BLEVINS: Operation Babylift

By Vivian Blevins

April 4, 1975, will forever be etched in my memory.

At a Tulane University convocation on April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford declared that the war in Vietnam was “finished as far as America is concerned.” But getting those who had supported the U.S. involvement out of the country in those last days as the North Vietnamese Army surrounded Saigon was another matter- and there was the issue of the orphans, some who had been fathered by American military men and who would certainly suffer even more following the U.S. exit.

C-5A Galaxy Tail Number 80218 was loaded on April 4, 1975, with crew, escorts, US Saigon Embassy personnel, and Vietnamese orphans and escorts in those last days of the U.S. presence in South Vietnam. The heat was sweltering and there was unbelievable chaos as reported in the literature and by David Norman, a Marine stationed at the embassy as part of the U.S Marine Security Guard Program, who now serves as an officer at the Miami County of Ohio Sheriff’s Department: “The American Embassy was six stories high and we could see fire fights, tracer rounds, flashes of artillery, booms, people in the shadows, sea of people at the gates seeking visas to bring Vietnamese girls they had married back to the states, looks of desperation, temperature in the high 90s, humid, people relieving themselves in alleys and side streets.”

Within minutes of takeoff from Tan Son Nhut Airfield, the cargo aircraft crashed in a rice field, killing  dozens of the orphans as well as many others aboard.

For several months now, I have been interviewing crew members and the orphans (now adults ages 46 to 50) who survived the crash. My intent is to tell the stories of some survivors as part of a project for the Miami Valley Veterans Museum in Troy, Ohio. I acknowledge that my reporting will involve but a sliver of the whole.

My interviews this past week were of Chris Colgan, a lieutenant and division head at the sheriff’s office in Hamilton, Montana, and his adoptive mother, Carol Colgan, who lives outside of Seattle, Washington, with Chris’ adoptive father, Len Colgan.

Chris refers to himself as a trust-fund baby, a moderate Republican, and a Twinkie.

The “trust-fund” moniker comes from the monies he received in the lawsuit against Lockheed following the crash. These funds paid for his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in psychology from the University of Great Falls with some left over which he uses, in part, for reunions with the other orphans who survived the crash. His mother reports that she served on the Parent Advisory Committee to provide advice and oversight of the trust that was set up to award damages to the orphans in the crash.

Although his adoptive parents are liberal Democrats, with that philosophical leaning coming from, according to Carol,  the impact of attending and graduating from Carroll College in Montana, Chris feels comfortable in this predominantly Anglo part of the country, “Cowboy Country,” as he refers to it. The Twinkie tag comes from his feelings about himself as, “yellow on the outside and white inside.” He indicates that he is the last person you’d want to teach racial profiling, diversity training, because he fits in, “has never had a problem with racism.”

As I talk with him, I understand why. He has a delightful personality, is totally committed to his work in law enforcement, and has spent the past 18 years in working with Special Olympics.

Of criminals  and his training at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in addition to his university studies, Chris says, “Criminals never age. They just keep being replaced with new ones.” And he is prepared for them as he works out four days a week to maintain his weight, striving initially  to gain needed bulk  and then to maintain weight, cardio fitness, and endurance to address the work he does and the people he might encounter. He reports, rather emphatically, “I am not a gym rat.”.

Further, he reports that his work in law enforcement has “evolved with age.” He has worked in Montana as a highway patrolman and a university police officer. “I feel I am making a difference in my work, and I can be treated poorly by 20 people, and when that one person shows appreciation, I feel a deep satisfaction.”

Of his work in Special Olympics, Chris says, “I was an assistant for a time until I was finally the only one who knew how to do it. These kids have delays in cognitive skills, but when they recognize me in a group, that makes an impression, leaves me with a good feeling. The most challenging part is staying on my feet, keeping up with them.”

Chris is not married and says that after about eight months, he has difficulty maintaining romantic relationships. This might be connected to the three foster placements he was in after the crash before he was officially placed with Carol and Len. And within a minute after mentioning a failure to form attachments, he is telling me about his anticipation of April first and the tricks he will play at work and his Christmas shopping. He begins shopping  in January and continues throughout the year, always seeking the perfect presents for those he supervises and the persons with whom he works at the court house.

After talking with Carol, I’ve decided that Chris’ walking away from romantic relationships might have something to do with his lack of housekeeping skills which are in direct contrast to his meticulous work performance.

Carol reports that when Len and she brought Chris at 20 months old into their home to join their biological children, Theresa and John, the whole family was pleased and for a time in middle school in Great Falls, there was a second Asian student with whom he had a sound connection. Chris indicates that DNA tests have shown that he is “Lahu, who are indigenous to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.”

Carol says, “Chris never saw himself as different.” Although Chris does not remember any bullying, Carol told me a story that still has me smiling:

“Chris was in second grade, and he came home from school one day and said,    ‘People are picking on me.’

“My advice  was, ‘Pick the biggest one and smack him right in the mouth.’

“When Chris came home from school the next day, he said, ’I knocked Jeremy down and made him cry.’

“I said, ‘Why? Jeremy is your best friend.’

His response was, ‘He was the biggest one in my class.’

And I answered, ‘Oh, my god, Chris, you didn’t get the whole story.’”

As I conclude this column, I see a beautiful. talented American man with two loving parents who adopted him “because we knew there were children out there in need.” And I know this family is an important part of what the framers of the U.S. Constitution could have only imagined when they indicated that they sought “a more perfect union.”