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Published Thursday, November 11, 1999 Copyright 1999 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Commentary: The selfless work that brought an orphan to the U.S.

Eric Strauss / Allentown Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, PA. -- The circumstances of my first few months of life aren't something I like to talk about.

I don't initiate that conversation. I don't even remember what took place.

I am adopted. A Vietnamese orphan, I was brought to America near the end of the war as part of the historic Operation Baby Lift. That's something I've always known, but its significance is something I haven't always understood.

My parents, Gerald and Elizabeth Strauss, are loving, intelligent and compassionate. As I grew up in Bloomsburg, Pa., they raised me with an awareness of their Jewish culture, and my own. But the miracles of my first 10 weeks -- from the day I was born in February 1975 until the day in April when I was placed in my mother's arms for the first time -- were not something I truly appreciated until I was a teenager.

Operation Baby Lift flew children out of Saigon as the Communists from North Vietnam closed in during the first two weeks of April 1975. For the 1,400 children brought out through the eight-day American airlift, and hundreds of others taken out through other efforts, it meant new lives and a world of opportunity.

For many of those children, mostly infants to 10-year-olds, the rite of passage was a harrowing flight across the Pacific Ocean, wedged into seats and even carried in boxes. The children who arrived in Pennsylvania had traveled from Vietnam to California, then on to Fort Benning, Ga., and finally up the East Coast.

The Baby Lift had many heroes, most notably Betty Tisdale, who earned the name "Angel of Saigon" for her efforts to evacuate hundreds of children from the American-sponsored An Lac orphanage. With the help of Madame Vu Thi Ngai, the head of the orphanage, Tisdale did everything she could to get as many of its 400 children as possible out of the country.

At barely 2 months of age, I was among the 219 orphans from An Lac whom Tisdale saved.

The airlift had other heroes. World Airways pilot Ken Healy took off despite an air traffic controller's "stop" order, and brought the first planeload of children to America on April 3. Ed Daly, president of World Airways, sent plane after plane to Saigon, including the one April 12 that brought me to America.

Many volunteers tragically gave their lives when the first official flight of the Baby Lift, a C-5A cargo jet loaded with more than 300 people, mostly orphans, crashed minutes after takeoff April 4. Two-thirds of the passengers died.

And there are the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam, who shed blood in a war that even today many people don't care about, or disparage. But to me, those soldiers did not fight and die in vain. Their sacrifices paved the way for the children of An Lac and the other orphanages to live the American dream. In many ways, the soldiers are the most underappreciated of those who helped the children.

I really began to understand the sacrifices of America's soldiers when I was 15. That summer, I traveled to France with my high school French club. Part of that trip was a visit to Normandy beach, the site of the D-Day invasion. Normandy is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, with white sand, blue water and clear sky.

There, standing on the beach, I tried to imagine that white sand and blue water running red with blood during World War II. And I began to think about what my life would be like if those men hadn't fought on that beach, if men like them hadn't fought in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s.

Even today, that is a sobering thought.

Now that I'm in my 20s, old enough to hold down a job as an editor at the Morning Call, have a place of my own, I can't imagine what it was like for those soldiers who went to Vietnam, to leave this comfort and risk their lives for something they might not have understood, for people they didn't know.

I had a conversation with a co-worker whose cousin was killed in a training accident at Chu Lai, and he called it "a throwaway death in a throwaway war." And I suppose to most people, it was.

But not to me. The men who fought and died in Vietnam helped save my life.

Having realized that, how do I go on, in what fashion do I live my life, knowing the price these strangers paid? Maybe the best answer comes from "Saving Private Ryan," the movie that featured the assault on that very beach I stood on in France. Near the end of the film, after Capt. John Miller and his men have found Pvt. James Ryan, Miller tells the young man to earn his salvation, to make good on the sacrifice others made.

I owe my country and its heroes a debt of gratitude that I don't know if I can ever repay. But I can try. And being a journalist is part of that. Journalism is a public service. Newspapers help keep people informed, help keep people free.

I hope my work is a way to earn my salvation. I hope this story is a way to pay tribute to the brave men and women who have given so much for so many.

To the men and women of Operation Baby Lift, to the soldiers who fought in Vietnam, to all those who have given their lives for our country:

Thank you.

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