This story begins at the end of the Vietnam War.
As the fall of Saigon quickly approached in the spring of 1975, efforts began to rescue orphans, many of whom were the offspring of American GIs and Vietnamese women, from crowded orphanages that offered them little hope for survival.
President Gerald Ford authorized U.S. military planes to airlift the orphans to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and then to the United States. On April 4, 1975, a C-5A Galaxy cargo plane departed from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport overloaded with military personnel and more than 300 orphans, many of whom were infants.
Shortly after climbing to cruising altitude, the rear door blew off, the rudder was damaged, and the cabin lost pressure. The pilot turned the plane around in an attempt to return for an emergency landing. Before they could reach the airfield, the plane crashed in a nearby rice paddy. Among the 154 lives lost that day was Army Master Sgt. Denning C. Johnson, the father of my friend Jerry, who was then 8 years old. His father’s death, and the date of the crash, became profoundly defining moments for Jerry and the source of deep and guarded retrospection.
I met Jerry Johnson in the spring of 2002 when we both volunteered for a summer mission trip to Bosnia with First United Methodist Church in Cary, N.C. As members of the Bosnia team, Jerry and I became friends, and in time he told me about his father’s death. He spoke of his father and the plane crash with no emotion. He later acknowledged that he doesn’t talk about what happened in Vietnam with his mother or siblings. His family has learned to live with the “elephant in the room.”
But it became clear to me that his father’s life and death continue to shape him. His dad’s Masonic Bible is displayed in Jerry’s home office, and a carved wooden model of the C-5A Galaxy sits in his living room, tangible reminders of his father’s sacrifice and the family’s loss.
Over the course of many trips to Bosnia, Jerry gradually began to reveal more about the depth of his struggle to reconcile what had happened in Vietnam. He admitted that when his wife wanted to invite a Vietnamese friend to their wedding, he refused, surprising them both with the intensity of his animosity. He had never consciously blamed the Vietnamese for his father’s death, but the pain of the past was clearly still shaping his present. God’s healing must have seemed far from the harsh reality of an 8-year-old’s loss.
Still, God’s grace was at work, this time in another country ravaged by war. During Jerry’s trips to Bosnia he developed a close friendship with Elvir Drino, one of our translators. One night while several of us were walking through town, Elvir pointed to a nearby window and told us matter-of-factly that it was the place where a sniper had shot and killed his father.
Like Jerry, Elvir was 8 when his father was killed. The dates and the circumstances were different, but the experiences were enough alike to create a strong bond between them. To see the devastation in Bosnia and to hear the stories of the survivors, especially from Elvir’s perspective, provided Jerry a global and historical context for his own story of loss.
Through this sense of shared suffering, Jerry developed a strong desire to help the children and families that he had come to know in Bosnia. In offering healing to others, he opened himself up to healing as well.