What Neng Normand knew of his early life was amazing enough.
He was among 23 South Vietnamese children who were audaciously and improbably slipped out of that country’s chaos in April 1975. A Vietnam War veteran and his wife couldn’t get the news footage of the plight of such children out of their minds, so they adopted him.
That is how Normand came to Baton Rouge, where he was raised as Larry and Cheryl Normand’s son, works in the family business, Highland Cabinets and Millworks, married and started his own family. Sixteen years ago, however, he discovered there was more to the story — a family he didn’t know existed.
“I know when we were adopted, we were told we were all orphans,” Normand said. “We all thought we were all orphans and came to find out we had parents, or some of us did.”
Born A-Neng (people in his Montagnard tribe do not use surnames) in Kontum Province in the Central Highlands, his mother, Y-Loai, died when he was too young to remember her. Normand recalls living at what he later understood to be an orphanage.
Normand was about 6 years old — no birth records are known to exist — when North Vietnam’s victory in the war neared its end. That is when his path crossed with missionaries Ulrich and Gisela Huyssen. Their organization, World Missions for Jesus, worked with orphanages in South Vietnam, and they entered the country only days before it fell.
While in the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Ulrich Huyssen met a pastor who said he had fled the Central Highlands with 19 of the children he cared for. All were Montagnards, tribal peoples who were discriminated against by the South Vietnamese because of their culture and ethnicity and hated by the North Vietnamese because they loyally supported American forces during the war. The pastor feared that the children would be killed when the North Vietnamese came into power.
Ulrich Huyssen had already agreed to try to get four children out of the country. He agreed to add these to the group. But how?
In a book Huyssen wrote, “The Violence of Fire,” he described splitting the children into three groups, with adults claiming to be their parents assigned to each, and on April 26 drove separately to the American airfield in Saigon. They got through the checkpoints and found an official who gave approval for the children to leave the country. They flew to an American military base in the Philippines and, despite initial State Department objections, made it to Oklahoma City.
Larry and Cheryl Normand had been aware of Huyssen’s trip because their church, Bethany Baptist (now Bethany World Prayer Center) had been informed by the Oklahoma City church where Huyssen worked. At the same time, they had been watching TV news reports of South Vietnam’s collapse. Larry Normand had served in the Marines in Vietnam, leaving the country in 1967.
“There was a film clip, and there were children in the streets of Saigon, and you could hear the explosions all around, the sound of gunfire, so much happening,” Cheryl Normand said. “The cameraman was incredible. He zeroed in on all these children running and screaming in terror, and I remember my insides feeling just completely broken. I could not imagine it. I turned to Larry and said, ‘Where are these children running to?’ We were stunned at the sight.
“So, I just silently prayed, ‘Lord, if you will send me one of those children, I promise you I will raise that child as my very own and to know you all the days of their lives.’ ”
They adopted Neng on June 12, 1975, expanding a family that included daughters Cherilon and Lauren. He graduated from Bethany Christian School and Louisiana Tech University and served in the National Guard. He married Debbie Nguyen, the daughter of parents who also fled Vietnam. The past seemed quite distant.
A letter in the mid-1990s changed that.
A different missionary (Ulrich Huyssen died in 1994) was trying to find children of Montagnard parents who had lost them at the end of the war. The letter included a photo of a boy. It wasn’t Normand, but he recognized it as Nim, one of the friends who joined the escape from Vietnam. He contacted Nim, and they contacted the missionary.
“When we called him, he told us ever since he left Vietnam his parents had been looking for him,” Normand said. “He’s got parents? Are you kidding? We thought we were all orphans.”
Some of them may have been, but not Nim. And not Neng.
He received another letter in early 1997, this time from one of his uncles. The letter explained that although his mother died when he was small, his father was living at the time and remarried after the war.
Neng had a younger sister and a half brother. His father died before the letter was written.
Larry Normand said they learned that some Montagnard parents sent their children to orphanage schools to protect them from North Vietnamese soldiers, who sometimes came to the villages and tortured the children in public to punish adults for helping American forces.
The uncle, A-Mieoh, said the family went to the orphanage to find him after the war.
“The people who were working there said, ‘Oh, all your kids are gone. They’ve been sold to people in America for slaves,’ ” Neng Normand said.
To learn more, Neng and Larry Normand made trips to Vietnam in 2000 and 2002, the first time with Debbie and Neng’s stepdaughter, Kelsey Vu. (The Normands now also have triplets, Hayden, Peyton and Addison, born in 2012). His arrival caused quite a stir: The entire village followed him wherever he went, crowding around windows to continue watching when he went indoors. He no longer understands Vietnamese, so he needed a translator to converse.
The trips cleared up at least one mystery.
“I thought I had a brother in the orphanage,” Neng Normand said. “I think I told my mother when I was young. I think consciously I knew I might have had somebody, but I came to find out when I talked to them I had an uncle who was there, one of my dad’s brothers, who was at the orphanage at the same time. That’s probably why I thought I had a brother there. They did tell me he was at the same place at the same time.”
That uncle was not one of the children brought out by Huyssen.
Neng Normand said he will take his family back to Vietnam when his youngest children are older.
“The first time I went, I grew up in America, so it’s different when you see the conditions and how people live, how people actually treat people,” he said. “Here, we’re a lot more kind to people than they are over there. If you don’t have anything, you’re a second-class citizen, and that’s how they treat you. Our society here, we try to help people. That meant a lot to me to see that and appreciate everything I have in life, everything God did for me and everything my parents did for me,” Normand said.