Leena and Sheila Negron grew up with stories about their father, and not good ones.
The family broke up when the girls were young and Nick Negron walked away, a man haunted by struggles after the Vietnam War.
Norm Burnell spent four decades searching for Negron, the medic with the thick New York accent he’d served with in the 95th Evacuation Hospital in Da Nang. They’d kick around together at night, pass Oreos out to local kids and play ball. Nick was a person he trusted and liked in the hell going on around them.
When the adult Negron girls found their father, they found a grave.
When Burnell finally found his old Army buddy, he found a grave.
Saturday, in Lewiston, they found each other.
The sisters drove up from New Jersey two weeks after Burnell reached out on Facebook.
“The first reaction I had was someone loved my dad, loved my dad enough to go look for him — up to that point, I thought only two people loved him, my sister and myself,” said the now-married Leena Clausell, 41. “The idea of that completely blew my mind.”
The long search
Burnell served two tours in Vietnam, from May 1970 to February 1972. Negron, from Estonia, N.Y., arrived not too long after Burnell did.
“I was a combat medic and he was in charge of equipment sterilization,” said Burnell, 63.
His friend was outgoing and laughed a lot. Just as Burnell was getting ready to leave, Negron introduced him to the local woman he planned to marry. He wanted to stay in Vietnam with her. That was the last they saw of each other.
“I’ve tried for 42 years to contact him,” Burnell said.
Back in the states, Burnell wrote to the Army. He sent letters to an address for Negron’s aunt and uncle. He got nowhere. He worried that in the post-war chaos, his friend had been captured.
Two years ago, after endlessly searching online, he got his first hit: a phone number.
It was a distant cousin reluctant to talk.
“I tried to plead with her,” Burnell said. He just wanted to know what happened.
She finally relented: Negron had died in New York in 1994.
Armed with a cemetery name, it took Burnell until last month to make the seven-hour drive to finally visit his friend.
“I just procrastinated,” he said. “I didn’t know if I had enough courage. I missed him so much.”
Handed a disjointed map to the sprawling Hillside Cemetery in Middletown, N.Y., an elderly groundskeeper helped him find the modest marker.
“I kind of lost it,” said Burnell. “I brushed off the leaves. I stood there for a couple hours and talked to him.”
He noticed an inscription, “Your daughters have finally found you,” and with that nugget, Burnell resumed his online search when he got home.
This time he got one more hit, for Leena.
“After searching 42 years, I found him in 15 minutes [in the cemetery] and then I found his daughter in two days,” Burnell said. “It’s great and it’s painful at the same time.”
‘Bringing him back’
The young Negron family move to the U.S. in 1974, when Leena was 2. Sheila, now Sheila Iwano, was born two years later. The family split up shortly after that.
“We grew up almost hating our biological father,” said Iwano, 37. “All we knew was his behavior post-war.”
There had been issues with post-traumatic stress disorder, with drugs and then there was never any contact.
As adults, they came to their own decision: “There has to be more to his story than just how horrible he purportedly was,” Iwano said.
They were able to confirm Negron was dead and discovered he’d died poor with no family, left in an unmarked grave.
An elderly groundskeeper whom Clausell suspects is the same man who helped Burnell, “told me he was there when my father was buried and no one was there for his funeral. He was a completely forgotten soldier, a completely forgotten man.”
The sisters petitioned for a military grave marker and got one in 2001.
Then two weeks ago, they heard from Burnell.
“We found it remarkable that he drove seven hours to visit a grave,” Iwano said. “It says so much about the friendship and it says so much about the type of friend he was.”
For the first time, the sisters have photos of their father taken close enough to really see his face.
In the wartime shots, Negron has short hair and a thin mustache. He’s handsome with a thin build.
On Saturday, Iwano talked about one photo and laughed. It looked like her father had swagger.
He did, Burnell said.
He told the sisters about Negron’s job during the war, about that thick accent.
“When he laughed, he turned red,” Burnell said.
Clausell looked surprise. “That’s huge to me to know that,” she said. “I have rosacea; I turn red.”
There was no question Burnell would become a member of their extended family. Future get-togethers were already being planned.
“We have been searching for acceptance,” Clausell said. “We have been searching for validation for our father. [Burnell] is bringing him back to life for us.”