A stolen child, the fall of Saigon and family secrets can a documentary reveal the truth? War is by far the worst experience in the human condition. As soldiers die in destruction, innocent men, women swallow up the violence,
and whole cities and children can get caught in the crossfire as these civilian noncombatants struggle to evade the pandemonium whose families can be split up in the conflict. One family from Colorado knows all too well how war can divide and destroy families. Bernadette Bernie, slowly 94, remembers the day that forever changed her life.
Even though she was only four years old, she was outside playing kick the can with her cousins and two year old sister, Rosie. It was an afternoon like any other, hot and humid and sticky. She heard the sounds of chatting, apartment dwellers humming cars and whirring buses. Then suddenly, the courtyard felt strangely quiet. Bernie turned around to find her sister had disappeared.
It was April 1975 in Saigon. The Vietnam War was about to end, and the United States was preparing to withdraw its military. US citizens and the South Vietnamese who fought alongside American troops were in danger. If the encroaching Communist North Vietnamese captured Saigon, which looked inevitable, it would most likely imprison, torture, reeducate or kill US citizens and any other sympathizers. There were lots of rumors about mothers fractionizing with the enemy who had children.
With the face of the enemy, everyone in Saigon was in panic and wanting to flee the country, Bernie explained. U. S. Soldiers and Vietnamese wives would be rescued, flights out of Saigon were full, seafaring vessels were overloaded, and the United States had to decide who to evacuate. US soldiers would be rescued along with Vietnamese women who had married them and their children.
But what about Vietnamese soldiers and citizens connected with the American presence? In March and April of 1975, it seemed like everyone in Saigon was trying to leave. Crowds gathered outside the US Embassy. President Ford launched Operation Babylift to save approximately 20 Vietnamese orphans. Then Operation New Life, which evacuated over 1100 Vietnamese refugees, and finally Operation Frequent Wind, which saved an additional 70 people in a rush of helicopter trips.
Rose disappeared in the midst of this chaos, just a few weeks before the fall of Saigon. On April 31, 975, Bernie had the luck and misfortune of being Amarasian, the term used for Vietnamese children born from American soldiers. Her father was serving in the army when he met Bernie’s mother during his tour of duty. Bernie’s father had already returned to the US while her mother prepared to evacuate, they could get out of Saigon. But without knowing what happened to Rose, Bernie and her mother successfully evacuated days before the fall of Sagaen in the United States.
Bernie’s parents had more children, but she never forgot about Rose. Her mother fell into a lifelong depression. Her father refused to talk about it, claiming that Rose wasn’t his biological daughter. Her aunt blamed her for not watching her younger sister more closely,
and Bernie learned to cope by becoming a perfectionist, immersing herself in education, career and personal pursuits. She climbed the corporate ladder at a very young age in the banking and finance industry while she worked full time in the early 90s, she decided to earn her College degree at Cu Denver, where she majored in business.
Bernie hit all the adult milestones quickly. She was in a dream job when she graduated, married her husband in 1998, bought a new house in the city, had two beautiful children, received the 40 under 40 Award from the Denver Business Journal. Everything seemed perfect. Except it wasn’t. Great Recession leads to spiritual retreat Right in the middle of the financial crisis 2008 to 2009, Bernie experienced three consecutive miscarriages.
The corporate work environment had grown toxic and the stress of her job intensified. Even though it didn’t make any practical sense, Bernie decided to follow her intuition, which told her to quit her job search for spiritual guidance and unconventionally make a documentary about it in India. As a child, Bernie had always loved movies.
When her home life was difficult and it often was, she pictured herself as the protagonist in a movie she could escape into someone else’s story. The question of what she was running from, however, became all too real.
In India. On the way to the Taj Mahal, Bernie, who was afraid of snakes, came within inches of a snake charmer’s Cobra, an encounter that made her analyze the source of her deepest fears. The experience forced unresolved issues to come to the surface that she’d buried in order to focus on the pursuit of living the American dream. Bernie had lived with the memory of that little sister who had vanished in the last days of the Vietnam War. Even though Bernie had just turned four years old, her aunt blamed her for Rose’s disappearance.
She carried the guilt that it was all her fault when she and her mother fled to the United States, it was not only Rose that was lost, Bernie lost her Vietnamese identity. When her mother passed away in 2012, Bernie thought she’d lost all ties to her Vietnamese heritage, thus losing any hope of ever finding her sister, Rose. In December 2018, a cousin called Bernie to let her know that a woman who was a genetic relative had contacted him through a DNA website. She was adopted and did a DNA test in the hopes of finding her birth mother and father, an American who served in the Vietnam War. Was it possible this was Robes?
Bernie’s genetic information was on a different website, so she couldn’t immediately confirm their relationship. They had a cousin in common. That was the only sure thing. Bernie’s cousin gave her the name and email of this newly discovered genetic relative, who might be her long lost sister. She was named Vanessa and now lived in Garden City, California, known as Little Saigon for its large Vietnamese population.
Vanessa’s email to my cousin described the same story I’d been telling, Bernie said. I knew in my bones that it was my sister. It was just unreal. From this point forward, the story uses both Rose and Vanessa in reference to Bernie’s sister. If it was shocking for Bernie to find her long lost sibling, it was even more shocking for Vanessa, who simply wanted to find her birth parents.
She had no idea she had a sister and other siblings. Vanessa Rose grows up in Little Saigon. Before emigrating to the United States from Vietnam, Vanessa had been treated like an orphan stepchild, said Bernie, Vanessa’s adoptive mother, had always claimed Vanessa’s father was an American soldier, which explained why she looked American. Still, Vanessa had doubts, so much so that she had asked her mother many times throughout her life if she was adopted. Finally, in May 2018, Vanessa’s mother admitted she was not Vanessa’s biological mother.
She explained that Vanessa had ended up at the police station where she worked in the weeks before the fall of Saigon. Vanessa had been abandoned, her biological mother said. When Vanessa’s adoptive mother took her home for the night, her own children three boys and three girls wanted to keep her. Vanessa didn’t find her biological parents on the DNA database, she later learned, because her mother had died in 2012 and her father had not taken a DNA test. But she ultimately found Bernie and in no time, the two women confirmed they were sisters.
Shortly after that, Vanessa was on a flight from Los Angeles to Denver, and on January 4, 2019, the two sisters were reunited after almost 44 years. Having successfully turned her experience in India into Bernie’s Journey, a featurelength documentary about unexpected transformation as a result of difficult transitions, Bernie decided to make a second documentary about her family’s experience titled Finding Rose.
The project is very cathartic, she said. As if the whole saga up to this point weren’t dramatic enough. What Bernie uncovered as she interviewed family members in the United States and in Vietnam would prove to be remarkable.
Bernie’s American GI father is yet to meet Rose in person and would only communicate through email or text. Bernie’s mother had always claimed that Rose was kidnapped. Vanessa’s adoptive mother believed that Rose was abandoned. In addition, Bernie’s aunt, who was watching the sisters at the time, still blames Bernie for Rose’s disappearance. The documentary has become more of a mystery, Bernie said.
There are conflicts with everyone’s stories. Time can make memory foggy, Bernie added. I can forgive myself knowing that a four year old can’t be expected to watch a two year old. Now I understand that it’s a cultural norm to blame the oldest sibling, regardless of age. The guilt weighed heavy on my heart, but healing has begun now that Rose is back in my life.
The filming has unveiled more family secrets that the documentary project will explore. The information we are uncovering is not easy to comprehend, Bernie said. The Vietnam War was a confusing era and it was a chaotic time. Stories may have been changed for self preservation, so we may never get an accurate story. What story does Bernie except as truth?
From a director’s point of view, she’s not sure it matters. Finding Rose will have to tell the story from different points of view, like Korosawa did in his iconic movie Rashamon. This may be an ideal solution for Bernie cinematically, but what about emotionally? Sometimes these choices aren’t really easy to make, she said. Revealing family secrets disrupts the dynamic of what’s become the norm.