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Nguyen Thi Dep was on the front lines during the Vietnam War — but she was fighting a different kind of battle.
She was trying to keep her family alive and prevent them from slipping into poverty. Her four younger sisters and ill father all depended on her to provide for them. At that time, she was in her early 20s and eager to find work.
“I just wanted to do something to have some money to help my family," Dep said.
Dep found a job at a U.S. Army base in Saigon, South Vietnam. There, she worked as an office cleaner and was soon promoted to phone operator because she spoke English.
It was at the base that Dep met a gregarious American Army sergeant named Joe O’Neal. Their relationship evolved into a romantic one, and Dep became pregnant with their child.
'I Was Afraid'
After the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, officials ordered all American troops out of Vietnam. Joe left the country when Dep was only two months pregnant.
When her daughter, Phuong Mai, turned 3, Dep started becoming more anxious about her child's safety.
She was hearing rumors that communist troops were targeting biracial children because they considered them to be the children of traitors.
“I was very afraid [of] many people telling me that if I don’t send my baby away, they will come in here and maybe she will be killed," Dep said.
Dep made an excruciatingly painful decision. In April 1975, she took her daughter to an orphanage and dropped her off. She still remembers that last cry from Mai.
"When I go to the door ... she say, ‘Mama don’t leave me!' " Dep recalled. "And I want to come in and bring her back home but then I think if I do that, she will be killed later.”
Dep knew her daughter would be part of Operation Babylift, in which the U.S. airlifted thousands of children out of Vietnam for adoption. Beyond that, Dep didn't know where exactly Mai would end up. That uncertainty haunted her.
'I Couldn't Sleep'
Years later, when tensions calmed in Vietnam, Dep relentlessly searched for her daughter. She sent letters to adoption agencies and Joe to ask for their help. Many of her letters came back unopened. Desperate, Dep shared her story with Vietnamese media, hoping someone would be able to help her.
It took some time, but someone finally did. His name is Vu Le, a 30-year-old Vietnamese expat who lives in Tampa, Florida.
"As a Vietnamese person, I understand how much pain she going through for those 40 years," Vu said.
Vu made it his mission to help Dep, so he began searching.
"There were nights when I couldn’t sleep thinking about the story," he said.
Through some clever online sleuthing and a lucky break on the genetic matching site ancestry.com, Vu's research led to one woman: her name is Leigh Small.
"You know how you’re so excited, your hands shake and you can’t even type any of the proper words?" Leigh said. "I was elated. It was this amazing surprise that I had not expected."
'Typical, Normal Life'
Leigh, 48, lives in a quiet suburb near Portland, Maine with her husband and three children. She first arrived to a home in Bridgewater, Massachusetts as a toddler named Mai. Leigh was the name given to her by her adoptive parents.
"My father was in the Coast Guard. My mother was an art teacher. And we had the typical, normal life," Leigh said. "Soccer, basketball, vacations, regular school and just kind of very fortunate to have everything we needed in life."
Leigh knew almost nothing about her birth parents. She didn't think it was possible to find them. But when Leigh was 22, she went to see "Miss Saigon," a musical about a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier who fall in love and have a son, only to be tragically separated.
"That was probably the first time I emotionally broke down about any part of my history with the war at all," Leigh remembered. "That was probably a big moment for me."
Soon after that moment, relations between Vietnam and the U.S. normalized. Leigh saw that as an opportunity to travel to Vietnam to try to find her biological mother. But she didn't have any luck.
It wasn’t until almost 25 years later that Vu Le helped her make that connection. He helped find Leigh's mother and half-sister. So for the first time ever, Leigh called her biological mother, Nguyen Thi Dep, on the phone.
During that call, Dep asked her daughter a question that's been on her mind for more than four decades: "did you have a good life?"
"I had a wonderful life," Leigh answered.
Dep's entire world changed in that moment.
“I told everyone in my family and said, 'Oh, I found my daughter!' And they said, 'When you see your daughter, you don’t have to cry, OK?' And I said, ‘No, I'll never cry again,' " Dep said. "I’m very happy I found my daughter."
Both mother and daughter met in person shortly after that first call, when Leigh and her family visited Vietnam in November. Leigh remembers the anticipation before finally meeting her mother for the first time.
"It was nerve-wracking ... I felt like I owed this woman my life," she said.
They gave each other a hug the moment they saw each other. Both were visibly shy. It’s going to take some time to break through a language barrier and decades of distance. But it’s a chapter they're looking forward to -- one that’s now possible thanks to the help of a kind stranger.
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