By Lt. Col. Lan Dalat and Michael Maddox, U.S. Army Cadet Command Public Affairs
In the US:
The crew of the USS Ranger CV-61 rescued all 138 of the ‘boat people’ from the wooden boat drifting on the South China Sea.
“At that point, I was no longer a boat person. I became a refugee. With that status granted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, my family and I along with other refugees were taken to the Philippines where we were placed inside the Vietnamese Refugee Camp in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines” Dalat explained. “We arrived at the dusty camp comprised of bamboo huts housing more than 5,500 Vietnamese refugees. There, we learned English from the British volunteers. It was there that I learned about the selfless service that volunteers had provided us.”
After six months at the refugee camp, Dalat’s family was sponsored by his uncle and his church in Lacey, Washington, near Seattle. He immigrated to United States with his mother and siblings in September 1981.
“As a legal immigrant in America, I learned to use every tool I possessed and to apply them to every lesson I learned in order to strive in the land of opportunity. However, I quickly realized that my existence in southern California was not wanted,” he recalled. “I encountered prejudice and discrimination while trying to learn how to break away from the violent ghetto culture where we first settled.”
“I was living among the poorest people in the lowest rent district within the rich and abundance Orange County, California. For years, I questioned the choices my mother had made and the vision we had for America. It wasn’t a life that I had envisioned risking one’s life to find,” he added.
Dalat said his mother worked three jobs – allowing them to afford to move to another part of Orange County where life and opportunity were more available to his family.
“It was at Tustin High School that I learned about teamwork and leadership,” he explained. “It was there that running earned me a varsity letter instead of avoiding a brutal beating by gang members. It was there that I was trained and mentored by a track coach who taught me that hard work would achieve success.”
Later, Dalat was reunited with his father who had faced adversity in a Vietnamese prison for multiple failed attempts to escape from Vietnam.
“Following our successful rescue by the U. S. Navy, he fled again with great success. His boat landed him in Malaysia where he served as the refugee camp leader for a year. He immigrated to the U.S. two days before my high school graduation,” he shared.
After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army Reserve as a way to serve and to get a college education.
“As a weekend warrior specializing in logistics, I was able to find a full-time job in a warehouse during the day. At night, I enrolled in a local college with the determination to achieve all the promises of the American dream,” Dalat said. “My pace for success was much slower than most of my peers since I had to balance my life with a full-time job, a struggling immigrant family and school.”
“Eventually, I graduated from California State University-Fullerton and received commission through the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Signal Corps,” he added.
Evan though he’d achieved so much over the years, Dalat never forgot the men who had rescued his family that day in the Pacific Ocean.
“Prior to that significant day (of commissioning), I set out to find the skipper who had rescued my family from the South China Sea. I wanted personally thank him for giving me this opportunity to live and to excel in America,” he said. “With the help of U.S. Navy, I reunited with Capt. Dan A. Pedersen on Good Morning America. There I met the man who was responsible for my survival had recently retired from the Navy. He celebrates my success and continues to be a part of my personal and professional life.”
Dalat said after graduating the Signal Officer Basic Course in Augusta, Georgia, he dressed in his Army uniform and traveled to Puget Sound where he visited the decommissioned USS Ranger.
“I was able to climb onboard the aircraft carrier and to walk on the deck again. I paid my tribute to the ship that saved my life and 137 others on that one hot day on the South China Sea,” he recalled.
His first assignment in the Army as an officer was with 1st Signal Brigade, the same unit that had a communication site beyond the hills from his house in Da Lat, Vietnam.
Dalat said while the journey hasn’t been easy, every step has made him the person he is today.
“Today, as a lieutenant colonel serving in Cadet Command, I have had a great career in the U.S. Army where I had served in many capacities ranging from staff, commander, to director. I’ve served around the world to include Fort Bragg, Germany, Korea, Italy, Japan, Afghanistan, and now at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.,” he said. I had many great opportunities serving alongside with some of the finest Soldiers, noncommissioned officers, and officers around the world doing what they do best; protecting the Freedom that my family and I along with the American people enjoy.
“It is a great honor and privilege for me to have the opportunity to serve this great nation. The United States adopted me and gave me the same equal opportunities that are available to every American. It’s definitely a country that worth risking one’s life in her defense to ensure that the next generation will have the same freedom and opportunities. I was born in Vietnam but I was made in the USA!”
Army ROTC produces approximately 70 percent of the officers entering the Army each year and is available through nearly 1,000 college campuses nationwide ranging from Harvard to Berkley--from Tufts to Ohio State. Army ROTC teaches leadership and discipline, management techniques, cultural awareness and problem solving. Those who participate in Army ROTC and subsequently serve as Army officers develop leadership and managerial skills that last a lifetime.