Giving Back

By Alison Cashin '97

“People have always told me it is amazing that I can tell my story so easily. I was born in Vietnam, I say. It was the end of the Vietnam War; my family had to give me up. They left me at an orphanage, and, really, I am lucky for it. Through Operation Babylift, I was adopted by an American family. I grew up with my American family in Massachusetts. Yes, I’ve been back to Vietnam. Yes, I’m very lucky. That part of the story is easy to tell.”

Riding on the back of a motorbike on a pockmarked dirt road from Ho Chi Minh City to Tam Binh 2 Orphanage, Bindy Crouch ’97 felt unprepared for what lay ahead. She had visited Vietnam twice since being adopted, but this time promised to be different. It was May 2005 and Crouch, at 30, was nearly finished with a residency in family medicine and about to begin a second residency in preventive medicine and public health. She was also pursuing a master’s in public health at Columbia University.

With her medical background and cultural fluency, Crouch had the tools she needed to do the work she had come for — providing direct service and medical care to HIV-positive children at Tam Binh 2. But as she surveyed its whitewashed walls, dozens of cribs stacked side by side, and the faces of the nearly 100 children she would help care for, Crouch—who had always told her personal story with ease and clarity—was speechless.

Like many wartime adoptees, Crouch can only sketch a rough outline of her past. She knows she was born in 1974 and celebrates her birthday on November 12, but there is no surviving record of her birth, and no way for her to trace her life back to the orphanage in Vietnam.

Bindy Crouch with mother Judy in 1975
Bindy Crouch with mother Judy in 1975
Crouch with her mother Judy in 1975
at the time of her adoption.

What is known is that two years after the 1973 Paris Peace Accord between the United States and Vietnam, South Vietnam was under heavy attack from the North. As Saigon crumbled, hundreds of thousands of people fled the country. Some Americans remained, but most foreign embassies closed. In the wake of the chaos, humanitarian-aid groups working with orphans pressed the U.S. government to evacuate thousands of orphaned and displaced children throughout the South. In response, the Ford administration planned Operation Babylift, a series of flights in April 1975 that evacuated 1,500 children for adoption in the United States and Australia.

Although framed as a humanitarian effort, Babylift sparked controversy. The children to be adopted were treated as orphans, their adoptions arranged before leaving Vietnam. But some children technically may not have been orphans — they had been displaced or separated from their families by the chaos of war — and it may have been possible to reunite them with their families.

The first Babylift plane, a C-5A Galaxy cargo plane retrofitted for passenger transport, left Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airbase on April 4. The Galaxy—to this day among the world’s largest aircraft—overflowed with attendants, crew, and more than 240 young children. To maximize the plane’s capacity, many infants were laid in cardboard boxes, stacked side by side and strapped to the plane’s floor.

Thirty-five minutes outside of Saigon, one of the plane’s rear pressure doors tore open. The Galaxy plunged into a rice field, cracked open, and burst into flames. Nearly 180 children and many crew members were killed before rescue workers pulled survivors from the wreckage. Surviving children were flown back to Saigon, then routed to their adoptive families. Having seen coverage of the crash, many adoptive parents waited in anguish for news of their new sons and daughters.

Keith and Judy Crouch welcomed Bindy into their brick-front cape in the small, western Massachusetts town of Pittsfield. The family already included three adopted children, but Bindy was their first adopted internationally, and their only non-Caucasian child.

Pittsfield in the 1970s lacked a significant Asian population. Opportunities to introduce Bindy to Vietnamese culture were scarce, but the Crouches did what they could, taking the family to a local Vietnamese restaurant and giving Bindy Vietnamese storybooks. When she was in fourth grade, the Crouches tried persuading her to attend a Babylift reunion in Colorado, but Bindy refused to go.

Bindy Crouch with Professor Robert Brigham
Bindy Crouch with Professor Robert Brigham
As a Vassar student, Crouch
traveled to Vietnam for the
first time with Professor Brigham.

“I knew I looked different when I was growing up, and really just wanted to fit in,” she says. “But I didn’t really have to think about being adopted. That my brothers and sister were also adopted made it easier for everyone.”

Throughout high school and early college, Bindy Crouch remained disconnected from her past. It wasn't until she arrived at Vassar in 1994 that she began developing a real interest in her pre-American life. As a transfer student with a major in biopsychology, she found challenging classes and accessible professors who encouraged her interest in doing psychiatric work with at-risk youth. She also met students who not only identified as Asian, but with specific Asian cultures, and she began to realize the uniqueness of her story and the value of connecting with her own history.

In her junior year in 1996, during the first phase of normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, Crouch opened her College Center mailbox to find a photocopied flyer announcing a special international studies seminar about Vietnam. The semester-long course, taught by Robert Brigham, professor of history and international relations, included intensive study of Vietnamese history, language, and culture, and a two-week tour of the country. Crouch applied to the course, was accepted, and within months was on a flight bound for Hanoi.

Forty-four students traveled with four professors, comprising the largest U.S. student group at that time to visit Vietnam. From Hanoi, they worked their way along the western coastline, through Hue, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of 1968’s Tet Offensive, through Da Nang, where their bus broke down in monsoon rains, and to Ho Chi Minh City in the South.

Including Crouch, the trip brought six Vietnamese students to the country. Each was born in Vietnam and was returning for the first time since infancy or childhood. Many saw family for the first time in over a decade. “It was a way of reconnecting with a part of their lives that had always been a mystery,” says Brigham. “They also knew that they were making history while they were there. It was a first step to reconciling their families, their country, and their adopted country.”

Crouch did not try to find family during the trip, but on her last day in Ho Chi Minh City she found an orphanage where she thought she may have lived prior to Babylift. There she remembers meeting several European couples in the thick of the adoption process.

“I wanted to tell them, ‘This is a good thing you’re doing,’” she says. “My experience being adopted was incredibly positive. At that point, visiting the orphanage, I definitely felt I owed something to someone for having given me that opportunity.”

Crouch returned to Vassar understanding new dimensions of her history, and with a profound appreciation for her American life and family. She also had a new determination to “give back” in some way for the opportunities she felt she would not have had if she hadn’t been adopted. The best way to do that, she believed, was to return to Vietnam to work with orphans.

In 2005, during the last year of her residency in family medicine at Jamaica Hospital in Queens, New York, Crouch was tasked with developing a cultural competency lecture about international adoption. Her research led her to Dr. Jane Aronson, founder of Worldwide Orphans (WWO) Foundation, www.wwo.org, a New York-based nonprofit organization engaged in medical outreach and direct services to orphans and vulnerable children around the world. Crouch contacted her about the possibility of working with her, and Aronson invited her to apply for a monthlong rotation at an orphanage just outside Ho Chi Minh City.

“It was the first time I had really thought about putting medicine together with orphan work,” Crouch says. “Honestly, I was a little overwhelmed.”

Bindy Crouch with an orphan at Tam Binh 2
Bindy Crouch with an orphan at Tam Binh 2
Crouch holding an orphan at
Tam Binh 2 in Vietnam, 2005.

During medical school, Crouch had returned to Vietnam for a monthlong medical clerkship and had a good understanding of the country’s medical system. But she still had not spent significant time at an orphanage. As a Worldwide Orphans “Orphan Ranger,” she would be part of the foundation’s “peace corps” that sends students and medical professionals to live and work in orphanages around the world.

At Tam Binh 2, Crouch quickly realized that, while her medical skills were needed, that work in many ways was secondary to simply spending time with the children. Given the limited resources and small staff at the orphanage, the children craved contact, especially with adults. Crouch spent hours holding babies, twisting girls’ hair into long French braids, and walking through Tam Binh 2 with children who were happy just to hold her hand.

“It’s important to improve health-care morbidity and mortality,” Crouch says, but it was important, too, for the children at Tam Binh 2 to have, on a day-to-day basis, “someone who touched them as an individual, picked them up, and held them. Children don’t understand the concept of morbidity and mortality.”

Aronson says this personal connection is an essential part of being an Orphan Ranger. In fact, it is the focus of the program — feeding, diapering, and changing children, taking them to local parks, playing and spending time with them. Because Tam Binh 2 runs an HIV/AIDS clinic, Orphan Rangers are also part of the child’s health care. But Aronson says, “The most important service we provide in the orphanage is relational, helping kids feel good about themselves.”

For Crouch, the time at Tam Binh 2 had a much greater personal impact than she anticipated. In many ways, she says, it filled in a missing chapter of her life. She saw for the first time a picture of what her childhood may have been like before being adopted by her American family. “I slowly began to feel as though I had a history from birth, and as though I had found my first family,” she wrote in her Tam Binh 2 journal. “It is this strange sensation of somehow knowing more about myself combined with information I never knew would affect me. I think I somehow feel more complete.”

Crouch’s story continues to unfold. In 2005 she attended the 30th anniversary of Operation Babylift in Boston, where for the first time she met Babylift adoptees from around the country. She also learned that she likely was on the very first Babylift flight that crashed. Although she had always thought she was on a later flight, information about her adoption agency puts her on the Galaxy, making her one of its lucky survivors.
Today, Crouch is a board-certified family physician on the cusp of completing her master’s in public health. Once finished, she hopes to continue working with Jane Aronson on Worldwide Orphans’ Orphan Ranger program or a similar one in which she is involved in the administration of medical care to orphanages throughout the world.

Children from Tam Binh 2 with Crouch
Children from Tam Binh 2 with Crouch
Children from Tam Binh 2
with Crouch (seated in middle).

Asked about her future with Vietnam, Crouch recounts a story about her first visit to Tam Binh 2 with Dr. Nguyen Trong Hau, Worldwide Orphans’ medical director in Vietnam. Dr. Nguyen observed that Crouch first returned to Vietnam as a tourist, then as a student, and, finally, to work. Crouch hopes in her next trip to continue that work, this time as a mentor inspiring other young physicians as Dr. Aronson inspired her.

“There are so many orphans in the world,” says Crouch. “As an American and as an adoptee, I have a role to play in international orphanages. It’s something I’ve made—and want to continue making—a priority in my life.”

Cashin ’97 is a writer and researcher for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). She also has worked as a freelance writer and editor, and as a civil rights advocate for prisoners. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and majored in English at Vassar.