FORT KNOX, Ky. -- In March of 1975, Saigon was in chaos. The communist People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong, ignoring the Paris Peace Accords, were marching relentlessly toward the city as part of their end game: total defeat of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the capture of Saigon, and the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule.
The family of Do Nguyen had a momentous decision to make.
Nguyen's grandfather had strong ties to the ARVN. Earlier in the long war, during the Tet Offensive, the communist forces had overrun the South Vietnamese city of Hue. After the city was recaptured, returning U.S. and ARVN forces found mass graves. Upon further investigation, it was determined the communists forces had executed nearly 3,000 citizens--especially targeting ARVN officers, local officials and family members, Catholics and educators.
The Nguyen family faced a similar fate should Saigon fall. So, the decision was made to leave the country. Five-year-old Nguyen and his family took passage on a freighter bound for Singapore. Even though he was young, he can still remember the journey.
"The conditions on the ship were harsh," Nguyen said. "The ship was overcrowded with other refugees like ourselves. We slept down in the hull on top of suitcases. Water was scarce. I can remember my mother boiling the sea water so that we could drink it."
Upon arrival in Singapore, his parents applied for refugee status with the United States Embassy. Their application was accepted, and they boarded another freighter for the long passage to San Francisco.
After arriving in the United States, his family was moved to Fort Chaffee in northwest Arkansas. Fort Chaffee processed over 50,000 refugees as part of a resettlement program the military called 'Operation New Life,' officially enacted by Congress as the Indochina Migration and Assistance Act of 1975.
Fortunately for Nguyen and his family, they were sponsored by a Baptist church in St. Joseph, Missouri, and his life in a new country began.
"Just like the meaning of 'alien', I felt like an alien in this new and strange country," Nguyen said. "I can remember one experience around Christmas time, we lived in Section 8 housing and we learned to be happy with simple things. We found a big cardboard box and had fun rolling and sliding down the hills."
"I also remember how we washed our clothes," he said.
Not owning a washing machine, they resorted to their own ingenuity.
"I would fill up our bathtub with hot water and soap, throw in our dirty clothes, stomp them with my feet, and then wring them out by hand," he said.
Nguyen excelled in school and integrating into society, so he made plans to attend college. He took the ASVAB and earned high scores, but he ignored the many phone calls and post cards he received from military recruiters.
"I grew up in a family of five and was the second oldest male," he said. "My parents' expectation, as an older son, was to follow family tradition and become a doctor or an engineer."
All that changed one day toward the end of his college days. He had just finished his exit interview, and was told he owed over $20,000 in student loans. As he was mulling over how to pay that bill, he walked past a recruiting table display.
"The recruiter at the Army table told me the Army could help me repay my student loans," he said. "I agreed to sign up and history was made."
Nguyen's career of service to his adopted country has been a success story with both challenges and highlights, but one career highlight stands out in his mind.
"In March of 2011, I was promoted to master sergeant and took orders to serve as a guidance counselor," he said. "I strove to make a lasting impression on the young men and women who had signed up to provide selfless service to their country in the Army. I was the guardian who ensured every individual who joined was physically, morally, and educationally qualified."
Currently, Nguyen serves on the staff of the headquarters of the U.S. Army Medical Recruiting Brigade at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The Brigade is charged with recruiting physicians, dentists, nurses, veterinarians, other professionally qualified healthcare providers, and also chaplains. Nguyen has served as the Senior Master Trainer and, most recently, as the NCO in the chaplain recruiting section.
"I have had a chance to see and understand the Medical Recruiting Brigade challenges," he said. "As far as chaplain recruiting, I feel a strong bond with the chaplains due to my personal experience coming to the United States. It is important to have spiritual values, and I am happy to help recruit the most qualified chaplains and chaplain candidates to serve my fellow Soldiers and their families."
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