FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Ryan Do was already enrolled in classes to study criminology at Irvine Valley College in California when he woke up one morning with a change of heart.
“I just woke up one day and was like ‘huh, you know I don’t want to go to college,’” Ryan said, thinking that the military may have better opportunities.
Realizing he wanted to do something different, Ryan called his mother, told her he’d changed his mind about college and decided to go to the recruiter’s office to see what the Army had to offer.
A week later he was enlisted, slated to leave for basic combat training just one month later.
While his parents were shocked at Ryan’s sudden change of direction, they weren’t surprised.
Ryan, who is now Spc. Ryan Do, spent most of his childhood acting out what he imagined were the ways of Soldiers.
So, when their son made the decision to join the Army – though sudden – it felt like a natural step on the path to a dream they’d watched grow in Ryan since he could walk.
Soldier in a past life
Ryan is a combat medic assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 101st Division Artillery, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
His mother, Quynh, remembers how much being a Soldier mattered to Ryan as a child.
“My husband and I thought that he, in his past life, must be something that has to do with the military,” she said laughing. “Since he was little, it was always guns, always wanting to be a Soldier, running around hiding and playing a Soldier instead of playing cars like his brother. He was obsessed with being a Soldier.”
Ryan’s father, Khanh, remembers his son being so taken with the idea of becoming a Soldier that he constantly bought Airsoft rifles, something he says frustrated him because Ryan would spend all of his money on them.
“My son was very active, he would use sticks and pretend they were guns, crawl around and dress up like a Soldier,” he said.
Watching their son become a Soldier has been an immense source of pride for more reasons than one, Quynh and Khanh said. Aside from fulfilling his lifelong dream, they feel through their son they can finally give back to the country that gave them a second chance at a life that they almost didn’t get.
Khanh and Quynh didn’t just immigrate to the United States – they escaped.
Da Nang, Vietnam – 1975
Ryan’s parents were born and raised in Da Nang, a city located in central Vietnam and an area that was rife with conflict throughout the early 1970s because it was a point of convergence between the Northern Vietnamese Army, U.S. troops and the Southern Vietnamese Army, as the Vietnam War ended.
Ryan’s parents, who wouldn’t meet until long after they’d fled Vietnam, were forced to leave to avoid being drafted into the North Vietnamese Army and to escape the wave of communism that ended with them losing their homes.
Khanh remembers the day his mother, pregnant at the time, gathered all of her children, a total of seven, and smuggled them to M Khê beach along the coast to find a boat to take them to South Vietnam.
The Family ended up at a naval base where a boat waited in the Pacific Ocean to transport people fleeing the violence. Khanh said, this is a day he cannot forget.
“There were so many people on that [boat], so my mom decided not to go,” he said.
Afraid she would drop one of her children into the ocean, she chose to wait for the next boat. Her fear saved their lives.
“That night the communists [sank the boat],” Khanh said. “My uncle was on that [boat] and I think his brother or relative. And literally they all died, around 1,000 people died and we lucked out because my mom couldn’t carry all of us to the carrier so we survived.”
Khanh said when he talks about it, it still feels like it just happened yesterday– it was March 29, 1975.
Quynh’s escape from Vietnam was different. Her Family was in the lumber business, thus they were fairly well off, and her father was Chinese and therefore they were considered foreigners.
This put Quynh’s Family in a unique position to slowly sneak their children, all seven of them, out of the country.
Being considered an outsider meant the Family had to undergo “evaluation” and were heavily monitored by the North Vietnamese Army. However, her father’s connection to China meant they could pass as Chinese children.
Quynh’s parents didn’t waste the opportunity.
“We were still under ‘evaluations’ at that point, so they bought three names,” she said. “They gave it to my sister, Paulia, and me, and Lynn. They sent us away with a strange family and said ‘Hey this is your mom, this is your dad, this is your name and you’re gonna be their children.’ And they sent us off and that’s how we left for Hong Kong.”
The day they went to board the boat, the people who were to accompany them were nowhere to be found, and Quynh along with her sisters spent 18 days on a boat to Hong Kong, alone. Quynh was 10 years old at the time.
While Ryan said he doesn’t fully grasp the sacrifice his parents made to make his life possible, the irony of him becoming an American Soldier is not lost on him, and his parents couldn’t be more proud of who he is today.
Khanh believes Ryan becoming a Soldier is a way to live vicariously through his son and give something back to the country he now calls home.
“I told him, maybe not a whole lot, but occasionally about my journey, my life, and my wife’s is very similar, about how we went through those hard times, how we were struggling at the beginning with our life here in the States, and how we fought through to get together,” Khanh said. “And with this opportunity the country has given us, getting us to where we are today, and we don’t know how to thank or give back to the country that gave us a second chance.”
Between Ryan’s parents there are a total of 17 siblings, 10 on Khanh’s side of the Family and seven on Quynh’s. All of them survived.
Through his service, Ryan strives to not only give back on behalf of his parents, but also do something meaningful with his life.
“I feel pretty good about being in the Army,” he said. “I feel like I’m repaying this country the debt that my parents owe by being taken into the United States.”
Ryan chose to be a combat medic though medicine was something he initially shied away from.
“When I see patients either in the clinic or sick call room, it feels really good being able to help people,” he said. “Even though it may not be a lot and may be something as small as a cut, you give them antibiotics or ointment or something, it still feels really good. That’s what I like about being a medic.”
For Ryan’s parents, watching their son join the Army has brought their Family full circle from seeing American Soldiers on the ground in Da Nang during a time of conflict and death, to a place of healing where their son serves as a medic and is trained to preserve life.