By Kathy EastwoodMay 27, 2016
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The United States Military Academy at West Point Class of 2016 Cadet Tuan Le began a Vietnamese-American Cadet Association (VACA) at West Point for Vietnamese-Americans, however, everyone is welcome into the club. The purpose of the club, according to Le, is to provide a diverse group of people cultural awareness for both its members and people outside of the club.
"I did this in high school and when I came to West Point there were not a lot of Southeast Asians here," Le said.
"I took the initiative to start the club in my sophomore year and started writing the framework. I worked with the diversity office and the Directorate of Cadet Activities. As a junior, I reached out to freshmen before they came to West Point," Le explained.
Le said he was able to connect with families at Reception Day and Acceptance Day to assure parents, "their kids would be safe and will enjoy the Vietnam heritage."
"We all have similar heritage and stories," Le said. "Most parents, like mine, are refugees from Vietnam after the 1970s. Most of our families didn't speak English. This is why I joined the Army, to give back to Americans for opening their arms to us."
Le is the son of Vietnamese refugees and raised by a single mother in Fargo, North Dakota. His parents separated while in the Philippines and his mother, with the sponsorship of the Mormon Church, came to America when Le was 5 or 6 years old.
"My mother had to work, so she wasn't home a lot," Le said. "I taught myself Vietnamese and English by reading books and taking English as a second language when I was in the sixth grade. After high school, I went to three different colleges and did badly in all of them so I enlisted in the Army as a medic for two years, and then received an appointment to West Point."
After starting VACA, Le reached out to the first Vietnamese national graduate, Tam Minh Pham, USMA Class of 1974.
"Pham went back to fight in South Vietnam and become a prisoner of war," Le said.
Pham, a POW for six years, currently resides in Maryland.
"I reached out to him as a sophomore and afterward felt more comfortable reaching out to other Vietnamese-American veterans," Le said.
"I did a lot of research and started a database of Vietnamese-American alumni," Le said. "My plan was to build a database to allow Cadets to reach out to veterans. This is a support group with people who understand the struggles we are going through."
Le said they reached out to veterans to come to West Point for a reunion. One was a Class of 1986 graduate, retired Col. Patrick Reardon.
"He was a Vietnamese National but was adopted," Le said. "He is the third Vietnamese graduate, but nobody really knew he was Vietnamese. He has a strong connection."
The VACA also has outreach programs to bring the Vietnamese culture to others and to reach out to Vietnamese-Americans.
"In April, the Cadets in VACA went to California, which has a high concentration of Vietnamese, for an outreach program with three different high schools," Le said. "We went to Laquinta High School, which has a 72 percent concentration of Asians and 19 percent are Hispanic, Garden Grove and Fountain Valley high schools. The Cadets shared their personal experiences at West Point, particularly the importance of diversity. Most didn't know about West Point, that's why we went there to expose them to things that are in the world."
Le said the club also wanted to remove the stigma of the military and hoped to build a bridge from the last generation to this generation to say that it is OK to be in the military.
"Saigon broadcasters, the national Vietnamese news, was able to talk about our club," Le said. "It allowed us to share our story to bring opportunities to the Vietnamese."
Le was commissioned as a second lieutenant after graduation at Trophy Point with his mom and significant other placing the gold bars on his shoulders. The future physician will be headed to medical school at Central Michigan University College of Medicine, which will add four more years of service to his military obligation.