Forty years is a long time to wonder what happened to a wife and child, but for Vietnam Veteran William Wilson, it has been slightly longer than that.
Wilson met his first wife, Lai Thi Nguyen, in 1970 while working as a combat photographer in the Army in Long Binh, Vietnam. Nguyen, a local Vietnamese woman, was working at the non-commissioned officer’s club.
The two were quick to fall in love and marry, and together they had a child, named Lai.
“Most of these guys who left kids in Vietnam- we figure there are just over 100,000 that were left, didn’t want to know anything about them. Me, I got to hold my daughter. If you have kids, you understand, when you first see them, they look in your eyes, and smile at you, they’ve carved a chunk of your heart and that’s it. They’re there permanently no matter what happens.”
But then something unexpected did happened in September of 1972.
Wilson’s tour was cut short when a helicopter he was riding in took a hard landing, resulting in a spinal injury and sending him back to the U.S. for care.
Despite the ongoing war, and being thousands of miles apart, Nguyen and Wilson managed to keep contact until 1975, at which point they planned to reunite.
Wilson sent money to fly Nguyen to America, but two days before she was set to depart with their child, the area she was staying in was blown up.
“I don’t know what happened to them, and I never heard a word from her again,” said Wilson. “Things were collapsing quite rapidly in Vietnam at that time.”
With little to no resources to find Lai or his child, Wilson was left to wonder what became of them as the months and years passed.
By 1978, Wilson was working in Panama for a San Diego-based company, when he met a woman named Aurelia.
Despite his curiosity about Lai, he couldn’t deny his developing feelings for Aurelia, nor the similarities she shared with his first wife. The two had a lot in common- even so far as a scar of the same type located in the exact same location on the leg.
“I just thought to myself, this is meant to be,” said Wilson. “That’s how I read it.”
After 34 years of marriage, the now 64-year-old Wilson appears to have been correct. He and Aurelia are living happily together, and have two children together, a 28-year-old and a 30-year-old.
Wilson’s daughter Lai would be 41 years old now. She was one-year-old when Wilson saw her last.
Still, despite his happiness, the unanswered questions regarding his daughter and first wife continues to haunt him to this day, and he has finally decided to lay his wonders to rest.
Wilson is planning a trip to Vietnam in September to solve the mystery.
“If I find them, I think the first thing I will do is sit down and cry,” said Wilson. “Then I will find out what their situation is like, and go from there.”
“Wilson said he plans to begin his search at the house the family was renting while he was in Vietnam.
“Families rarely move there,” he said. “I would definitely recognize her if I saw her.”
Wilson said he plans to stay in Vietnam at least through his daughter Lai’s birthday in November.
When asked what his current wife thinks about the endeavor, Wilson said she accepts it as something that needs to be done.
“She understands that I have to figure out what happened,” he said. “There are no two ways about it.”
Wilson said whether or not the search produces results, he will feel better about having tried.
“It will be a sense of relief for me to find out what happened to them,” he said.
As a result of his own situation, Wilson currently assists family members who were separated during the Vietnam War reconnect on a site called FatherFounded.com.
Bryan Hjort, one of the members of the organization, has been an advocate in helping Wilson reconnect with his family.
“Like Bill says, ‘It might be a one-way ticket, but it’s better to die trying than to live in pain,’” said Hjort. “His story is the story of USA in Vietnam during the war, and at the same time, the story of a father desperately searching for his child.”
(Editor’s Note: The Explorer will follow up with Wilson after his trip to share results.)