WASHINGTON – Luna Howard knows she is running out of time to find her father. And without his last name, a photograph or an address, she's unlikely to ever be reunited with him.
But she cannot stop searching and hoping.
Howard is one of thousands of children conceived between American servicemen and Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War. Like other Amerasians, Howard wants to know more about the American side of her family.
"My whole life, I have felt as if something has been missing, a part of myself, a part of who I am," Howard says. "This is an unfinished story for many Amerasians."
Amerasians are people of both American and Asian descent, particularly the children of a U.S. serviceman and an Asian woman. More than 20,000 Amerasians have immigrated from Vietnam to the U.S. since 1988, under a law that requires applicants to prove their father was a U.S. citizen, among other steps.
But only a fraction of those who have come to the U.S. have been reunited with their American fathers, says Sabrina Thomas, a history professor at Wabash College and author of "Scars of War: The Politics of Paternity and Responsibility for the Amerasians of Vietnam."
Even as her own search grows cold, Howard has started working to help other Amerasians access DNA tests and other tools to help them find their fathers or other close relatives.
She helped found a new group called Tim Lai that is devoted to the reunification of Amerasians with their American relatives. Tim means "heart" and can also mean "in search of.:
It was spurred in part by the proliferation of DNA testing and ancestry sites that allow Americans to explore their genealogy, says Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde, Tim Lai's interim president and an associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis.
Another major dynamic: "These individuals are racing against time," Valverde says. Among the surviving population of approximately 6.1 million Vietnam veterans, the youngest are in their 60s and many are much older, according to Census estimates.
An estimated 584 Vietnam veterans will die every day in 2022, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Howard, who is 48, says she would like to see the U.S. and Vietnamese governments become more proactive in helping Amerasians find their fathers. And she hopes to enlist lawmakers in Washington to allow those with proof of American fathers to win automatic U.S. citizenship.
Under the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act, certain Vietnamese Amerasians can get green cards but need to take other steps to get citizenship. The law allows mothers with Amerasian children to immigrate to the U.S. with immediate family members. In addition to the 20,000 Amerasians who have come to the U.S., about 50,000 additional family members have also immigrated under the measure, according to State Department figures.
'Well, you have a child'
Keith Rockwood, a retired police officer who lives in Massachusetts, enlisted in the Navy when he was 18. He served for six years, including a tour in Vietnam in 1966-67.
Two years ago, Rockwood got a voicemail on a Friday night from a woman in Minnesota who said she had a question about his genealogy. He had done some research on his family tree and submitted his DNA to an ancestry site.
When he called her back, she said she was with a group called Amerasians Without Borders and she asked about the dates of Rockwood's service in Vietnam.
"She said, 'Well, you have a child'," Rockwood recounted. "I said 'Really? Boy or girl?' "
He later checked the DNA match to be sure. But he vividly remembered his dalliance with a Vietnamese woman he met while ferrying cargo on the country's rivers.
"She was a cutie, no doubt about that," he said. "I wasn’t supposed to go off the boat, but I did."
Rockwood had already raised five biological kids and three stepchildren in the U.S. But he embraced his new-found daughter and her family, sponsoring them to come to the United States and helping them resettle in Massachusetts.
They arrived in August, found jobs and an apartment and are now learning English, he said.
"When I first saw a picture of her ... I said 'Well, I can't deny her,'" he said of the clear family resemblance. His wife and other children were also accepting of their new, expanded family members.
Jimmy Miller, who has worked on reunification efforts for years through Amerasians Without Borders, says more than 300 Amerasians remain stuck in Vietnam. It's become harder for them to prove American paternity as the Vietnam veteran population ages. Among those who are still alive, Miller says, some do not want to get involved or to acknowledge fathering a child during the long-ago war.
"They don't want to look back," says Miller, who came to the U.S. in 1990 and now lives in Washington state.
"My story is different," says Miller, who was reunited with his American father in 1994. "When we found each other, he drove all the way from North Carolina to Spokane – 3,000 miles – to see me."
They stayed in close touch before his father died two years later.
Children of service members were shunned in Vietnam after the war
Howard has not been so fortunate, even though her mother and father had a years-long relationship that resulted in two children – Howard and her older brother – and her family lived together in Saigon for part of her father's deployment.
“After the fall of Saigon, my mother lost the house she was living in with my dad,” says Howard, who was two years old when her father left for the last time.
When the Communist government took over in Vietnam, Amerasian children were shunned and ostracized. They faced prejudice because of their mixed race and persecution because they were associated with the enemy, says Valverde.
Howard says her mother took her and her brother to the countryside to hide. “She burned every document that related to my father. She feared for our safety,” she says.
They lived on the margins of Vietnamese society for years, until Congress passed the homecoming act.
In 1990, when Howard was 17, she arrived in the U.S. with her mother and brother. She found work at a hair salon to support her family, and one of her coworkers helped her learn English. She later enrolled in beauty school and eventually opened her own salon in Washington, D.C.
Even as she married, had children and saw her career flourish, Howard never stopped thinking about her father. She took a DNA test years ago, but the results have never produced a match.
It’s not just about her own yearning for a fuller sense of her identity and belonging.
"My mother is 91 now, and my dad was the last man she loved," she says. She wants her mother to see him one last time, and she wants her two daughters to know their grandfather.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Children of Vietnam War pushing to find their veteran fathers in US