Children of the Dust: Norfolk man embraces Amerasian heritage by reconnecting adoptees with lost families from Vietnam War

Military

"I could have had a bullet in my head at 2 years old," said Kirk Kellerhals, an Amerasian adoptee from Vietnam

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Such was the reality of war, where innocents often encountered the deadly force of injustice. America’s price of 20 years and 58,220 lives defined an era we know as Vietnam. 

In August 1969, Richard Borcicky, a 19-year-old Marine medevac corpsman from Ohio, received a rude introduction to war.

“I got into DaNang a little late. and we got hit by rockets. I remember hearing the shrapnel going through the building,” he recalled.

Borcicky escaped injury from that attack, and 52 years later, from the peace of his rural home near Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Borcicky recalled scenes from inside a chopper flying over enemy fire. 

“When you’re flying in Vietnam, you’re always being shot at. You’re up in the air and they’re just shooting at you, and every now and then, a round would come flying through the aircraft. You knew you were always a target,” he said. 

So, Borcicky sought peace where he could find it. In his case, it was the Sacred Heart Orphanage in DaNang, where he spent time with forgotten children — some fathered by American servicemembers.

One image snapped by Borcicky’s camera stayed with him for a half-century: an image of an unidentified man holding a small child in DaNang.

“He still looks the same,” Borcicky broke into a smile, referring to the photo he took. “When I’d see him, he was 18 months old. He had that little round face. That big old smile. You know that was Kirk.”

A year after the photo was taken by Borcicky, Kirk Kellerhals, the boy in the photo, was adopted by a U.S. Army major serving in Vietnam. He grew up in America, and now lives in Norfolk.

Fast forward 48 years, to 2017. That’s when Kellerhals received a phone call from out of the past. 

A woman claimed Kellerhals was her son, and that she had been searching for him for 48 years. It was the result of a DNA test Kellerhals took to settle a bet with his wife about his roots. Kellerhals learned his birth father was an American military member, making him “Amerasian.”

From his Norfolk home in Ocean View, Kellerhals shared the shock upon hearing the voice of the Vietnamese woman.

“This was impossible. There’s no way. My parents are dead. They were killed in the war. I’ve known for 47 years that they were dead. There was a part of me that felt like I was on the outside watching myself go through this. I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” he said.  

That experience led Kellerhals to co-found the nonprofit Southeast Asian Coast2Coast Foundation. Its mission is to retrace and reconnect lost families from the Vietnam War.

His research for the nonprofit led to the discovery of his picture taken decades ago in Vietnam by Borcicky.

“Another adoptee saw one of the photos and said ‘Kirk, I think that’s you in the picture,'” he said.

Kellerhals said American troops in Vietnam — like Borcicky — volunteered at places like Sacred Heart, in part, to escape horrors of battle.

“They would go the orphanage to remind them what the war was about. They would go there to find that there is still good in the world, and that there are children there that are innocent. Many of them had real emotional struggles decades later not knowing what happened to these kids,” he said.

Amerasians were at the bottom of Vietnamese culture, which is why natives of Vietnam referred to them as “children of the dust.” They could not be educated, and could only get menial labor jobs. Many of them became beggars on the streets, and others suffered a fate that was far worse.

“Right after the war ended, many of these children were rounded up, with their mothers, executed, put in a big hole, covered with diesel fuel and burned. We were the face of the enemy at the time,” he said.

Soon after that phone call from the woman in 2017, Kellerhals reconnected with his biological mother and father. She’s now living in Texas. He lives in Syracuse, New York. But even through this process of healing, Kellerhals is still conflicted about his past.

“I denied my heritage. I denied being Vietnamese, anything that had to do with Vietnam because of the negative stigma attached to it. It’s like having a foot in both worlds and neither world wanting you,” Kellerhals said.

But Kellerhals hopes the work he started through his foundation will help other Amerasians and Vietnam veterans remember and embrace a complicated legacy from the “dust” of Vietnam.

“Forget the race, forget the political lines. We’re all the same people,” he said.

A new docuseries called “Intersections” is also expected to be released in 2022. Kellerhals is the director of the series, which will span multiple seasons and “explores the lives of the ‘Children of the Dust,’ a Vietnamese based derogatory term coined during the Vietnam War.”

More information on the docuseries can be found here.

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