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A message to my sons: What Memorial Day means to the Nguyen family!

  • Published
  • By Hoang Nguyen
  • 375th Communications Group deputy commander
To my sons, Michael and Alex: I have an important message to share with you--one that involves an important American holiday and why we, of Vietnamese heritage, should be especially thankful for the military men and women who made it possible for us to enjoy this holiday every year.

I speak of Memorial Day, which to you may just mean the official beginning of summer. Michael, you are 15 and focused on classes and school, and Alex, your boundless energy as a 3-year-old keeps us on our toes, so I can understand why you may not fully appreciate what Memorial Day means to me. My hope is that as I share its importance, you will come to appreciate it the same way I do.

You see, I came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee at the end of the Vietnam War with just the clothes on my back. In any other country, refugees-status is synonymous to second class citizens. Only in this great land of ours, the United States of America, could a fairy tale like mine unfold. Nowhere else in the world other than in the U.S.A. can a 13-year-old-refuge receive secondary education, be provided with an opportunity to go to college with government educational grants and most importantly, be afforded the privilege to serve in the military. It's truly a testament to American exceptionalism.

I always felt it was my obligation to serve in the military to repay this country for what it has done for not only me and my family. I spent 20 years in the Air Force primarily as a communications officer with assignments in Europe and Asia, protecting our country from the threat of communism. My service to the Air Force continues to this day, though I no longer wear the uniform.

While serving in the Philippines, I was once again evacuated--but this time as the result of Mt. Pinatubo's eruption in 1991. By now I had become a U.S. citizen, and I developed an even deeper appreciation for this country as I saw how America took care of its citizens by evacuating her military members and her non-combatant citizens out of harm's way.

Needless to say that it was a significant emotional event in my life and my career when the Berlin Wall came down in 1992, signifying the end of the very oppressed world regime I escaped from back in 1975. I was then, and continued to be, proud to be in the ranks of those bringing liberty (that we too often take for granted) to millions of people in Eastern Europe.

I viewed my service in the military as merely protecting my way of life, my family's way of life ... the American way of life. Only after my retirement from the military did I reflect on my life, to ponder over what those Vietnam Veterans endured for my freedom. Little that these Airmen, Sailors, Marines, and Soldiers know back then, but they were not merely fighting to give the Vietnamese people freedom from communist oppression, they held the line long enough for many of us to escape to this land of opportunity.

Had it not been for the U.S. military pushing back the Viet Cong (Vietnamese communists) during the Tet Offensive in 1968 followed by successful bombing campaigns, I would have been stuck in Vietnam. Given the famine following the war, I doubt if I would be alive today. And had I survived the famine, the exorbitant cost of secondary education as a result of limited educational opportunities in Vietnam would have precluded any chances of me finishing high school, let alone completing a graduate education. You also need to be mindful that if it weren't for the World War II veterans, neither Europe nor Japan would be the economic power houses they are today. By the same token, South Korea would not be the industrialized nation that it is today, had it not been for the Korean War veterans.

After much introspection, I decided to make a point of thanking every Vietnam Veteran I would cross paths with. To fully appreciate the sacrifice these Vietnam-era veterans made, allow me to paint the picture. Imagine yourself an 18-year-old young man from "main street America" receiving your draft notice to be plucked out of the comfort of home and get shipped out to a jungle in Southeast Asia. There you would fight a war you don't fully understand, and only to come back to face rejection from your fellow citizens and neglect from your government. There was no Transition Assistance Office for them like we have now! Afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, many of these veterans ended up being indigent, and in many instances, homeless.

While their contributions may have gone unnoticed for having served honorably in this unpopular war, this refugee fully appreciates their sacrifices. I would even go as far as to thank them on the behalf of my family and the thousands of Vietnamese refugees living in the free world today.

Sons, I can honestly say that I would not be here today had it not been for these unsung heroes. I often thought of how gauche it was for me to receive certificates of appreciation from a grateful nation for my service for it is I who should be grateful, not only for my liberty but also the opportunity to serve in defending her.

This Memorial Day, let our family reflect on the sacrifices of the veterans of previous war eras and be mindful of how blessed we are to be part of this giving nation. My sons, next time you see a person in uniform, thank that individual. And if you happen to run into Vietnam Veteran, express your gratitude by sharing with them the direct impact of their contributions your dad's life and in your life as well. Remember that a grateful heart is the key to peace of mind and resiliency. I charge you to lead a life of service for I believe that service is the rent we pay for the privilege of being a U.S citizen.