On Veterans’ Day this year, Jessica Dudley will be thinking a lot about someone she’s never met. An Army Veteran she’d searched for her whole life.
“I’m very proud of him. I think he’s my hero,” she said. “Even though I never had the chance to know him. I feel very close to him. I feel his presence.”
For almost 50 years she searched for her father, a man she’d never known. She didn’t even have his name. Born in Cam Ranh Bay in 1972, Jessica had a Cambodian mother and a father who was a US soldier. The only thing her mother told her about him was that he was white, had a brace on one of his knees, and his name was “Lee.” Her mom told Jessica that he’d wanted to take them to the United States, but Jessica’s mom didn’t want to go.
It wasn’t easy growing up in Vietnam as an Amerasian kid. Her mother sent her off to live with a distant relative in Trà Vinh, a city far to the south. On top of that, she went blind when she was very young, adding to all the things that set her apart from everyone else around her.
“I woke up one morning and could not see,” Jessica said. “It was after the war and being an Amerasian kid…no one really cared.”
She made do. But when Jessica turned 17 she immigrated to the United States, alone and not yet speaking English. Ending up in New York City where she was taken in for a short time by a foster care family while attending a school for the blind. What followed was a short-lived marriage and three kids. She worked, raised her children, and made a living as a massage therapist. But she never stopped searching for her father.
Then a few years ago, her boyfriend gave her a gift, a 23andMe kit.
It took a while for Jessica to see how priceless his present had been.
“When my result came back, there was a woman named Lisa who was predicted to be my first cousin,” Jessica said.
Jessica sent her a message, and Lisa quickly sent her a message back.
“When I got Lisa’s message it felt like someone had just given me a million dollars.”
She messaged Lisa sharing her story with her, asking if she was related to a man named “Lee.” Lisa thought she meant the last name of “Lee” and she didn’t know anyone in her family with that last name. She wished Jessica the best and their messages stopped there.
But about a year later Lisa re-read Jessica’s message. It was clear they were closely related and so she talked to her mom telling her she didn’t know how to help since there was no one in the family with the name “Lee.” Her mom said they didn’t have anyone with that as a last name but one of her uncles’ first names was Lee.
Lisa had known her favorite uncle as Uncle Gene. She didn’t know his first name was “Lee Eugene.” Quickly she was back in communication with Jessica and shared photos of her uncle, the man who was Jessica’s biological father, Sgt. Major Lee Eugene Dudley, who died in 2005. Jessica has a computer program that can describe a photo, and she’d listen to the description of each photo her cousin Lisa shared of her dad that detailed the uniform, the close-cropped light brown hair, blue eyes, the square jaw, and the medals. He’d been so proud of that uniform that after he’d retired he’d asked his niece if she’d mind him wearing his uniform to her wedding.
In turn, Jessica shared photos of herself with her newfound biological family, and immediately they saw the resemblance between the cousins. Jessica looked so much like her father’s mother. And she shared the same slim long-limbed build as her cousins. Lisa and her twin sister Corine are also Amerasian, but half Japanese. Jessica looks like their sister.
More importantly, Jessica learned about her father. He had no other children. He’d served four combat tours of duty in Vietnam, as well as in the Dominican Republic and Grenada. He’d risen to the highest enlisted ranks as a sergeant major, in the infantry, and served in the 82nd Airborne. He’d been awarded a silver star, bronze star, with ‘V’ and oak leaf, a recognition for the medals received in combat for valor and heroism. He received a purple heart for being wounded in combat. And he had a meritorious service medal, also in recognition of his time in combat. Jessica’s mother had met him after he’d been shot in the leg, hence the brace. Duty and service were important to him and he told his family that he’d never married because he didn’t want to burden a wife with that kind of life. Even when he retired after 30 years of service he taught ROTC first at a college in Oklahoma and then at a high school in North Carolina.
She was sad that he’d died before she could meet him, but learning all this about her father gave her a sense of pride, and of belonging. She changed her last name to “Dudley.” And even though it was during the pandemic, she drove from her home in Connecticut to Fort Bragg, North Carolina where her father is buried. She found his gravestone and ran her fingers over the inscription, his name, rank, and dates of birth and death. She placed flowers there and at the grave of one of the friends, a fellow soldier with whom he served. She opened a bottle of his favorite cognac and poured out a bit on each grave.
“I’d waited so long to find him, so the least I could do was go to his grave,” Jessica said. “I’m very proud of my father even though I didn’t ever meet him.”
Jessica has been able to meet her cousins and now plans to move to the West Coast to be closer to them.
“I feel so complete,” she said. “I feel I’m home. I feel like I belong.”