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A Family Found: Jim Heintz Discovers a Daughter in Vietnam

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“When Mikal showed me the photos of Linh and presented the facts, I knew she was mine.”

Jim Heintz may have been blindsided by the discovery of a Vietnamese daughter, but he never hesitated to claim his child as well as a grandchild. Heintz, a Grandview native, left Vietnam in 1971, having no idea his daughter would be born seven months later. Thanks to DNA test kits smuggled into Vietnam and the DNA testing of his youngest daughter, Mikal, Heintz has been united with Linh Thach and her family.

Following family tradition Heintz enlisted in the army at age 18. Eventually shipped to Vietnam, he landed in a security platoon bunker living with 11 other guys. Their base hired local women called “house girls” to serve as housekeepers. Heintz, not particularly an eager storyteller, has opened up about that time in his life for several reasons, mostly to help other families with similar stories. According to him, he and his house girl, 18-year-old Thanh Thach, became good friends. She and the other house girls asked to spend one weekend on base fearing a Viet Cong attack on their village.

“We were just a couple of innocent kids who had a special weekend together,” Jim explained. He soon shipped home and seven months later Thanh, who had been sent to live with relatives many hours away, gave birth to a girl, Linh. When she returned, Thanh’s mother told everyone that her daughter had found an abandoned baby and decided to adopt her. Thanh died at 22 but Heintz never forgot her. The oil company sales representative shared the details of his Vietnam tour with his wife, Jeri. He helped organize a local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America and was instrumental in the building of the Korean-Vietnam Veteran’s memorial at Yakima’s Sarg Hubbard Park. What he did not know was that a world away his daughter, like most Vietnamese Amerasian children, was bullied and abused, leaving school at an early age after nearly dying at the hands of classmates.

Linh eventually fell in love with a neighbor, married him and welcomed a daughter, Nhu. About the same time, she began a search for her birth parents. Linh’s husband, Ky, worked with her and eventually became suspicious when no records could be found. After years of pressure, Linh’s grandmother admitted the truth of her heritage and Linh registered her DNA with Family Tree DNA through the help of the nonprofit organization Amerasians Without Borders (AWB). Years passed without a match until Mikal Heintz began her own family DNA search and got the surprising news last September that a half-sister lived in Vietnam.

While the Heintz family is no stranger to the balancing act that is a blended family, the Vietnam connection was definitely an unexpected turn. But to Heintz, it was not a complicated issue. He wanted her in his family. With the help of his wife and children, he set about making it happen. Heintz was already the father of three daughters when he married Jeri, the mother of two daughters. They wed 30 years ago and raised the youngest three girls together in the East Valley area. They have 13 grandkids and five great grandkids. As soon as the couple had time to absorb the news that their family actually included six instead of five daughters, they contacted Linh, initially through Jimmy Miller, founder of AWB.

Heintz said that while he wanted to know Linh and her family, he had never wanted to return to Vietnam. The words of his newly-found granddaughter quickly changed his mind.

“Nhu told me that her mother wished I could visit so she could prove to everyone that she is not alone, that she has family. Right then I knew I would go.” Heintz admitted that he was nervous about returning to a country he last saw in wartime. But reassurances from 17-year-old Nhu, who speaks fluent English, convinced him that the Americans would be accepted. Accompanying the couple on their visit in April was NBC news correspondent Harry Smith and a television camera crew gathering material for a Dateline story, which aired on Father’s Day. This story has plucked at the emotions of everyone who meets Heintz and his family. It’s a story that has connected people around the world and is not unique to Heintz. But, unlike many other Amerasian stories, this one appears to have a happy ending.

“Twenty years ago we bought this four bedroom house in Selah,” Heintz pointed out. “I wondered ‘what do we need this for?’ Now we know.” The first week in June, he and Jeri picked up Linh and her family in Los Angeles and brought them to live with the couple.

“We always wished we had a child together and now it feels like we do,” Jeri explained. Her emotions are raw when she speaks of Thanh, fearing that folks might think badly of her. Jeri also expressed sorrow that Linh was subjected to abuse and ridicule, wishing she had been able to grow up with her sisters. Now Jeri has moved into “mom mode,” busily working with staff at Selah High School to enroll Nhu for fall classes.

AWB has facilitated the entire process. Jimmy Miller, also an Amerasian child born during the Vietnam War, founded it in 2009 for exactly that reason. The organization coordinates visa applications with the U.S. government under the Amerasian Homecoming Act. The law, passed in 1987 and still active through the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, grants fewer visas to Amerasians than in past years, according to Miller. In order to qualify, applicants now must submit both DNA results and military records provided by a close relative of the veteran. According to Miller, nearly all of the “children of the dust” grew up without a father and 50 percent of them are also orphans.

“When you grow up in an orphanage from birth how can you prove who your father is?” Miller asked. “We need the government to accept these children,” he insisted. “Their fathers served this country, perhaps died or may still be missing” he added. “It is a harsh story but after 40 some years we need to look to the future. I see my work as a last chapter to help get something good from bad.”

That future is looking bright for Linh, Ky, and Nhu. Her search is over. She found her father and along with him a community she never imagined, full of sisters, brothers-in-law, nephews and nieces. The story of Linh and her mother and father is an ageless one about loneliness and love, tragedy and prejudice. Now, it is also about Jeri and five sisters. It’s about how love redeemed a life and brought three people across the world to find where they belong. It’s a story of family.

Amerasians Without Borders

Jimmy Miller calls Jim Heintz “Uncle Jim” out of respect. “I really respect the Vietnam veterans, they are like my dad’s brothers,” he explained. Miller, founder or Amerasians Without Borders, spent only days reunited with his father once he found him in 1994. But the Spokane resident and quality assurance inspector for Triumph Composite Systems knew the pain of discrimination and hatred that comes with being viewed as “the blood of the enemy.” His nonprofit organization is dedicated to attaining visas to the United States for the Amerasian children of Vietnam War vets or government contractors. The United States government estimates that tens of thousands of Amerasian children were born from 1965-75. Immediately after the war and since that time, there have been several efforts to bring them out, the latest being the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act which allows them to emigrate and become lawful permanent residents. That law and the Amerasian Naturalization Act of 2003 were both aimed at helping those still in Vietnam while the continued work of AWB, the Amerasian Registry and the Pearl S. Buck International foundation has helped identify many remaining Amerasians through Family Tree DNA, the testing partner for National Geographic’s Genographic Project. For more information, visit the Amerasians Without Borders Facebook page. The page also contains informational links detailing the plight of children of Vietnam War vets. Miller has also included a link to his petition asking Congress to address immigration visas for the remaining Amerasians.