Uncommon courage in wartime

It began as a curiosity, really, very personal, on the part of a young woman just emerging from a serious case of "origin denial."

Vikki Sloviter grew up not wanting to be Asian and denying the fact that she was Vietnamese.

But Vikki’s change of heart set things in motion.

Vikki Sloviter: As people grow older they sort of need to find an identity of some sort... I’m lucky that I have wonderful parents and that I got out of Vietnam safely and that I’ve had a really fortunate life.

Seven years ago, Vikki was leafing through Life magazine and came across this contest: If you could meet anyone in the whole United States, whom would you choose?

"The only person who popped into my mind was Betty Tisdale. I mean, no one else. Not for a second," she says.

It was a name she’d been given from a past she could no longer remember.

Back in Vietnam, during that terrible time of war, it was devastating for everyone— especially the children.  Hundreds and hundreds of thousands, some of them the mixed race children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women, had been orphaned or simply abandoned.

If they were lucky they wound up in one of the orphanages supported by U.S. and other charities..

And yet, how lucky would that be? Often, the orphans were placed in relatively grim places for a child to grow up.

Betty Tisdale a member of a small, almost invisible army fighting for the innocent victims. Most people who didn’t have to be in Vietnam stayed home in America. Not Betty Tisdale.

She was a secretary back then, working for a U.S. senator, Jacob Javits.  It was an excellent position with a powerful boss. She heard a story one day about an orphanage in Saigon called an Lac, and the old woman who ran it. The woman, she heard, picked up children who were lying on the road next to their parents who were dead.

Betty decided to buy a plane ticket and went to see them.

"I saw the babies in hammocks made of rags strung between rusty cribs," she says. "I knew that my life had changed." 

She was hooked. She saved her vacations for Vietnam. And, back home, in the senator’s office, she was absolutely shameless in using his name for her purposes.

Tisdale:  I called Mrs. Johnson of Johnson and Johnson.Keith Morrison: You said the senator was calling?  He didn’t even know what you were doing?Tisdale: She’d say "Jack?" and I’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry, but the senator’s in Washington, but I said, he suggested that I give you a call” and I started talking to her about my orphanage.  And the next thing I knew she had switched me down to the right people and I got tons and tons of diapers and powder and band aids.Morrison: Did he understand that it was you using him?Tisdale: Mm-mm (negative), not then.Morrison: And you often had to do things kind of by hook or by crook?Tisdale: That’s right.  And I never paid for anything. 

In Vietnam, Betty told American servicemen about an Lac, and the soldiers, on their days off, brought medical care and supplies.  And stayed to build showers and indoor bathrooms.

Tisdale: They were God sent to the children.

She married one of those soldiers, an army pediatrician, and to go with the five sons he brought into the marriage, she adopted five girls from the orphanage.

Tisdale: I said, “No way do I want to hem up another pair of pants, I want little girls’ dresses.”

And she might have remained anonymous, but for what happened at the end.

Tisdale: I thought, as everybody else did, that there would be a complete bloodbath and everybody would be killed that had anything to do with Americans.

The babylift of April 1975
Betty, hoping somehow to save the 400 children of an Lac, flew to Saigon. There, she encountered one of the most heroic episodes in the history of American charity— a frantic race by a few dozen brave souls, to rescue children and bring them back to the U.S for adoption.

Tisdale: I really felt that I was grasping those children away from certain death.

She says the U.S. Ambassador promised to airlift them out, but only if the South Vietnamese government agreed.

Tisdale: So I went to the Vietnamese government and he looked at the list and he said, “I’m sorry Mrs. Tisdale, I can’t allow out any child over 10.”Morrison: Why? Tisdale: Because we’re going to hold on.  We’re not going to give up.  We’re not going to let the North Vietnamese take over and we need every child that is over 10 years old to help fight.

That meant nearly half the orphans would be left behind.

And the government decreed that the others could not leave without birth certificates— none of the children had one of those.

Tisdale: I ran right over to the maternity hospital and I said, “I need birth certificates, I’m taking babies out” and I took a whole big handful of them and we filled them all out at the orphanage.

Two and a half days after arriving in Saigon and cutting through miles of red tape, Betty and 219 orphans boarded buses, and then a military transport for the long trip to the U.S.

Among them was 2-year-old Vu Tu Quien, who had been at an Lac almost since she was born. She had no idea of the enormous effort a few Americans, Betty among them, had mounted to bring more than 2,000 orphaned children to new lives in America. 

Tu Vu Quien became Vikki Sloviter
Tu Vu Quien became the long hoped-for daughter for Delores and Henry Sloviter of Philadelphia.

Henry Sloviter: The little girl that came to us was really lovable...Delores Sloviter: I know that no child that came out of my body would ever be as graceful, as gentle and as pretty as she is.

And she was, as she grew, graceful, pretty, and bright— though, for a long time, she rejected her parents’ suggestion that she explore her own past.

Vikki Sloviter: For a long, long time I didn’t want to have anything to do with Vietnam or the babylift or orphans or anything.

But with maturity came a longing for an identity.

Vikki Sloviter: I think becoming 20, 21, I started realizing, I want to know a little more.

And then, there was that Life magazine contest. And she won a trip to meet Betty Tisdale, now a grandmother, retired to an old house in Seattle.

Tisdale: You’re nothing like your picture.Vikki Sloviter: I consider myself a pretty stoic person. And I found myself crying.Vikki Sloviter: You’re history for me.  You’re my past...

And that was the end of the story, seven years ago.  The happy conclusion for a woman who once, long ago, tried to make a difference.

But it turned out to be, not the end of the story at all.  And where it was bound seemed, again, impossible.

A love of humanitarian work re-awakened
Betty Tisdale was a grandmother now, surrounded by the children of the children she adopted, and by the memories piled deep in this old house in Seattle.

The end of the war, the babylift of Vietnam orphans, and her own part in it had been the most dramatic moment of her life—but then there was her own family to raise.

The memories were stored away in basement boxes and that part of her life was over.

And then Vikki came along.

Meeting with Vikki had stirred something familiar in betty.  Which had, truth be told, been bothering her for years....

Tisdale: I just feel empty if I don’t do something.

But what?

Sure, war or no war, she knew that there were still thousands of orphans in Vietnam. They needed somebody’s help.

And yet, here she was, a grandmother. Alone. No powerful boss or friends to lean on anymore.

But when she poked around in those old pictures of hers, the sentiment soon became resolve to know more..

Which then became full-out research, which forced her to learn the Internet, where, she decided, she could set up a Web site which would be at least a start.

She called it HALO—“Helping and Loving Orphans,”  a foundation of sorts. 

And that’s when she discovered she had not lost her talent for raising money or for begging—for supplies, and cash, and other people’s unused airline miles.

Tisdale: I’m a good one at asking for donations.

And with practically no idea of what she could or couldn’t accomplish, off she went, back to Vietnam.

We caught up with Betty, not an easy thing to do, more than 7,000 miles from the home to which she had once retired in Seattle.

Back in Vietnam
Vietnam is a very different country now, than the one Betty left in such a hurry in 1975. In many ways, an ultra-modern place now, and of course, communist too. And Betty had such ties to the repudiated past. Would an American grandmother be welcome here?

It didn’t take long to find out: The kids there greeted her there smiling.

A generation after the war, Vietnam, for all its rapid development, still has more than its share of orphans. They were happy, Betty discovered, to accept the help she offered.

Here, in a place called Quang Ngai, she turned over about $15,000 dollars in donations. The locals used it to build a brand new nursery.

It’s her first visit since the nursery was completed. She inspects each room carefully, making sure the babies’ needs will be met.

Betty stocks the nursery with items she has brought with her from the U.S.: vitamins, baby wipes, even handmade quilts. All the products are donated or paid for with money she raised at HALO.

From people back home who, she discovered, also wanted to do something.

Tisdale: I had 25 boxes in my living room and then Fed-ex called and said, did I have the forms filled out? I said “No, I can’t do this.” They sent three ladies from the Fedex office in Seattle and they spent two hours counting and listing everything that was in those boxes. And then the big truck came.Morrison: All for free? Tisdale: All for free, they just did it.Morrison: How is it you’re able to get all these things for free, what do you do anyway?Tisdale: I’m a great beggar, I think.

At the local market, Betty picks up items the orphanage hasn’t been able to afford. She is stretching every dollar to fill a seemingly endless need.

Morrison: Feel overwhelmed by all these things?Tisdale: At first, yes, you become overwhelmed because there’s so much to be done.

Betty’s determination takes her to the heart of the roaring, crowded city that is Ho Chi Minh, once Saigon, to one of the biggest and oldest orphanages. There, in crib after crib, are cleft palates, crooked bones, hearing and vision impairments, heart defects, and HIV.

Morrison: How many babies do you have here at any one time?Doctor: At this time we have 174.Morrison: Wow.Doctor: But it’s low, now. The time before, we had more than 200.

They are, says the medical director, life’s least likely to succeed.

Morrison: A lot of them are here because they have some problem.Doctor: Yes, most of them are abandoned because they are handicapped.

Betty has arranged for a visit by a team of reconstructive surgeons. The doctors, from an American group called “Face the Challenge”  volunteer their services, working all day and into the night to give the children a chance at a normal life.

And Betty waits through every operation.

Morrison: What is the connection that you have? Tisdale: It might go back to the fact that I was almost an orphan, I was raised by an aunt and uncle. There is something about children that I just can’t stay away from.

There is nothing left now of an Lac, the orphanage she supported during the war, home to so many children.

While some went to America, others grew up in Vietnam, like Xinm, now a mother of two, with her own stall in a bustling marketplace.

Each year now, Betty returns to meet the Lac orphans who stayed behind.

Tisdale:  In order to let me know that they haven’t forgotten me, they start singing.  And they sing “Jingle Bells.” It’s in the middle of August, you know. They’re singing “Jingle Bells.”Morrison: And now they’re grown up.Tisdale: And now they’re grown up.Morrison: And they still do it.

Tisdale: and they still do it, for me. And that’s beautiful.

Remarkable, what one grandmother can do.

Except, that isn’t the whole story. Betty Tisdale is now supporting orphanages in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Colombia and Mexico.

She is jetting back and forth among them with air miles begged from a growing list of contributors.

And then she comes home and talks to kids who have, in comparison, simply everything.

Once she was a young secretary, and it didn’t make much sense to go running off to Vietnam, to tilt at windmills.

And now a generation later it’s as impossible as ever. Which is, one begins to suspect, the whole point.

Morrison: What would your life be like if you didn’t have this? Tisdale: I can’t picture it, I can’t picture not doing this. This is me.