WASHINGTON -- On a spring day in 1975, 9-year-old Viet X. Luong huddled with his family on a hot tarmac. He trembled as bombs landed near crowds of Vietnamese who had gathered at Tan Son Nhat Airport to escape the war that tore their nation apart.
His father, an executive officer in the South Vietnamese Army, tried to comfort his seven children, as they lay flat on the tarmac ground.
“Kids don’t worry,” Luong recalled what his father said in Vietnamese. “You’ll be OK.”
His father’s words reassured him, but only for a moment. North Vietnamese forces had engaged in a full assault on the airport shortly before the fall of Saigon. Mortar and artillery fire thundered just outside of the terminals. He could hear the hum of North Vietnamese aircraft as they circled and bombed the tarmac.
“All hell broke loose,” he said Monday during a livestream event. “I was scared to death.”
Amid screams of pain and terror of Vietnamese struck by the barrage, Luong fervently began reciting the Hail Mary. In the days before, Luong’s father told his family that the Americans and South Vietnamese would not win the war and that they needed to leave.
Luong’s parents then decided over a family meeting that they would send Viet and one of his older sisters because it would have been too difficult for the entire family to escape. Eventually with the help of a friend, the entire family found passage to leave.
In that moment 46 years ago, Luong claimed he decided to join the U.S. military one day. That promise to himself led to a career that has spanned more than 30 years and to the command of all U.S. Army forces in Japan.
Luong’s account of that fateful day, a story he had rarely told until recent years, helped shape the man he would become, he said. Now a major general, he holds the distinction of being the first Vietnamese-born general officer in the U.S. military.
“The scars from that event … are indelible,” Luong said from U.S. Army Japan headquarters in Camp Zama. “I don't like to retell that story all that much. But I think it's a story that needs to be told, because it's part of who we are as Americans.”
The next day a military aircraft flew Luong and his family, while enemy tracer rounds whirred by and a U.S. gunner fired back, eventually landing on the expanse of an American aircraft carrier.
“I remember [my father] telling me, ‘We are embarked aboard the USS Hancock,’” Luong recalled. “‘And it means that nothing in the world can harm you.’”
His family eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where Luong later attended the University of Southern California, joining the Army through its ROTC program. Luong idolized his father for his calm resolve during those terrifying 48 hours in 1975.
“His leadership really helped shape me into the leader I am today,” Luong said. “I watched him throughout the war, and I watched him lead the family through this very traumatic experience.”
He said he remains grateful to his adoptive country for affording him the opportunity for a long military career and the chance to lead the Army’s storied units. He spent time in Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti. In 2015 he served as the deputy commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division, which deployed to help train Afghan soldiers.
Now he wants to return the favor to other Asian Americans and minorities.
Paving the way
Luong said he didn’t realize the magnitude of his place in the Army as the first Vietnamese commander at different levels of the Army. Rather, he preferred to work diligently, without notoriety.
Then in 2005, while assisting citizens of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he asked a Vietnam veteran to leave his house that was destroyed during the storm.
Local media soon caught word of the exchange between the then-battalion commander and hurricane victim. The Times-Picayune newspaper featured him on their front page.
“So I knew immediately then, that I was representing something much bigger than just myself and my Soldiers in my unit,” Luong said. “And then after that, we had started to get a lot of attention in the Vietnamese community.”
Since he reached the rank of brigadier general, Luong said he has received emails from Soldiers of Vietnamese descent saying that he inspired them to join the military.
Luong said when he began his Army career in the late 80s, the Army had few leaders of Asian descent in its ranks. He later became the only battalion commander of Asian descent in the 82nd Airborne Division at the time.
“I realized that even in my younger days, that there were doors open for some of my peers and … mentorship pretty much at every turn that I didn't have,” he said.
He has spent time mentoring infantry officers and female officers. His office staff comes from a diverse mix of backgrounds from Caucasian to Japanese and African American.
Luong applauds the efforts of the Army’s push for greater diversity and inclusion. Last year, the Army began Project Inclusion, a part of the service’s diversity efforts designed to listen to Soldiers’ concerns in relations to matters of race and equality.
But he wants the Army to do more.
“I'm very vocal about initiatives for diversity, because I think it has to go beyond words,” he said. “It has to go beyond programs. I think the programs are good, but it has to kind of be inculcated into who you are as an institution; subconsciously. [Inclusion] is not something that you try hard to do, which should come natural.”
Finally the general addressed the recent hate crimes against Asian Americans including the attacks on Asian women at a Georgia massage parlor. He said that the crimes must be addressed and the nation must engage in difficult conversations about race, much like the Army has engaged in difficult conversations since last summer. Those conversations led Army leaders to conduct speaking tours across Army installations.
“I'm deeply hurt watching some of that, but what I would say is I don't have the totality of analysis to address the issue of hate crime,” he said. “I think in order to address the totality of issues, we need to have a comprehensive approach towards it.”