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Children from 'Babylift' show their appreciation

By Ed Brock

ebrock@news-daily.com

They don't remember the incredible danger and chaos of war from which they escaped, but three former babies from "Operation Babylift" now appreciate the risk their saviors took.

Now they will have a chance to show that appreciation.

On April 2, 1975, Tiana Mykkeltvedt, Tanya Bakal and Wendy Greene were infants when pilots, flight attendants and volunteers with World Airways made their first evacuation of 57 orphans from Saigon as the communist north was closing in.

That first flight was unauthorized and the DC-8 cargo jet took off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base on a darkened runway under orders from the company's president at the time, Ed Daly.

"He knew he could do something about the situation and he refused to just stand by," said Randy Martinez, chief executive officer of World Air Holdings, Inc. in Peachtree City.

On Sunday Martinez and the three former orphans held a press conference at the Renaissance Concourse Hotel near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to announce their departure on the first leg of "Operation Babylift - Homeward Bound."

Mykkeltvedt, Bakal and Greene flew to Oakland, Calif. where they joined 19 other "Operation Babylift" orphans and crew members who left on Monday bound for their former homeland.

They will land in Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, and for two whirlwind days they will go on tours and be honored at a special banquet in the Unification Palace.

"I was actually on the first flight," said Bakal, now 31 and a mother of three who lives in Marietta.

Mykkeltvedt and Greene were on the flights that followed that first, unauthorized flight that landed in California and inspired President Gerald Ford to make the operation official. Mykkeltvedt is now an attorney living in Alpharetta and Greene makes jewelry and lives in mid-town Atlanta.

This will be Bakal's first time to go back to Vietnam, but the other two have been before. In 1997 Mykkeltvedt spent four months studying in Hanoi.

"We studied the language, we studied culture and history," Mykkeltvedt said.

Mykkeltvedt's husband Jeffrey Mykkeltvedt was at the press conference and will accompany her on the trip. Her adopted parents, James and Brenda Scogin of Conyers, were there to see them off.

The Scogins had started the process of adopting Mykkeltvedt before the evacuation began.

"Then when Vietnam started falling we didn't know if we would get her. We didn't know if she would get out," Brenda Scogin said.

James Scogin said the North Vietnamese army was moving as fast as American forces did in taking Baghdad.

"It scared you to death to think your poor child was over there and you were hoping she'd get out," James Scogin said.

Greene lived in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, in 2000 for work. Neither woman had the opportunity to find their relatives there, and they don't expect to have time to find them on this trip.

But the point is they will get to meet, for the first time, the men and women who saved them from the war. World Airways pilots Ken Healy and Bill Keating, the men who flew that first clandestine trip, and other crew and ground support people will be on the trip with them.

"To me the trip to Vietnam is a bonus. I really wanted to meet these people," Bakal said. "In a chaotic time these people went out and risked their lives."

Bakal's husband Joey is also going with her on the trip.

"I can't wait to watch her to see her reaction," Joey Bakal said.

World Airways even painted the MD-11 on which the returnees would travel in the original red and white colors in which the original "Operation Babylift" planes were painted.

"They didn't paint the plane for me (in 2000)," Greene said.

Greene spoke at the press conference and said she, too, just wanted to thank World Airways.

"I don't know that I'm worthy to stand here," Greene said. "They put so much heart and soul and effort into this trip. I'm not worthy é We are all American babies!"