 17th Training Wing Public Affairs visual information specialist and retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar stand at the Galaxy C-5A shrine in Saigon, Vietnam November 2014. Together they returned to Vietnam to pay their respects and honor the lives lost in the tragic accident that occurred on the inaugural flight of Operation Babylift April 4, 1975. (Courtesy photo from Aryn Lockhart/Released