WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - In the wake of Hurricane Florence, a lot of us know what it’s like to feel displaced.
Anne Puangprasert has known that feeling her whole life, having overcome abuse, loss, and even a falsified death. Anne is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who moved to Wilmington after the war, and her family is now trying desperately to bring her home.
Pete Lipford met his sister Anne for the first time last year. He is 45. She is 48. Pete knew he had a sister, but thought, as did his father, Wayne, that she had died decades ago.
In 1968, Wayne was a young Army officer stationed in Thailand for the Vietnam War. He didn’t expect to fall in love with a Thai woman named Kumaune.
In 1970, Wayne and Kumaune welcomed a baby girl. They were by all accounts a happy family until Sgt. Lipford was injured so badly during a grenade attack that he was sent back to the United States to recover at Walter Reed Hospital.
In the months that followed, Wayne wrote letter after letter to Kumaune from his hospital bed in America, calling her “sweetheart,” “honey” and even “wife.” He asked for new pictures of their daughter, Anne, writing, “I love you both very much” and talking about his plans to marry her and bring them to the United States.
It wasn’t just words. Sgt. Lipford often sent money, and all these years later, receipts from those money orders remain a symbol of his efforts to take care of his family half a world away.
Then, in 1971, the unthinkable happened. Sgt. Lipford received a letter from Kumaune’s family, saying both she and the baby had died. Too injured for the Army to ever send him back to Vietnam, Wayne held on to the only thing he had left: pictures of his young family.
Years later, he married an American woman and had two more children, but he never forgot Kumaune and Anne.
In fact, he sat his American children down for a talk when they were in their early teens to tell them himself.
“He told me the whole story. He said, ‘I wanted to be up front. I didn’t tell you. I wanted to wait til you got to the right age to let you know that I had a daughter that was born while I was in Vietnam and I supported her. I supported her mother,’” Pete remembers of the conversation with his dad many years ago.
That could have been the end of the story were it not for a little girl who did not die, but spent the rest of her life looking for her American father after her mother’s death. Thanks to the pictures she saved of her father, and a kind Vietnam vet she met in Thailand many years later who agreed to help her, Anne finally found her father.
However, Wayne had died six months earlier from cancer associated with his exposure to Agent Orange during the war. Devastated, but not defeated, Anne kept looking and social media helped her eventually find Sgt. Lipford’s children right here in North Carolina.
At first, Pete Lipford and his sister Tanika were skeptical, but when Anne showed them the same pictures their father had shown them all of those years ago of the sister they all thought had died, their disbelief turned to joy.
“Once I saw the letters and recognized my dad’s handwriting, I knew it was legitimate,” Pete said.
Anne’s grandmother, afraid that baby Anne would be taken back to America after her mother’s death, made up the story sent to Sgt. Lipford that both mother and child had died. In a cruel twist, Anne’s grandmother was the only one who treated her kindly.
Anne’s half white skin meant a lifetime of discrimination in Thailand, even from her own teachers, aunts and uncles, who wanted her sent to an orphanage because of her mixed race.
She can’t change the past so Anne is looking to the future, hoping to make up for the father she lost with the family here that he left behind.
“Anne has never wanted anything but love and that’s what our family is. It’s all about love," Pete said of his efforts to bring Anne here from Thailand. "It would just mean so much. It would mean I’ve completed with my dad would’ve wanted.”
Unfortunately, the law is not on their side. American soldiers fathered thousands of children like Anne in Asia during the Vietnam War. Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act in the 1980s to streamline the immigration process to reunite these children with their American families, but abuse of the system prompted a crackdown.
Anne’s pictures and letters helped get her Amerasian status approved by immigration services in 2016, but the crackdown means she has to wait seven years for her visa application to be processed, with no guarantee it will be approved.
The only way for Pete and his family to see Anne and her two children now is to go to Thailand.
“It’s been difficult to know that they are there and they are struggling," Pete’s wife, Kim, said. "If they were here, we could help them, but we can’t get them here.”
After a heartbreaking goodbye in Thailand in 2017, Pete and Kim went to Washington, pleading their case to Senators Burr and Tillis and Congressmen Jones and Rouzer to bring Anne here.
“They have all listened to our story or at least their staff has listened to our stories," Kim said. "They’ve made some inquiries, but the response is always the same. The law says they have to wait.”
One Congressman, moved by the story of another family in a similar situation, is looking to change the law.
“What we are trying to do with this legislation in a bipartisan way is make it easier for service members who had sons and daughters overseas during their deployment to bring those children into America through an expedited visa process,” Congressman Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat, said of his bill, the Uniting Families Act.
After already losing more than 40 years of time with her American family, Anne’s best hope to come to the US before 2023 is through Kind’s proposed legislation. The bill, HR 1520, was sent to committee in 2017, but Kind hopes to have it brought to the House floor for a vote this year.
Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, has told WECT he will support the bill if it comes to the floor for a vote, which is noteworthy for potential bipartisan support.