LeAnn Thieman and Her Vietnam Orphan Airlift Adventure

We all lived through the turbulent, exciting, experimenting times of the 60′s and 70′s. We all were dedicated to world peace, rescuing the environment and exploring our sexuality as much as possible, full of idealism and passion. And now we’re grandparents and we still care about world peace, the environment and living our lives to the fullest. We still want to make a difference. This issue, we return to one of the most divisive times in American history—Vietnam—for a story of great joy born out of the terrible sorrow of war.

“Tell me that story again, Grammie.” my preschooler grandson said as we mixed the chocolate batter. “How many little babies were there?” He licked the beaters and brown goo streaked from his nose to his chin.

In simple terms that he could understand, I Explained there were 100 little babies laying three and four to a cardboard box, strapped in a gutted cargo jet. There was no way he could grasp the dramatic scene I was recalling for him. Nevertheless, his eyes widened as I simplified and paraphrased the story that changed my life.

It was 1975, Saigon was falling to the communists, and I was accidentally caught up in the Vietnam Orphan Airlift. Today, as a 56 year-old grandma, I still shake my head in wonder.

All I intended to do was buy a dozen cupcakes.

It all started when I was a little girl living a frugal, happy life on our Iowa farm. Mom and Dad taught my seven brothers and sisters and I about the needs of orphans. We ate our broccoli because the kids in Korea were starving. We donated our hand-me-downs to the Thanksgiving clothing drives at church. We went trick-or-treating for UNICEF and learned that two-and-a-half cents could buy a carton of milk and save a child’s life. For the first time in my life I began to believe we  are called to be our brother’s keeper; we haven’t been given everything we have in our lives to hoard, but to share.

While I was still a child, I made a very important decision in my life – I was going to adopt an orphan someday. So certain was I, that I shared that dream during the romantic moment Mark asked me to marry him. Then it became our dream.

It was probably all of these things that led me to stop that day as I pushed the stroller and our two little girls to the bake sale booth at the mall. The cupcakes sat beneath a poster of a starving child and a sign  that read, “Friends of Children of Vietnam.” I wanted to help, to make a difference. So I bought a dozen cupcakes and became a member…and then the president…and our home, the Iowa chapter headquarters of FCVN. Just a handful of young moms, we raised food, money, supplies and awareness for the orphans in Vietnam. In three years, we shipped five tons of supplies from my basement.

That’s when the national officers asked me the fateful question—would I be the next escort to bring six adopted babies back to their assigned families in the States? It was the toughest decision of my life. I considered that Mark and I had applied for adoption of a son through this organization, though we had two more years to wait. There had been  no increase in the war in many months and daily calls to the State Department assured me I would be safe. The war was far from Saigon, not expected to escalate. So I agreed to go.

Little did I…and the rest of the world…know, Saigon was about to fall to the communists.

By the time I arrived, bombs were exploding outside the city limits. I was greeted with, “Have you heard the news? President Ford has Okayed Operation Babylift. You won’t be taking out six babies, but 300!” I entered the FCVN orphanage center to find hundreds of babbling, bawling babies. Every inch of floor was covered with a mat, and every inch of mat was covered with a baby. We spent day and night caring for them, naming them, and preparing them for evacuation. Because most were some of the fifty- thousand Amerasian babies in Vietnam, their fate, we were told, was doomed if they stayed.

On the second day, my assignment was to pack for 300 babies. Imagine  how I felt when I entered the warehouse, brushed dust from the top of a box, and saw my own handwriting. We had shipped this box from my basement just the month before. Now I was packing the clothes again…to go back to the States…on a baby…going to a new home.

My assignment on the third day nearly stopped my heart. I could walk into the next room and choose a son. Incredibly, in the midst of the chaos, a baby boy crawled across the room into my arms, my heart and our family. He chose me.

Gunfire, bombs, explosions as well as governmental delays stalled the completion of Operation Babylift. On day five, with my own son in tow, I helped load hundreds of babies into open cardboard boxes strapped to the floor of a cargo jet where they finally flew to freedom and families.

For the next twenty years I loved my life as a full-time mom and a part- time nurse, raising our three children with Mark. We encouraged them to eat their vegetables because the kids in Vietnam were starving and to give their hand-me-down clothes, time and portions of their allowances to those who were needy.

Finally, as our “baby boy” left for college, I began to write our story. After five years and twenty-one rejections from some of the finest publishers in the country, I sold my book, This Must Be My Brother. A national nursing organization I belonged to asked if I would speak at their state conference. Who me? Speak? On what? “Tell us what you learned from Operation Babylift,” they coaxed. That was the start of my keynote speech, “Balancing Life in Your War Zones.”

When a part of my Operation Babylift story was published in Chicken Soup  for the Mother’s Soul, I began to write other people’s stories, accepted in 11 other Chicken Soup books. That inspired Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, co-founders of the Chicken Soup series, to ask me to co-author Chicken Soup for the Nurses Soul. After it hit the New York Times Best Seller list, they invited me to write Chicken Soup for the Christian Woman’s Soul. I never would have dreamed I would go on to co-author five more books, Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul, Father and Daughter, Christian II, Grandmas, and Mother and Son.

Today, as a full-time speaker and author, I still love my life, trying to make a difference by giving speeches, sharing stories…and baking cupcakes with my precious grandson for the charity events.

LeAnn Thieman, CSP, is a nationally acclaimed speaker, author and nurse and co-author of six Chicken Soup for the Soul books, including Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul. LeAnn motivates audiences to balance their lives, live their priorities and make a difference in the wo

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