A child of war comes of age in America

During years-long ' rescue,' survivor of Vietnamese Babylift comes to terms with her lost identity

When Thi Det Nguyen - meaning "baby girl" in Vietnamese - was adopted by a family in Whittier, Calif., in 1975, many people in her new hometown believed she had started a wonderful new life. Local reporters described the 18-month-old, who weighed just 15 pounds, as curious and bright, smiling as she was passed from one new relative to another. "Everybody is helping and rooting for her," wrote one journalist. Another noted that the girl's adoptive parents were hopeful surgery could correct her vision; she had no sight in one eye and very little in the other.

But for Kimberly Kathryn Payne, as she was named, being airlifted to the United States was just the first step in a long journey toward happiness. The real "rescue" happened piecemeal, in the years since she was helped by Operation Babylift, a controversial program started in 1975 to fly some of the roughly 70,000 orphans out of Vietnam on military aircraft. More than 2,800 children were brought to the US for adoption, and an estimated 1,300 went to Canada, Europe, and Australia. Medical professionals and aid agencies from around the globe assisted with the effort.

Little is known about those grown children today, since no central database exists. For Kimberly Thompson (her married name), life has had its hardships, including her parents' divorce when she was 4 and the poverty she endured as the daughter of a single mom trying to support three children.

In addition, she has no record of her birth parents or when and where she was born. Without any known ties to anyone in Vietnam, she was raised by her adoptive parents as a "white girl," she says. In fact, Ms. Thompson never thought of herself as Vietnamese until a boy she liked in high school said he wasn't allowed to date Asians.

Even with these missing pieces, Ms. Thompson has managed to move forward, listing three major influences in her life. One is her Aunt Katie, whom she bonded with after her parents' divorce. Thompson says she watched as her aunt, who never had much money, got her own apartment and put herself through nursing school. "She showed me that you make do with what you have. She really taught me there are great things out there; you just have to go find them."

Another strong support has been her husband, Nicholas, a cytogeneticist whom she met eight years ago after placing a personal ad in the Penny Saver. He is introverted where she is outgoing, she says, but "he has this incredible innate knack for being able to reframe things in a positive way. I get a lot of motivation from him."

The third "person" who guides her is God. "There's no other explanation of how I got here than a higher power. There's no one else I can attribute this to," she says, noting that she was among the last, and the sickest, babies helped by Operation Babylift.

That belief, coupled with an unshakable conviction that she survived because she is meant to do great things, has helped her through some dark days.

In her sophomore year at California State, Fullerton, for example, she had difficulty reading textbooks and nearly flunked out. She didn't ask for help, she says, because she didn't want to be labeled as visually impaired (though she is legally blind).

The desire to succeed overrode her embarrassment, however, and with help from the university, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology, was accepted into the master's program in counseling, and went on to earn a 3.8 GPA.

"If she wants to get something done, she'll get it done," says Nicholas. "She won't let anything limit her."

During graduate school, as she learned to help others deal with their patchwork pasts, she began searching for her own identity.

In her freshman year, she was contacted by a Washington State family she stayed with during her first two weeks in the US. The Seattle Post- Intelligencer ran a story about their meeting, and that piece caught the attention of a retired doctor from Hong Kong, who was writing his memoirs about Operation Babylift. He remembered Thompson because of the scarring on her eyes.

The two met, and Thompson gained an important link to the past. But the graphic details he shared - about children of GIs being abandoned or burned, and sick babies being transported in cardboard boxes - fueled the nightmares she had about wandering the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, desperately searching for loved ones.

Those dreams have lessened in recent months, she says, especially since Thompson contacted the Vietnamese Adoption Network (VAN), which promises to put her in touch with other adoptees. "I find answers and comfort from others," she says. "I need to talk to people who understand what I have experienced. It will help me to gain peace with my own story."

Thompson hopes to travel to Vietnam with other VAN members in the near future, but there will always be unanswered questions. Does she have siblings in Vietnam? Was she the daughter of an American soldier?

All she knows for certain is that she must find a way to form a whole cloth from the few tattered remnants she has. "When you don't have a foundation, in some ways it's hard to get started, but you get to start wherever you want. I had a blank slate. I could have been a poor victim, or I could make something out of my life."

Thompson and her husband hope to start a family, which would add a new piece to the tapestry. "I'm Kimberly the therapist, and soon I'll be Kimberly the mom," she says. Yet she's quick to add that "Those are all parts of me, but they don't identify who I am."

What does distinguish her is the desire to help others with their struggles. Thompson works at a school for developmentally and socially challenged youths, many of whom live with foster parents. "Some know they will never be back with their birth families. They can be victims or they can move forward."

Her task is to patiently assist them, she says, never pushing too hard. She describes one child who has recently progressed from using a marker to a pencil. Another pupil recently overcame a fear of eating in front of others. "These tiny strides remind you how big the world is and how little we are."

Before her May graduation, several journalists approached Thompson, wanting to write about her journey. "I think it really surprises her to be the focus of all this attention," says Nicholas. "Her life doesn't seem that extraordinary to her."

She describes it simply as good."I have a house, a wonderful husband, friends, an education, and a good job," she says. "I may never know my true identity, but God has replaced that missing link by blessing me with a beautiful life. That helps me keep perspective, it helps me to move forward."

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