Vietnamese Americans in the Military

TD Le
July 13, 2007

Though it has been more than three decades, the Viet Nam War still echoes in the same sentence with the Iraq War in media, academic, and political circles. Some point to the similarities between the two interventions, while others make the case that the US involvement in Iraq is not comparable. While the world pontificates, no one really knows what goes through the minds of Vietnamese American soldiers who are risking their lives in the hot, barren hinterland regions of Iraq. BN wanted to highlight the experiences of some of these men.

Captain John "Viet" Dinh of the US Marine Corps prefers the freedom of flying an F-18 fighter attack jet in a sky that stretches into infinity, but he's staying grounded in a station about 100 miles west of Baghdad with a specialized unit. Captain Carlos "Thanh" Do who has spent time in Korea and Iraq with the US Army, comes from a family with men who had served in the South Vietnamese military. When he puts his uniform on, he doesn't think about death. He just thinks about his responsibility. "We have freedom because we came here. If we don't contribute, then that's very selfish of us. We must sacrifice to protect the freedom for our children's future." These sentiments are echoed by other Viet soldiers as well.

Dinh and Do are part of a small group of Vietnamese Americans who have decided to make a career in the US military. Whether in the Army, Navy, Marines or the Air Force, these men and women often defy their families to fight for a nation they profess provided a home to them when they were persecuted in Viet Nam. They have decided to put their lives on the line to secure the freedom they were given. These soldiers find that the military offers a stable and noble job with an opportunity to travel the world. But their decision also exacts a price: They must move their families often, and moreover, deployment means enduring the emotional toll of being away from loved ones.

With the current war, words like "Vietnamization" and "Iraqification" are floating around again, said Quang X. Pham, author of the book A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey, who became the first Vietnamese American helicopter pilot in the US Marine. Pham, who left Viet Nam in 1975 and spent time in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, knows the pain of war. His father, a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot, was sent to re-education camp for 17 years. Pham said he wrote his book, in part, to give South Vietnamese soldiers a voice. It's dangerous when perception becomes reality, especially when people do not have the full picture, he said. As someone who has gone through two wars, Pham said the US could not afford to make the same mistake with Iraq as it did in Viet Nam. He said it was important that Iraq could sustain itself before the US pulls out. Although Pham is proud of his time in the military, he admitted, his mother aged about 15 years while he served.

Pham joined the Marines during the 1980s, when movies like Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) and Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) showed both the machismo of wartime and the anti-war sentiments at the time. He did not have a problem with deployment, but as part of the so-called 1.5 immigrant generation, he had "refugee baggage." Pham didn't allow any racial nicknames or tolerated anyone calling him "charlie," "kamikaze" or "gook." "People called me uptight and thin-skinned and that I couldn't take a joke, but I stuck with my beliefs," he said. "You can't demand respect. You have to earn it. I was not striving to be accepted, but to be competent. I wanted my actions to prove that stereotypes aren't true. The epithets stopped with me."

On not talking about the war

Soldiers are not drafted into the military and come in as volunteers. There are certain policies about expressing their opinions, he said. Only now as a civilian could he speak freely. Soldiers in uniform cannot talk about the politics or war. "Even if they think the war is right or wrong, they can't talk about any facet of the war. It's the law," he said. "But if they want to go against it or they want to protest against the war, they have to leave the military first."

Dinh, who spent a high school summer in boot camp, said his sense of adventure drew him to the US Marine. His relatives, who worked as lawyers, doctors and bankers, scoffed at his decision to join the military. "They wrote me off as someone who didn't have aspirations. Every time I went to a family party, they would say, 'he's a nobody.' But I never cared about that."

His mother was initially against the idea. "She didn't want me to do the military stuff. It was very hard for her to go through one war and make it safely. She didn't want to watch me go through another one." But Dinh said his love of flying and sense of duty was too strong to ignore. "She wanted me to have a standard job, but she knew I wanted to fly. She became very supportive that this is what I want to do," he said.

Dinh, 31, married with two young children, understood his mother's fears. He was born on April 21, 1975, after the US Embassy pulled out of Saigon. Eventually, they were sponsored to live in France. Being a malnourished child and now having children of his own, Dinh said it's heartbreaking to see the thin, little Iraqi kids when he's on duty. "I think about myself back then. They like to come out and play. They are very curious. I just keep thinking how sad. They're the ones who suffer the most. I put myself in their shoes and I feel how difficult it is for them." While in Iraq, Dinh commands two small patrol teams. That means dodging bullets, escaping handmade explosives and ensuring his men's safety. He's had some close encounters with his men killed and injured. It's hard to think about anything else other than surviving, he said. But when he gets to fly, he's in a different mindset. "When I'm up in the air, it's very rewarding," he said. "It's very free. I can't describe it. No matter what worries I have, it's very relaxing. I love doing this ... [it] is my way to get away."

Dinh said he's given speeches to youth groups. He simultaneously encourages and discourages the younger generation to join the military. "You have to do it for the right reasons. It's going to be really tough on your family. It comes with a lot of responsibilities. If you're deployed, there's a lot of good and a lot of bad. You have to make up your mind if this is what you want to do, because you might have to make the ultimate sacrifice." Dinh expects to return home this fall: "I'm going to give my kids a big hug and take them to Disneyland." After that, it's a ride on his motorcycle.

Do, 40, in the US Army, now married with three young children, points out the military gave him an education and structure to his life. It also gave him a chance to repay the US for giving his family a home. Before he entered the army, Do spent time working several odd jobs and helping his family's restaurant business. In Viet Nam, his father was in the army. Do, who came to the US in the 1980s as a refugee, said he did not know what to do with his life. "I wanted to make my own destiny."

During college, he enrolled in a military science class and was intrigued by what people could do. He found the work challenging and worthwhile. When he decided to enroll full-time as a soldier, his family was against it. "They didn't agree. They thought it was so dangerous, but after I told them the army trained people to be more successful, more organized and have more leadership qualities, they supported me." Since he came from a family steeped in Vietnamese military, his male relatives supported his decision. "Military life is about loyalty and there's a sense of camaraderie," he said. When the holidays roll around, Do thinks about all the military people who died serving and their surviving families. "These people are alive because someone sacrificed for their freedom. We have peace because of them. I know I have to do what I can to protect those families who protected me. I do this for the future of our other generations. You can't have just one person fighting to keep our liberty. You have to have many people doing it."

Vietnamese Americans: where are they? Dinh said he's only seen a handful of Vietnamese comrades since he's been in the Marines. He said it is a bonding experience when he does meet someone who can speak Vietnamese. Asians Pacific Islanders (APIs) make up five percent of the US population, but only one percent in the military, according to Pham. The military branches do not keep track of the number of Vietnamese Americans, but the US Army reported out of 488,578 active army recruits, APIs made up 4.1 percent.



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Pham said he wrote his book, in part, to give South Vietnamese soldiers a voice. It&;s dangerous when perception becomes reality, especially when people do not have the full picture, he said. As someone who has gone through two wars, Pham said the US could not afford to make the same mistake with Iraq as it did in Viet Nam. He said it was important that Iraq could sustain itself before the US pulls out. Although Pham is proud of his time in the military, he admitted, his mother aged about 15 years while he served.<br />
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