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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 4/12/03 ]
Vietnam miracle reunion

A woman's pursuit of her roots resurrects memories for metro residents of a baby's rescue and struggle to overcome a war's brutality.

By BILL OSINSKI
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

To medics Darrell Warren (from left) and Richard Hock, and nurse Donna Rowe, Kathleen Epps (right) will always be Baby Kathleen, who they helped save after a 1969 Viet Cong strike.
 

DOWNIEVILLE, CALIF. -- Out of the massacre came a miracle.

In a Viet Cong attack on a village in May 1969, everyone was killed -- except a baby girl found wounded in her dead mother's arms.

U.S. soldiers, helicopter crewmen, medics, nurses and doctors saved her life. They gave her a name, Kathleen.

Eventually, the Americans came back home, not knowing what became of Kathleen. But they never forgot her.

About 12 years ago, she began a search for answers about her past.

On Monday, they will finally meet again.

Baby Kathleen is now Kathleen Epps, a Northern California wife with three daughters of her own. The prospect of Monday's reunion at a Texas army base thrills her, yet makes her anxious.

"What would be an appropriate gift for saving my life?" said Epps, who was adopted by a U.S. Navy officer. "I can't show up with nothing. What should I bring after 34 years?"

Two of her rescuers -- a Lithia Springs paramedic and a Marietta real estate broker -- say Kathleen has already given them a priceless gift.

"She was a bright spot in a very bad time. She made all the rest of it bearable," said Richard Hock, a former medic who lives in Lithia Springs and is one of Epps' godparents. "Of all the things that stuck with me from Vietnam, I've always wondered what happened to that child."

Still, Hock said he, too, is worried about gifts for the reunion.

"I wish I had something to bring her from back then," he said. "But all I can bring is my memories and myself."

Bending the rules

Flight records show that Huey helicopter commander David Alderson was called to perform a "dustoff" rescue on May 15, 1969, after American soldiers reported finding wounded Vietnamese civilians in a village. "Dustoff" is the term used for a no-landing, in-and-out helicopter rescue mission.

It was a day when Alderson would log more than 12 hours in the air and make at least three trips to Third Field Hospital.

He recalled a medic telling him that they had a wounded child, who had been locked in the tight embrace of her dead mother for more than two days. The soldiers pried the two apart to rescue the baby girl.

"We thought the baby was going to die," Alderson said.

Had he radioed his base for instructions, he probably would have been told to go to a Vietnamese hospital.

Instead, Alderson headed for Third Field Hospital, a U.S. facility set up in a converted school in the heart of Saigon.

"Every now and then, we just didn't call in," he said. "In this case, a lot of people bent the rules."

For most of that day, the staff at Third Field Hospital had struggled to keep up with a heavy flow of casualties, recalls Donna Rowe, the head triage nurse, who now lives in Marietta.

But when the radio call came in -- "Will you receive civilian casualties?" -- there had been a brief slowdown.

Had she followed the rules, Rowe would have redirected the Huey. Third Field Hospital was primarily for wounded American solders. Wounded Vietnamese civilians were the lowest priority guests.

"Tell 'em to come on," Rowe said.

Hock, the former medic, remembers that moment well.

"We (he and Rowe) just looked at each other and knew it was the right thing to do," he said.

Hock took the baby from the ambulance drivers who'd shuttled her in from the helicopter landing pad across the street from the hospital.

The baby was near death, said Darrell Warren, another medic on duty. She was dehydrated, malnourished and had fragmentation wounds in her abdomen and lower chest.

"She was blowing up on her own blood," Rowe said.

Rowe said the baby was rushed to the X-ray room so pieces of shrapnel from the attack could be located.

On the way from X-ray to the operating room, Rowe saw a chaplain, the Rev. Luke Sullivan, and pulled him into the crowd that was half-running down the hospital corridor.

"Father, come with us, you have to baptize this baby," Rowe said.

She knew that if the baby were baptized by a Catholic priest, and if she survived surgery, she could find a bed at a nearby Catholic orphanage.

Sullivan said he didn't have the holy water for a baptism. Rowe suggested that tap water would suffice.

So there was a Catholic baptism, with Rowe, a Methodist, serving as godmother, and Hock, then a Methodist, and Warren, a Mormon, as co-godfathers.

But no one knew the baby's name. Rowe said she should be christened Kathleen Fields -- the first name from the Irish ballad "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen."

Rowe and the others then took Kathleen to the operating room, where a surgeon removed the shrapnel and stabilized Kathleen.

"She was so tiny, she only went from here to there," Rowe said, indicating the distance from her elbow to the palm of her hand. "They had to use the smallest tools we had."

After the surgery, they made a crib for Kathleen: an orange crate lined with warm towels. They fashioned diapers from washcloths reinforced by sanitary napkins.

Then, a medical staffer wondered about stretching the rules to treat a Vietnamese baby.

"Captain, there's going to be some heat over this," Rowe recalls hearing.

"What are they going to do, send me to Vietnam?" she answered.

The next day the hospital commander approached Rowe.

"Captain, I understand we have a civilian patient," he said.

"Yes, sir, we do," she said.

"Well done," the commander said.

From then on, the baby became the darling of the hospital staff.

"Every spare moment, we spent with her," said co-godfather Warren.

He and the other hospital staffers were touched by the baby who smiled more than she wept, he said.

"Kathleen was one of those special little people who grabs you and pulls the good things out of you," Warren said.

They cadged money from other staffers, telling them to cut back on beer, to buy baby clothes and supplies. They painted the classroom ward where the baby was kept.

"We were like two idiots," Warren said of his and Hock's attempts to care for the child. "If it wasn't for Donna showing us how to be parents, that baby would've been in a lot of trouble."

A few days after Kathleen arrived, three soldiers in combat gear came into the hospital. They asked if the hospital had treated a wounded baby, and if it had survived.

Rowe directed them to Kathleen's room, where they visited briefly, then headed out. As they passed Rowe, one of the men said, "Thank you."

"Those combat troops did something exceptional and wonderful. They could have kept right on walking," Rowe said. "But they were compassionate and caring. They were Americans."

But there were still challenges ahead: The baby couldn't eat. Rowe said Kathleen could not tolerate cow's milk or goat's milk. It wasn't until Red Cross workers brought in soy-based formula that the baby started to thrive.

After about two weeks, Kathleen was healthy enough to be transferred to St. Elizabeth's orphanage. Rowe told the men to scrounge extra food from the hospital mess to take with the baby to the orphanage.

A family for Kathleen

With her medical emergency over, Kathleen was safe, but without a family to call her own.

At a chapel service shortly after Kathleen arrived at the hospital, Sullivan, the chaplain, told the story of the miracle baby. Among the worshippers was a Navy officer, Marvin Cords.

After the service, Cords approached the priest and asked about adopting Kathleen. The priest took him to the hospital.

"When I first saw her, she had a wound dressing that just about covered her entire body," Cords said.

At the time, Cords and his first wife, Sally, had already adopted three children, but they had talked about adopting a Vietnamese child.

He hired a Vietnamese attorney and started to track down Kathleen's birth certificate.

Weeks passed, but still no birth certificate came from the nuns at the orphanage.

At this point, Cords sought help from Sullivan, who did a little priestly arm-twisting.

"He told the nuns, 'Get a birth certificate for that child, or you'll never get another nickel from anyone at this hospital,' " Cords said. Days later, Kathleen had a birth certificate.

After more government red tape and delays, including having to get a waiver signed by then-South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, Cords brought Kathleen to America.

"She was shy, but very, very stubborn," said Sally Gibson, her adoptive mother.

Mostly, the family lived on military bases around the country. Kathleen recalls that the children, including two more who were adopted later, were summoned to dinner by the ringing of a ship's bell.

The six adopted children created a multicultural rainbow of ethnic heritages: African-American, Native-American, Vietnamese and Caucasian. Kathleen remembers that when they lived in South Carolina, some of the kids on the school bus taunted her African-American brother.

The rest of the Cords kids jumped to their brother's defense, and the name-calling ended that day.

Lost and found

About 12 years ago, Epps started to get serious about searching for her roots.

"I figured once I found somebody from the hospital, they could tell me where I came from," she said.

In June 2002, she left an entry in the guest book of a Vietnam veterans Web site: "I'm looking for any staff and/or military personnel who may have been at Third Field Hospital in Saigon, 1969. Anyone who may have remembered a small Vietnamese girl brought in by helicopter. Her whole village was killed by Viet Cong? . . . I have very few names and no memories except the year and the place. Could you please contact me, if anyone knows anything? Thanks!"

A few weeks later, Ed Russell, a retired federal employee living near Philadelphia, saw the entry.

Russell had served as a chaplain's assistant to Sullivan in Vietnam, but left the country in May 1969, and had never heard the story of Baby Kathleen.

In July 2002, Russell visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where there are archives of the U.S. medical forces from the Vietnam era.

He found a story published in a Florida newspaper in 1969, written by war correspondent Helen Musgrove. It was titled "Miss Ecumenical." It was the story of Kathleen's baptism.

Russell sent an e-mail to the woman who'd left the notice in the guest book..

"Finally, I had found somebody who might know something, but I didn't want to scare him off," Epps said. "A couple of e-mails later, I told him I was that Kathleen."

The Florida story gave the names of Donna Rowe, the former Army nurse, and Richard Hock, the former medic. Rowe was the key, but they had no clue where to find her.

Russell kept up the Internet search, though, and found an Army nurses' Web site, where an October 2002 Atlanta Journal-Constitution story had been posted.

Missing link located

Last October, Rowe told the story of Baby Kathleen to filmmakers shooting "In the Shadow of the Blade," a documentary about medical rescues.

"To think that we saved this little scrap of a thing," said Rowe, now a real estate broker in Marietta. "I thought I would never see her again."

Russell told Epps about Rowe's story in the newspaper.

Then, Epps contacted Cheryl Fries, the creative director of the documentary, who led her to Rowe.

After that, a torrent of information poured in, filling the blanks of Epps' past.

"I had to tell Cheryl to let me rest for a few days, it was so overwhelming," Epps said.

The news that Kathleen had found them was no less of a shock to the veterans of the Third Field Hospital. Neither Hock nor Rowe had known that for the past 20 years, they have lived within a half an hour's drive from each other.

About a month ago, Hock came home and found a voicemail from a woman who wanted to talk to him about Vietnam.

He doesn't like talking about much of his wartime experience, but he called back.

A woman called out for someone else to come quickly to the phone: "Kathleen."

Hock knew exactly what the call was about.

Once the story started coming together, the filmmakers decided to reunite Kathleen with her rescuers for the documentary.

Fries said it was too powerful a story not to tell fully.

"This is a story about humanity in the middle of war, about good people in a bad situation," she said. "Kathleen's future exists because good people in American uniforms cared."

On Monday, Epps will fly by Huey helicopter into Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas, where many Army nurses trained for Vietnam.

Alderson had planned to pilot the Huey, but he died last week of pneumonia at a Virginia hospital.

A substitute for Alderson, one of his co-pilots in Vietnam, will be flying the Huey. Rowe, Hock and Warren will be on the ground, guiding it to a landing.

Epps will be bringing more than herself to the Texas reunion.

Along with her parents, she will bring her husband, Billy, and their three daughters, Mary-Ann, 8; Jo-Jo, 6; and Sean, 5.

They live in Downieville, Calif., a town of less than 500 people in the historic gold rush area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A sketch of Epps' family life includes a blue-collar dad and stay-at-home mom, and a house where bears come to climb in the back yard trees.

He said the reunion will help his wife and his daughters "fill in some missing parts of the family history."

As Donna Rowe prepared to come to the reunion to celebrate the story of Kathleen Epps, she was touched by an Iraqi wartime tragedy.

She got a call from a man who works frequently for her, the dad of Diego Rincon, of Conyers. His son, an Army private, was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Once again, Rowe found herself comforting a family shattered by war.

"I thought that part of my life was over," she said. "That's why Kathleen's story needs to be told now."

For Hock, Kathleen's story is one that transcends the brutality of war, a Vietnam flashback that brings joy rather than dread.

"It's about this baby who had the will to survive and who did. She flourished and became a beautiful woman with a beautiful family," he said. "It's the great American dream all over again."

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2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
 

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