Former Vietnam refugee finds opportunity in U.S.
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Former Vietnam refugee finds opportunity in U.S.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

This was a typical busy day for engineer Nhuchi Khong. But workplace stress is nothing compared to her life story.

She escaped from Vietnam by boat 33 years ago as a 20-year-old along with her then 19-year-old brother Thuan. They came to the United States with nothing but the help of a church charity. Both worked their way through college, earned their degrees and became successful engineers for the Army.

"This is a country of opportunity," said Khong, software and simulation lead and information assurance manager for the Cruise Missile Defense Systems Project Office under the Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space. "You've got to work hard."

She and her brother had tried a few times to escape their communist homeland but were unsuccessful. Two months before their successful escape, they were captured after an attempt and were put on a truck destined for prison. Her brother broke part of his front teeth as they jumped off the truck and returned home.

In March 1982, their parents paid some fishermen four ounces of gold to take Khong and her brother to freedom. They boarded a 10-meter-long fishing boat carrying 50 people in the former south Saigon, which became Ho Chi Minh City. Under cover of night, they embarked on their secret journey.

"When we passed the communist gates, they put a tarp on top of us. And we had to be quiet to get through those security gates," Khong recalled.

They floated in the ocean for five nights and four days. Khong was so seasick, she didn't awaken until the second day. There was little food, just some rice cakes, and they survived on mostly water. Finally a U.S. oil refinery boat, the Libra, rescued them near Singapore. The Libra took them to the Singapore refugee camp.

The camp was operated by World Relief Corporation. About twice weekly, some people came to the camp to give them food, clothes and $1.50 in U.S. currency. Khong and her brother lived in the Singapore refugee camp for two months.

They were transferred to an Indonesia camp in an isolated rural area where the refugees were supposed to learn English and a trade such as sewing or cooking. Every two weeks each family would receive two pounds of rice, two canned meats and two bags of beans. That was their entire ration for two weeks.

The accommodations were sparse. Khong and her brother lived in a small one-room house which was raised on four posts. They had to walk about 30 minutes to get to a source of water for showers and cooking. They were in the Indonesia camp for eight months.

They returned to Singapore for one night Jan. 29, 1983, on a one-day boat trip from Indonesia. Khong and her brother got a commercial airline flight to Taiwan and Japan. From there they were flown to Los Angeles and then to New Orleans. They signed a paper promising the church they would repay the $1,100 apiece when they could find employment.

They arrived in New Orleans on Jan. 31, 1983. They stayed at the church which gave them $250 apiece for living expenses. By mid-February, Khong and her brother had both found jobs at a New Orleans restaurant as a waitress and waiter, respectively.

"I remember that I couldn't understand what the heck they ordered, so pointing to the items on menu was the way for customer to order food," Khong said laughing, recalling her communication issues with diners because of her broken English.

Khong and her brother entered the University of New Orleans in May 1983. This included a year of English as a Second Language courses. They borrowed $500 to pay for their tuition; and in turn, they paid $50 a month. Khong and her brother worked their way through school. Khong was working three jobs at the same time, including the late shift with a pizza delivery company. "I didn't sleep a lot," she said.

After two years at the University of New Orleans, they transferred to Louisiana State University. Khong graduated in August 1988 with a bachelor's in electrical engineering from LSU. Her brother, Thuan, graduated that December.

Khong got an entry level engineering job in September 1988 with McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, California. The following year her brother entered a government intern program. In 1991 Khong came to Redstone, first with the Bat Project Office, next with THAAD, and next with X-Band Radar. She has worked at CMDS Project Office since 2012.

She earned a master's in electrical engineering from Texas A&M in 1990 and a master's of business administration from Florida Institute of Technology in 1998. Her brother also works at Redstone.

Their parents, now retired, still reside in Ho Chi Minh City. Khong was the oldest of five children. The other three siblings reside in Vietnam: one sister works in a post office, the other is a teacher and their brother has a construction business.

Khong, 53, resides in Harvest. Her son, Donny Nguyen, 24, has a bachelor's in electrical engineering and works as an engineer in Huntsville. Her daughter, Danielle Nguyen, 18, is a senior at Bob Jones High School. Khong visited Vietnam in 2006 and 2013 and said she will probably return for a visit next year.

"When I left Vietnam (in 1982), the mode of transportation was bicycle. Now there are motorcycles everywhere," she said. "The economy is growing, so I'm glad. But pollution is really a big thing."

On April 30, 1975, Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, forcing South Vietnam to surrender and bringing about an end to the Vietnam War.

"It was a very horrible time for my family," Khong said. Her father did logistics for the U.S. Army during the war. After 1975 he had to go to a re-education camp. His family lost their home and car and were placed on the communist "black list."

Escape was the only option for Khong and her brother Thuan, who at 19 wanted to avoid serving in the communist army.

Khong won the 2015 Civilian of the Year management/technical award, presented by the Association of the U.S. Army's Redstone-Huntsville Chapter. In the past, she has done motivational speeches for school children.

"This country (the United States) has changed so much. The kids no longer appreciate what they have," she said. "I came here with zero. And if I can make it here, they can."