Born during Vietnam War, she never knew her U.S. soldier dad. Now, with DNA test, she’s found family

Photo of Julia Perkins

DANBURY — For most of her life, all Jessica Dudley knew about her father was that he was an American soldier during the Vietnam War named Lee who wore a brace on his leg.

She said she felt like an “outsider” being raised in Vietnam by distant relatives of her mother’s in a community that looked down on children who were half-Asian and half-American.

Now, she wears a necklace with a picture of her and her father, a broach that once belonged to her paternal grandmother and a bracelet that says “cousins.” Photos of her father and her paternal grandparents hang on her walls.

Dudley discovered the identity of her late father last year after connecting with a cousin through 23andMe, a genetics testing service.

“Since I connected with the family, I feel like I belong somewhere,” she said. “I feel like I’m home. Before that, it was like this piece of me was missing.”

Learning about her father led Dudley, who has lived in the United States for 31 years, to become a U.S. citizen on Oct. 15. She has now taken her dad’s last name, Dudley, too.

“It was a little bit emotional because he wasn’t here,” she said of the citizenship ceremony. “It would have been extra, extra special if he was.”

To congratulate Dudley, her aunt sent her flowers that were displayed in her living room on Monday morning. Dudley, who is visually impaired, lives in Danbury with her cat and seeing-eye dog, Lotus. She plans to move to California next year to be closer to her newly discovered family.

Upbringing

Dudley was born either in 1971 or 1972 in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. Her mother, who is originally from Cambodia, didn’t keep track of her birthday.

Known as “Amerasians,” children whose fathers were U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War were seen as “not one of us,” Dudley said. So she was sent to live with her grandfather’s cousin, who she called her grandmother, in Trà Vinh, Vietnam.

“My mother was kind of cruel to me because of my mixed blood and disability,” Dudley said. “I was hoping having one parent that rejected me, if I found my dad, maybe he wouldn't reject me.”

It’s unknown how many Amerasian children were born during the Vietnam War. Many of their births were unregistered, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

Dudley said it wasn’t safe for Amerasian children in Vietnam.

“My grandmother’s biggest fear was that if she passed away before I left Vietnam that she was worried that it wouldn’t be safe for me to be there,” she said.

Dudley was among the Amerasian children who the United States settled in America in the 1980s. She left Vietnam in 1989 for the Philippines, where she stayed in a refugee camp. She was 18 at the time, but legal documents were changed so that it looked like she was 17 and could go into the foster care system.

She landed at LaGuardia Airport in January 1990, when she met her social worker and foster care mother. She was told to go to school and that she would stay in the foster care system until she turned 21.

She knew little English or braille and had to learn how to navigate New York City — a much more bustling place than her town in Vietnam — with a cane.

“When we were younger, we probably had more guts,” Dudley said. “Growing up kind of rough, not raised by my mother and just always under survival mode, I’m used to it.”

Dudley lost her eyesight when she was a few years old. By the time she got medical care in the United States, she was told it was too late to fix her sight.

“I never think of myself like being depressed because I can’t see,” she said. “That’s my least problem, I always tell people.”

Dudley attended The New York Institute for Special Education, where she met her ex-husband, who was also blind. She left the foster care system as soon as her papers said she was 18, and the two married and had three children.

The couple split up after six years. He moved to his home country of Mexico, and Dudley raised her daughter and two sons on her own, earning her GED and massage therapist license. Her children are 29, 28 and 26.

Finding her father

Dudley knows her maternal aunts and uncles. She has a half-sister on her mother’s side who was born after Dudley left Vietnam, so she doesn’t know her well.

She had always wanted to find her dad, but had little information to go off of. Her mother had told her that he knew she was pregnant and wanted her to move to the United States with him, but she declined.

“Even though I never met him, I just had this feeling like we would be close and that just the sense of knowing where I’m from, knowing my root,” she said.

For Christmas 2018, her boyfriend got her a 23andMe testing kit. She was excited to discover she had DNA match with a woman named Lisa Whitsitt, but Whitsitt said she didn’t know anyone named “Lee.”

“I was crushed because that sounded so promising,” Dudley said.

Last September, she woke up to six messages on 23andMe. It was Whitsitt, who had realized “Lee” was her late uncle. She had known him as Uncle Gene, although his full name is Lee Eugene Dudley.

“I was totally shocked and super excited,” said Whitsitt, who lives in California.

Through Whitsitt, Dudley received photos of her dad and learned that he had served four tours in the Vietnam War. He was an army sergeant, who was shot in the leg, but fought to return to Vietnam, Dudley said.

“My aunt said he took his duty very seriously, duty to his country,” she said. “If he did not go back, I wouldn’t have been born.”

Her father taught ROTC and served during Operation Desert Storm. He lived in North Carolina and died at 62 in 2005. His sister and three brothers are still alive.

“I was happy because his legacy continues,” Whitsitt said. “He was my favorite uncle. I was so delighted, and just talking to Jessica, I could hear him in her, her sense of humor and her dry wit.”

Dudley looks like her paternal grandmother and shares certain characteristics with her dad, Whitsitt said. They like the same beer, don’t have sweet tooths don’t like long letters or sweets.

Whitsitt’s mother and twin sister have taken DNA tests too that solidified that they’re related to Dudley. Dudley’s mother confirmed his identity through one of the photos, Whitsitt said.

Due to COVID-19, Dudley couldn’t visit her relatives until June, when she flew to California and met four of her 12 cousins. Whitsitt and her parents ran toward Dudley when they saw her coming down the elevator at Los Angeles International Airport.

“It was very comfortable,” Whitsitt said. “It wasn’t awkward. It just felt natural.”

Whitsitt’s father is of Japanese descent, so she and Dudley have connected over being half-Asian and half-white. Whitsitt has since imagined that she and her sister may have reminded their uncle of the daughter he never knew.

He loved Vietnamese food and culture, the family said.

“Whenever he came out here he loved Vietnamese restaurants,” Whitsitt said. “He was the most himself there and joyful and exposing us to different foods.”

Dudley doesn’t hold any ill-will toward her father. She said she understands why he didn’t mention her to his family or wasn’t able to find her. He wouldn’t have known if she alive, Dudley said.

“But I could just imagine the secret probably eating away because my aunt was telling me that sometimes she would catch him have like a far-away look,” Dudley said.

If her uncle were around, Whitsitt would want to tell him “it’s all good.”

“I have a sense he knows,” she said. “Everything is good. His daughter is a survivor. She deserves this family connection and love and connection to him.”

Dudley will meet more of her cousins this Thanksgiving and has visited her father’s grave at Fort Bragg.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “I think he’s my hero. Even though I never had the chance to know him, I feel very close to him. I feel his presence.”