GIVING BACK: Like many wartime adoptees, Bindy Crouch ’97 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 back to her orphanage in Vietnam.
What is known is that two years after the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement between the United States and Vietnam, South Vietnam was under heavy attack from the North. Hundreds of thousands fled the country, and humanitarian aid groups working with orphans pressed the U.S. government to evacuate the thousands of orphaned and displaced children throughout the South. In response, the Ford administration planned Operation Babylift, a series of flights in April 1975 evacuating 1,500 children from Vietnam for adoption in the U.S. and Australia.
The first Babylift plane, a C-5A “Galaxy” cargo plane retrofitted for passenger transport, left Saigon on April 4, overflowing with attendants, crew, and more than 240 young children. 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 were killed before rescue workers pulled survivors from the wreckage. Surviving children were flown back to Saigon, then routed to their adoptive families. One of those children was Bindy.
One of four adopted children, Bindy was raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where opportunities to introduce her to Vietnamese culture were scarce. 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 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, Bindy enrolled in a special international studies seminar about Vietnam. The semester-long course, taught by Professor 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. Forty-four students traveled with four professors, comprising the largest U.S. student group at that time to visit Vietnam. Including Bindy, the trip brought six overseas Vietnamese students to the country. Each was born in Vietnam and was returning for the first time since infancy or childhood. On her last day in Ho Chi Minh City, Bindy found an orphanage where she thought she may have lived prior to Babylift. “My experience being adopted was incredibly positive. I definitely felt I owed something to someone for having given me that opportunity.”
In 2005, during the last year of her residency in family medicine, Bindy met Dr. Jane Aronson, founder of the Worldwide Orphan (WWO) Foundation, Aronson invited her to apply for a month-long 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,” she says. “Honestly, I was a little overwhelmed.” For Bindy, the time at Tam Binh had a much greater personal impact than she had anticipated. 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 journal. “I think I somehow feel more complete.”
In April 2005 Bindy 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, making her one of its lucky survivors.
Today, Bindy is a board-certified family physician on the cusp of completing her training in preventive medicine and public health and her master’s degree in public health. Once finished, she hopes to continue working with Dr. Aronson to administer medical care to orphanages throughout the world. “There are so many orphans in the world,” says Bindy. “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.”