From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul


I stood at the side of the stage and gazed out at the fifty men and women in their early twenties, all in the varied shapes, sizes and styles expected on any American college campus. I had been privileged to address many audiences as a professional speaker, but the anticipation of this presentation had my heart beating a new rhythm.

A hundred times I had told the story of how I “accidentally” became involved in the 1975 Vietnam Orphan Airlift. Countless times I told how I had volunteered to escort six babies to their adoptive homes in the United States, but then President Ford okayed a gigantic airlift and I helped bring out three hundred orphans as Saigon was falling. Thousands of people had heard me share life-lessons I’d learned from that adventure. But this audience was different— they were those orphans.

Dozens of times I had recounted being on the airstrip when the first planeload of orphans crashed after takeoff. But this audience was different—they were the survivors of that crash.

It was the twentieth reunion of the airlift. As I surveyed the audience of young adults, a few with their parents, my heart skipped a beat as it swelled. I looked at the young man filling the wide shoulders of his football jersey, and my mind asked, Were you one of the babies we placed three to four in a cardboard box? I glanced at a beautiful young woman with long black hair holding her baby. Were you one of the older kids who cheerfully helped us feed and diaper three hundred squalling infants? My eyes spanned the entire crowd and I mused, You were all part of the diarrhea diaper drama!

Almost reverently, I shared slides of Vietnam, of the airlift— my story, their story. Then came the questions they had saved for a lifetime.

“Where did we all come from?” one girl asked. Snickering trickled through the crowd. “You know what I mean!” she blushed.

“Most babies were abandoned at birth.” I had always despised that phrase, but I went on to explain how women had their babies at birthing centers—huts, really— throughout the countryside. Knowing they could not care for their children, they relinquished them there, hoping to give them a better life.

A young man with spiked hair and an earring sneered, “She loved me so much, she gave me away.”

The greatest act of maternal love,” I said. He nodded slowly.

Remembering a lesson I’d learned from a speaker there the day before, I repeated, “The Vietnamese believed in a God that cared for all children. They believed that if they left a child, even on the street side, God would send someone to care for it. So the mother was not abandoning the child, but relinquishing it to God. Only by giving her baby away, could she save its life.”

Smiles glimmered one by one.

Then came the toughest question. “Why didn’t someone get us a better plane—better accommodations?” The voice was shaky. So was my hand as I gripped the mike.

“Bombs were exploding three miles from the Saigon city limits. Armed Vietnamese soldiers patrolled the streets. When President Thui finally okayed the airlift, we knew we had to get as many orphans out as fast as possible. The Vietnamese government had allotted only eleven cents per day per orphan. We knew any we left behind were at risk. And many of you were of mixed race. We feared you wouldn’t survive if we left you.”

“Thanks,” came a soft voice from the back.

The smiles widened.

Then I told them my favorite part of the story. “My husband and I had expected to get our son from Vietnam in about two years. With the airlift, I was told I could enter a building housing one hundred babies and choose a son.” I flashed the slide showing Mitchell sitting on my lap. “But I didn’t choose him. He chose me.”

I took a deep breath to keep my voice from quaking. “It is my absolute conviction that this child was created to be our son.” I swallowed past the lump in my throat. “Just as you were created for your adoptive families.”

The young man wiped tears with the sleeve of his jersey.

“I don’t know why you were conceived in another womb in another country. I have lots of questions for our Creator someday.” Then very slowly, deliberately I added, “But what I do know is this: You are where you are supposed to be.”

Sniffles were drowned out by another young man shouting, “Yes!” He raised his hand and slapped the palm of his friend.

“I am where I’m supposed to be!” a young woman with almond eyes said tearfully as she hugged her blonde mother.

“I guess the rest doesn’t matter,” a young man in the front row gleamed. “We are where we’re supposed to be!”

LeAnn Thieman

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