He met her at the USO in Cam Rahn Bay in 1968. And because he was 19 and she was 18, and because she was very beautiful and intelligent, the Army private from the 588th Transport Division fell in love with the Vietnamese receptionist. One year later, Jim Edward Wilder of Landover married Nguyn Thi Kim Hoa, and a year after that they had a son, named Huan. Two months later, Wilder was sent home and discharged.
He wanted his family to follow, but Army rules and South Vietnamese immigration policies prevented that. In the years that followed, Wilder suffered a series of crushing experiences. He tried -- but failed -- to find someone in Congress to intervene and help bring home his baby and Lan, as Kim Hoa was nicknamed. He flew to California hoping to work in evacuation efforts during the collapse of Saigon but was unable to do so. Then he spent five years in the Upper Marlboro Detention Center on an abduction charge. While there, his life began to turn upward. He was named one of the country's 25 outstanding Jaycees presidents. This year, he was elected student president of Prince George's Community College.
Now, 13 years after he left Vietnam, Wilder is older and wiser. His graying hair is kept in place by "dry-look" hair spray, and he wears a jacket and tie and shiny shoes. But he is still unable to forget the woman and the baby he left in Vietnam.
Last fall, he devised a plan for an "Amerasian Center" in Maryland that would shelter for three to six months the Amerasian offspring of U.S. servicemen. Wilder hopes the center would prepare the children for adoption into American homes by teaching them English and the basics of American culture, yet would cushion the shock of moving into a new country by keeping the children together. If Wilder's own son, who turned 13 last May, is among them, he says, "so much the better."
Wilder's proposal comes at a time when official concern for U.S.-Vietnamese offspring is strong. A bill introduced in the House by Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.) and 283 cosponsors would allow Amerasians born after 1950 to apply for visas to be admitted to the country under normal immigration quotas. American consular officials would decide, based on physical appearance and whatever other evidence was available, whom to admit. Each child would need an American sponsor.
A limited form of McKinney's proposal has been included in the House version of an immigration reform bill passed last month by the Senate. It will come before the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 14, when supporters of McKinney's legislation will try to strengthen its provisions. If they are unsuccessful, McKinney will press forward with his own bill, aides said.
Nobody has a clear idea of how many children are involved. The Vietnamese government has told some American organizations it knows of 8,000 such children. But some American estimates, including those by Vietnam Veterans of America and adoption groups, are more than three times as large.
Wilder's marriage to Lan in a Vietnamese ceremony never was recognized by the U.S. government. As an enlisted man, he needed the permission of his commanding officer. Wilder said his commander declared the marriage "immoral, unjust and just not right" and tore up his marriage application papers before him. With the marriage not recognized, it would be difficult for Lan to obtain an exit visa or U.S. visa.
Wilder said that, after all the problems he has had, he feels bitterness toward no one but his commanding officer, whose racism, he feels, had such a devastating effect on his life. He said he believed at the time he was in Vietnam "for the cause of freedom," and his commander's actions seemed "the complete opposite of everything we were in Vietnam for."
For two years after his return from Vietnam, Wilder made the rounds of congressional offices on Capitol Hill. At first he assumed the task of getting his marriage recognized and Lan and Huan brought to the United States would be easy, but the combination of bureaucracy and Wilder's naivete and inexperience defeated him.
His mother, Marie Wilder of Landover, went with him on his trips to the Capitol. "I wanted to make him happy, and I thought he probably could get it done," she said. "It was just to no avail, that's all." Still, she added, "I never give up hope. You never know."
Wilder kept in touch with Lan for 2 1/2 years but then his mail was returned unopened. "I didn't know whether something happened to her or whether she found somebody else," Wilder said. "If she has, I wish her all the best in the world. If something happened to her . . ., my concern is for my son."
Assuming Lan found someone new, Wilder gave his photos of Lan to his mother; now he keeps only a picture of his son in his wallet. But even when he married a Prince George's County woman in 1973, he said, she "knew when we got married that if Lan and my son came, I had a responsibility to them. . . . It was something she was always concerned with. If Lan came back, I'd be right there." Wilder and his wife were divorced while he was in jail.
When Saigon was falling in 1975, Wilder said, his concern for Lan and his son surged back. When Red Cross officials told him they believed they had located his son in a Saigon hospital, he applied for, and was accepted, as an escort by World Airways, which was running evacuation flights out of South Vietnam. To a rousing send-off from veterans at Prince George's Community College, where he had just earned his high school diploma, Wilder left for Oakland, Calif.
When he arrived there, however, the Red Cross told him there had been a mistake. His son had not been found. Wilder returned to Prince George's but not to college. He never contacted his old friends. Instead, he found a job as a car salesman in Accokeek and started drinking heavily.
Wilder said that seeing the influx of Vietnamese refugees in the area drove him further into despair. In August 1975, he kidnapped a child, whom he released the same day. The next day he was arrested, and a year later he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for abduction. Wilder was released in 1980 and is still on parole.
"At the time I was charged, I had no control over where I was going, over what I was doing," he said. He said he cannot remember anything about the incidents for which he was charged. "I had no purpose in my life, I had no meaning. All I could see is that they didn't care about my son."
Few prisoners spend more than a year in the Upper Marlboro Detention Center. They are either released or sent to a state penitentiary. But Wilder proved such a model prisoner, and such a calming influence among other inmates, that he stayed for five. He became the jail's first inmate to serve as a chaplain's assistant, and the first prisoner allowed to move between cell blocks and to walk down corridors without handcuffs.
But more than anything else, prison officials remember Wilder for his work in getting a Jaycees chapter started in the jail. By the end of its first year, with Wilder as president, the organization had almost three-quarters of the prison inmates as members. Wilder was named one of the 25 outstanding Jaycees presidents in the country, from a field of more than 8,000.
Raising money by selling haircuts to inmates and taking photographs of fellow prisoners, the Jaycees raised enough money to put on a large steak banquet in the prison for prisoners and county community leaders.
"Something like that, put on by the inmates, was entirely unheard of," recalled the Rev. Doug Hoey, who was prison chaplain at the time. Wilder "was even given the privilege of going to a Jaycees convention in Ocean City," Hoey added. "He was taken along with a deputy, but he wasn't handcuffed. He was wearing a business suit."
When Wilder was released from jail, he worked for several months as a coordinator of prison chapters for the Maryland Jaycees and then returned to Prince George's Community College to work towards an associate degree in marketing, supporting himself by working part time at a gas station. Last spring he was elected student body president.
Diane Lyon, program director of the college's Management Institute, called Wilder "a remarkable man" and predicted he will pull student government out of a long period of inertia. But most of all, she said, she is awed by his concern for Amerasian children.
Lyon, one of Wilder's GED instructors eight years ago, said, "I knew back then, when he was going to California, that he was interested in helping Amerasian children , but I couldn't believe he was continuing after all these years."
Meanwhile, more and more American fathers are expressing interest in finding their Asian offspring. Since the reunion of an American father and his Vietnamese children was televised last September on This Week with David Brinkley, the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, a Philadelphia-based organization devoted to helping Amerasian children, has received almost a dozen calls a week from American fathers anxious to find their children in Vietnam, spokeswoman Dorothy Lowe said.
Sam Fain, a Vietnam veteran and former school administrator who is a landscape gardener in Reston, wants to help Wilder with the Amerasian Center. He does not know whether he has offspring in Vietnam.
"I might have children in another place going through pure hell," Fain said. "We did bring all those children into the world. They are our children, and we have an obligation."
Fain, who met Wilder at a "rap group" at the Veterans Center in Southeast Washington, called Wilder "a fine example of the fact that the stereotype of the Vietnam vet is a bunch of bull. He's like a success story from the vet's point of view."
An organization much like the one Wilder has proposed already has been set up in Vancouver, Wash., by Gary Tanous, who was a civilian advisor to the South Vietnamese military from 1965 to 1968. Tanous estimated he has spent more than $12,000 trying to get his daughter Jean Marie from Ho Chi Minh City. Last week, for the first time in 14 years, he saw his child, in a film taken in Vietnam by a Japanese television reporter.
Tanous said his organization, the Jean Marie Foundation, is ready to accept Amerasian children as soon as legislation passes Congress allowing them to come to the United States. The foundation would look after Amerasian children for a few months, preparing them for adoption into American families, he said.
Wilder is many leagues behind Tanous. He has received help from Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) but has yet to create the organization, obtain tax-exempt status, find buildings to use or draw up by-laws. But he is pressing ahead slowly. He said he knows his project may not work, but he is determined to try to help the Amerasian children.
"Most other people would say, 'Why can't you leave Vietnam in Vietnam?' " he said. "But that wasn't just some fling in some bar with Lan. Lan and I had a true relationship . . . and my son is my son."