By David VergunMay 23, 2016
WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- Viet X. Luong aspired to join an elite South Vietnamese fighting unit when he was a young boy.
He didn't succeed at doing that, but he did become a U.S. Soldier and he is now a brigadier general -- the first U.S. general officer of Vietnamese descent.
But long before joining the Army, his life took some unusual and unanticipated twists and turns.
In 1968, the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, attacking cities and hamlets throughout South Vietnam, including Saigon, the capital, where Luong grew up.
Luong recalls the day artillery rounds landed. He was in the back of the house, gazing at the koi, swimming lazily in their pond. That's when a round landed with a loud blast on his house, he related.
Through the thick smoke and fire he heard his mother, frantically trying to round up her six kids to get them out of the house.
At the time, his father, a South Vietnamese marine officer, was somewhere in the countryside fighting the war with his unit, he said.
Luong remembers his teenage uncles coming to help get them to safety. They all made it out.
At the time, Luong was just 2 and a half years old, but that near-death experience was so traumatic and vivid, he said, that it left an indelible memory.
LIFE IN SAIGON
Other than that experience, life in Saigon was relatively peaceful and fairly sheltered, he said.
"It was a very nice place to live," Luong said. "You could go out at night and do things like go to the movies or visit the ice cream shops."
Luong said he enjoyed watching Bruce Lee movies and another one of his favorites was "The Magnificent Seven."
The movies were subtitled or dubbed in Vietnamese, which he said helped because he didn't speak a word of English.
While Luong enjoyed the tranquility of life in the city, he said the family often wondered whether or not their father would come home from the many battles he fought.
To Luong, his father was his hero -- still is -- he said, and from a young age, he said he wanted to grow up and be just like him.
But first, he had to finish public school and grow up.
Luong said he loved nature and the outdoors so he joined the Boy Scouts. Unfortunately, they were precluded from going on campouts and wilderness hikes because it was simply too dangerous to venture outside of Saigon.
Those peaceful days would soon come to an end.
ESCAPE FROM VIETNAM
April 29, 1975 is a day then-9-year-old Luong said he remembers -- vividly. American forces had pulled out of South Vietnam and the enemy was closing in on Saigon.
Luong's family fled to the Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon, even as bombs were dropping all around them.
Fortunately, Luong, his parents and his seven sisters were rescued from the airport by U.S. Marines in a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter, and flown to a World War II-era aircraft carrier off the coast in the South China Sea.
When they landed, he said he asked his father, "Where are we?"
His father answered, "Aboard the USS Hancock."
"What does this mean," he asked.
His father replied, "It means nothing in the world can harm you now."
The next day, Saigon fell and South Vietnam was no more. Luong was about to embark on the next chapter of his life.
ARKANSAS TO LOS ANGELES
The first place the Luong family went to in the United States was the large refugee camp, established at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, he said.
It was here that his parents had to make an important decision, he said: Where would they live?
Luong's dad had served and fought long before the American troop buildup in South Vietnam. He had been a French commando in the early 1950s, when the country was known as French Indochina.
"When we were at the refugee camp we had some very generous offers from the French government because they knew my dad has served with them," he said. "They offered us jobs and housing and opportunities in France."
The U.S. didn't have the same generous offer, he said.
However, some former U.S. Marine Corps advisors "wanted to sponsor us here."
Luong's father made a "bold decision," Luong said. Despite offers from France, he chose to live in Los Angeles.
The reason, Luong said, is that the U.S. Marine Corps had given his father training at Quantico, Virginia, as well as Camp Pendleton, California, which is near Los Angeles.
"He thought L.A. provided the melting pot and also the opportunities for upward mobility and progression," he said.
But upward mobility and progression was slow for the family, which settled down in a poor neighborhood near Echo Park.
"We were so poor," Luong said. "Both of my parents worked their fingers to the bone.
"It was rough place in many ways," he added, "but we were really embraced by the community there. Most of my friends growing up were Hispanic. We were pretty much enculturated into the community and learned to appreciate that."
When not in school learning to speak English and other subjects, he said he enjoyed playing sports for his pastime. He also learned to play the violin and the guitar.
But Luong said he still had the dream of joining the military -- either the Marine Corps or an Army paratrooper or Ranger unit as an officer.
"Although my father was in the marine corps, some of my uncles were Vietnamese rangers and paratroopers," so serving in any of those branches "was my goal," he said.
Before becoming an officer, Luong had to get a degree, so he recalled visiting the University of Southern California for an orientation. One of the speakers was from the ROTC unit there and he offered Luong a four-year scholarship. That sealed the deal.
"I thought that would alleviate a lot of financial strains on my parents," he said. "It's a great way to serve as well as attend college."
Luong's first assignment was at Fort Carson, Colorado, where he served as a platoon leader with 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment.
Although Luong described himself as "very nimble and athletic growing up," he said being in the infantry is very physically demanding.
"I felt I always had to exert myself to perform at the same level as some of my peers who were physically bigger and stronger," he admitted.
"I relied on resiliency and having a strong-minded will to finish anything that's physical. Mental things are not a big deal for me. The physical part I had to work really hard at," he said.
His second challenge was working hard to learn English. "When I was a lieutenant, I'd only been in the U.S. about a decade speaking the language, so I felt I always had to work extra to be academically ready," he said.
Although Vietnamese was Luong's first language, he progressed to where over time, he said he could speak, read and write English better than Vietnamese. But he's still a fluent speaker in Vietnamese and says that's helpful with social engagements in the Washington, D.C. area, where many Vietnamese call home.
Luong currently hangs his hat in the Pentagon as Joint and Integration, Force Development, Army G-8, so for now, Washington is home.
Luong's next assignment in 1993 after Fort Carson was Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he served as a company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, another physically challenging but motivating experience, he said.
That assignment, he said, was probably the highlight of his career, mainly because going airborne "made my dad so proud."
When friends in Los Angeles stopped by to chat with his father, he said he'd hear them ask about the daughter who got a PhD, or the other daughter who had passed the bar exam.
But then, "my father would say to them, 'oh, but you should hear about my son, who's a captain in the 82nd Airborne.'"
Luong said there's really no secret to being a great or even successful leader.
"Lead from the front, share the same hardships as your Soldiers and take care of your troopers," is his guiding principle.
Leading from the front means being as physically tough as the Soldiers, he said, adding that leadership also takes a certain amount of mental acumen, competence and commitment.
Besides that, "give clear and concise guidance," he added.
Being a good leader also means upholding Army values -- loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage -- he said, summarizing all of them in one word: "character."
Doing all that requires a lot of dedication and hard work, he said.
The good news, Luong said, is that a good leader isn't necessarily born that way. "All of that can be cultivated through applying yourself and through self-development."
Soldiers can expect assignments in far-flung places as partnering with allies becomes more and more important, Luong said. As such, each Soldier is in a way an ambassador of the U.S. when overseas.
Luong recalled being stationed in Italy with the 173rd Airborne Brigade where he chose to live off-post among the Italians.
"We used sign language and broken Italian to communicate," he said. "I made good friends and became part of the community."
Being friendly "spreads goodwill and how you act is perceived as representing Americans," he noted.
Luong recently visited his alma mater, USC, where he said faculty have become much more embracing of military than when he attended from 1983 to 1987.
They've done a lot to increase veteran enrollment and alleviate some of the costs, since it's a private university, he said. While he was recently there, the president of the university hosted dinner for ROTC cadets, "so it has changed for the better," Luong said. Some of that goodwill may have been spurred following the 9/11 attacks, he thought.
FRIENDLY & RELAXED
The frenetic pace that is the Pentagon is legendary, and Luong admits that people think he's intense. "They think I'm serious all the time, but I'm not."
He wanted colleagues to know he has a lighter side as well, that he tries to cultivate.
"Most people don't know that besides playing the violin and guitar, I like to sing," he said, noting his favorite band is the Eagles and when he hears it, he often sings the lyrics to "Take it Easy," "Hotel California," and other hits.
He also likes to play video games or basketball with his kids, he said.
Luong and his wife Kim have three children: a daughter, 21, who's a junior at Baylor University; a son, who's a freshman at the University of Virginia; and, a 15-year-old boy who's in high school.
This month happens to be Asia-Pacific Heritage Month and since Luong is such a high-profile member of that group, he said he gets invited to a lot of speaking engagements as well as interviews like this one.
Right now, he said he's on tap for five speaking engagements.
"I tell folks all the time I'm intensely proud of my heritage, but at the end of the day, I'm just prouder to be American without the hyphenation," he said.
"It's about the nation and its ideals, because without that you can have all those attributes of hard work, commitment to family, and still not be successful," he said.
People in his former homeland have those characteristics, but they're not nearly as successful as Americans, he pointed out.
"Some of my Soldiers in combat made the ultimate sacrifice so we can have these freedoms and successes," he added.
"Many don't realize that we lost 12 Vietnamese-American Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "The first Special Forces Soldier killed in Iraq was a Vietnamese-American. We have scores of wounded veterans. As far as being fairly new to this country, when it comes to defending our nation, we're not taking a backseat to anyone."