by Monte Walker
Over the weekend, our family experienced something overwhelmingly emotional. We were introduced to a cousin of ours that we never knew of. Not a distant cousin, but my dad’s first cousin. Without DNA testing, we would have never known that we have a Vietnamese-born cousin from a relationship that took place between an Air Force Sergeant and a Vietnamese med student. This is the story of my grandfather’s brother Eugene Kenneth Walker.
Many years ago, before everything was online including this newspaper and before DNA kits became widely available for purchase, I researched the history of our family and connected some dots. But a certain dot could have never have been connected without the readily available DNA testing that exists today.
As someone who has taken the Ancestry.com DNA test, the first thing it tells you is your “Ethnicity Estimate” which for me is 43 percent Ireland/Scotland/Whales along with 30 percent Scandinavia. There are six other “trace” regions which are Europe West at 15 percent, Europe South (5 percent), Finland/North Russia (4 percent), and Africa North (1 percent).
Another thing the test does is match you with other test-takers and identify them as people that share a certain ancestor and formulate the closeness of the relationship through the DNA strand. The test itself is easy to take – just spitting in a tube. Creating an ethnicity estimate based on your DNA sample is a complex process, however, based on probability, statistics shared DNA, and ongoing research and science. Ancestry.com DNA calculates your ethnicity estimate by comparing your DNA to a reference panel made up of thousands of people. Because reference panels and the way they analyze your DNA both change as we get more data, your ethnicity results can change as they get more data, too.
In our case, the DNA tests have been taken by my wife, mother, dad’s brother, and a couple of their first cousins. Several other close relatives on my paternal-maternal side have taken the test as well.
The DNA Matches page indicates several levels of how a person is related, so in my case, it shows my mother and my son in the category of “Parent/Child.” My dad’s brother shows up under the “Close Family” category. My grandmother’s brother shows up in the “First Cousin” category which is not exactly the exact category, but we get it – he’s very close family but not in the immediate family.
The next group is “Second Cousin” and this category is still full of close family members, just not immediate family members. In the “Third Cousin” category, the matches are groups of that you share an ancestor with, but it’s very likely you don’t know them. It’s this “Third Cousin” group that is a tedious process where the individual wants to try and find out who our shared ancestor is (which is normally a great-great-great-great something. After doing this half a dozen times, unfortunately, those requests get culled due to the time available that I do not possess to look into this research.
Recently, I received an email from someone trying to do just this and I first set aside the email and did not respond as I have been in a bad habit of doing lately. A couple of days later I get an email from my uncle saying he was contacted by this person. I still ignored it. Then I get a Facebook message from another relative who is a historian and I took the time to go back and re-read the first email from the person asking about our relationship connection. I went to my profile for the first time in quite some time and looked at the categories of close relatives, first cousins, and second cousins and BAM – there was her name, “Mo Nguyen Vo” staring me in the face right next to my other cousins that I know very well. I thought to myself, “what in the world? How could this be?”
In her email to me, Mo Nguyen Vo was asking if I had any relatives in Vietnam in the timeframe of 1968 through 1969. My first thought was that my uncle Ken (my Papaw’s youngest brother) was in Korea, but not Vietnam, so I quickly responded with, “I’m sorry, I’m not aware of anyone in our family that fits that criteria.” I then told my mother the story and she informed me that Ken was in fact in Vietnam. I asked her to get his documents and tell me when and where. As it turns out, he was stationed at Phu Cat in March 1968. A year later, he was back in Texas at Goodfellow Air Force Base near San Angelo. But during that year, a relationship took place between Ken and a 31-year-old Vietnamese lady that produced Mo Nguyen Vo.
Mo’s family lived in Cam Ranh during the time of her birth. Her mother worked at an American base in Qui Nhon where she met my uncle Ken. Mo’s older sister told her that my uncle would pick up her mother from school in a Jeep. She learned that her father had left Vietnam shortly after her birth. He had left behind photos, but her mother had to destroy them in case the Viet Cong raided the home again. Since childhood, Mo accepted that she may never know anything more about her biological father. This was the reality for many ‘My Lai” (mixed Vietnamese children) at the time.
After determining that there is a greater than 99 percent chance that my great uncle Ken was, in fact, her father, I had the daunting task of informing her of what I had found. How in the world do you have that conversation? Especially through email to someone who may or may not speak English because all of the communications have actually been made from her daughter.
One would think that it would be a very enlightening information session giving someone the information they’ve been seeking their entire lives. However, there were things that she didn’t know about her newly discovered father. Ken was married to a native Hawaiian in 1953 and remained married until her death in 1991. He was actually married during the time he was in Vietnam. How would this information play with her? I also thought it was appropriate to tell her that her father died in 1994. All of that information had to be extremely difficult and emotional to take in with one email. Being very thoughtful with her emotions, I offered to send photos of Ken that I had and that our family was welcoming and anxious to have more conversations.
In 1991, Mo and her nuclear family immigrated to the US through the AmerAsian sponsorship program. She began her search for her father in the mid-1990s.
Ken was overcome with grief of the death of his wife in 1991 and died in 1994. They had no children together. One might wonder if he had known in 1991 that his biological daughter was in the U.S. that it would have given him something to live for.
But in the end, a 49-year-old English-speaking Vietnamese cousin with her husband Tony and two beautiful daughters Thea and Thanh have entered our family. Over the weekend we were able to meet with her and her family for the first time and let Mo see her biological family for the first time. It was very emotional for her, and for us.
This is not the first time that a story like this has happened. There was the story of Bob Thedford who served in the Vietnam War from March 1968 to March 1969. His son Nhan was born in August 1969 but never knew about him.
More than 3,000 Vietnamese orphans were evacuated from Vietnam in the chaotic final days of the war. The lives of the rest changed with the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987, which allowed 21,000 Amerasians and more than 55,000 family members to settle in the United States.
When the last U.S. military personnel fled Saigon on April 29 and 30, 1975, they left behind a country scarred by war, a people uncertain about their future and thousands of their own children. These children came from liaisons with the laborers who filled sandbags that protected American bases. They are approaching middle age with stories as complicated as the two countries that gave them life. Growing up with the face of the enemy, they were spat on, ridiculed, beaten. They were abandoned, given away to relatives or sold as cheap labor. The families that kept them often had to hide them or shear off their telltale blond or curly locks. Some were sent to re-education or work camps or ended up homeless and living on the streets.
Mo praised her mother for not abandoning her or having her killed like so many others. She praised her mother who has since passed.
Over the weekend, the family drove Mo by her dad’s childhood home on Jefferson Street in Van Alstyne, which has now been torn down with a new home on the lot. She met all of her first cousins and members of her family she never knew existed.
Mo still doesn’t know when she was born. But an ashtray made from a military shell shows engravings with his service time in Vietnam. It brought tears because she now knows her approximate birthday.
On Saturday night, she was presented her father’s American Flag that was used during his funeral and was given all of his medals and military patches from his long and distinguished service career. On Sunday, the family gathered for a feast and had a special moment in a hand-held circle full of prayer and praise. She was given his baby clothes, military documents, and things that he had written. Seeing his handwriting was overwhelming for Mo as emotions were so strong all throughout the weekend.
Mo is a devout Christian and her lifelong prayers were answered. She now has a family of her own.