PARADISE, Calif. — The war veteran who brought home the girl he says is his long-missing daughter from Vietnam last fall cannot disprove a new claim that he and the girl are not related--but both believe that he is her natural father.
"I still feel in my heart that she's my daughter," Barry Huntoon said Tuesday from his home in Paradise, near Chico. "But even if she isn't my daughter physically, she certainly is spiritually and emotionally. . . .
"All I know is that I love Tuyet Mai and Tuyet Mai loves me," he said of the 16-year-old girl who has been part of his family since Oct. 20.
Confusion about the relationship of the two surfaced publicly after a woman who says she is Mai's mother, Tranh Thi Ba, arrived in the United States on Monday and told reporters that the girl was not Huntoon's child. She also said Huntoon had known virtually from the start of his efforts that she was not his old girlfriend.
Probably Not Girlfriend
Huntoon acknowledged that he realized on his arrival in Ho Chi Minh City four months ago that Tranh Thi Ba was probably not the girlfriend he had been forced to leave behind when he was shipped out of Vietnam in 1972. But he firmly denied having known he was not Tuyet Mai's father, and said Tranh Thi Ba has told immigration officials several stories in her desperation to come to America.
Contrary to one published report, Huntoon said, he had no inkling that Tuyet Mai might not be his natural daughter until two weeks ago when a State Department official called to inform him of the woman's claims.
Huntoon said there has been anguish in his household since the news, including anger and tears from Tuyet Mai, who is said to have reacted, "Is this true? It can't be. I still love my father."
"It's a real confusing thing for me, trying to figure it all out," he said.
When Huntoon and Tuyet Mai returned to the United States last fall, the story of the reunion received international publicity. It was featured on the ABC-TV news show "20/20," and rights for a television movie were sold.
Huntoon was a 20-year-old Army medic when he fell in love with a 17-year-old Vietnamese girl. They lived together for 1 1/2 years.
In May, 1972, when his girlfriend was pregnant, Huntoon was shipped back to the United States. For months, he vainly sought immigration permits for his girlfriend, but was told that she was dead. No records existed on her child.
Then, in 1985, Huntoon saw a story in Life magazine on the plight of Amerasians, the children of American GIs cast adrift at war's end. One photo showed a slender, hazel-eyed young woman selling peanuts on a beach. She looked so much like Huntoon that he was convinced that she was his daughter.
He and his attorney lobbied numerous legislators and California courts attesting that Mai was his daughter, and after several months of clearing bureaucratic obstacles they won permission last fall for him to bring her home.
Huntoon said he did not say anything when the woman at the Ho Chi Minh City airport turned out not to be his ex-girlfriend for fear of the consequences.
"I was stuck in a dilemma at that point," he said. "If I would have said something, this lady might have gone to jail."
Tranh Thi Ba and Tuyet Mai's 7-year-old sister arrived in the Chico area on Monday and are living with a Vietnamese family.
Huntoon said he had not had a chance to talk to the woman, who does not speak English, until this week, when she told him she had been "terrified with all the questions and everything." He said he still does not know the woman's connection, but doubts that she is Tuyet Mai's mother because "there's no emotion between them at all."
Nonetheless, he said, the woman "still has Tuyet Mai's best interests at heart" and is simply confused by the interrogations she has undergone.
Worried About Effects
Huntoon said he is worried that questions over any misleading or conflicting statements during his ordeal may slow the planned immigration of thousands of Amerasian children to this country.
"There is absolutely nothing fraudulent about anything in this situation," he said. "All I know is I had to get my daughter out of there, and if it meant bringing this woman out (by not saying he did not know her), fine, I would do it as a humanitarian gesture."
Tuyet Mai, meanwhile, is still learning to speak English. Huntoon said she is adapting well, making friends and enjoying sewing and macrame in her new home with Huntoon and his wife, Linda, and their three other children.