WASHINGTON - In observance of Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, I’d like to share how four flag officers and I achieved the American dream through military service.
On April 30, 2022, during the 47th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, I had the honor of hosting a tribute to our fallen comrades at the Vietnam War Memorial with four Vietnamese-American flag officers – Maj Gen. Lapthe C. Flora, U.S. Army; Maj. Gen. William H. Seely, U.S. Marine Corps; Rear Adm. Huan Nguyen, U.S. Navy; and Brig. Gen. John R. Edwards, U.S. Air Force.
Operation Frequent Wind, initiated just before the fall of Saigon in 1975, was the final phase of the evacuation of American civilians and South Vietnamese and would mark the end of more than 20 years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The iconic photo of a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter landing on the rooftop of a CIA safe house, as scores of desperate Vietnamese families try to board, illustrates the frenetic evacuation mission.
At that time my mother, Bang Nguyen, was an employee of the U.S. Defense Attaché Office, and my father, Maj. Dzy Nguyen, was a Republic of Vietnam Air Force “Bird Dog” forward air-control pilot. My mother sent my grandparents and me to Saigon as she frantically waited for my father to conduct his final flight. Fortunately, we were able to evacuate Saigon and my family would later be reunited in Guam. After arriving at Camp Pendleton in California, a caring family -- the Springers -- volunteered to sponsor us and provide short-term housing. We would become part of one of the largest American refugee resettlement efforts; America welcomed 125,000 Vietnamese as refugees seeking asylum, and today over 1.4 million Vietnamese immigrants have made the U.S. their home. I was three years old in 1975 and will always remember my humble beginnings and will be forever grateful for the opportunities provided by America, my new home. I graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1995 with a B.S. in systems engineering and management, was commissioned as a military intelligence officer, and currently serve as the director of the Systems Special Programs Directorate at the Army’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.
Maj. Gen. Lapthe Flora was born in Saigon in 1962. After the Communists captured the city in 1975, he fled to avoid enslavement by the North Vietnamese, spending more than three years in the jungle and then fleeing by boat to Indonesia, where he spent a year living in three different refugee camps. As a teenager, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 as a "boat refugee" and was later adopted by Audrey and Jack Flora Jr. of Roanoke, Virginia. Flora was commissioned as an infantry officer from the Virginia Military Institute in 1987 and has commanded at every level, from infantry platoon to combined joint task force. He deployed to the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. His most recent assignment was commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, and he currently serves as the special assistant to the director of the Army National Guard in Arlington, Virginia.
Maj. Gen. William Seely was born in Saigon and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1971. As a young child in Southern California, he vividly remembers watching the fall of Saigon on the news and helping his parents, who volunteered to assist Vietnamese refugees arriving at Camp Pendleton. Seely graduated with a bachelor’s degree from American University and was commissioned through the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, George Washington University, in 1989. He joined the Marine Corps because he wanted to serve his country first and foremost, and to give back. He currently serves as director of intelligence at Headquarters, United States Marine Corps.
Rear Adm. Huan Nguyen was born in Hue, Republic of Vietnam, the son of an armor officer. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, his mother, father, five brothers and a sister were massacred by Viet Cong communist guerillas in their family home outside Saigon. Although wounded, he amazingly survived and escaped after dark. In 1975, at age 16, he fled Vietnam and settled in Midwest City, Oklahoma. Nguyen graduated from Oklahoma State University with a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1981 and received a direct commission with the Reserve Engineering Duty Officer Program in 1993. He has served as a test officer at a ship repair facility, as executive officer and chief engineer for Joint Counter Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare, as a CREW engineer in Afghanistan, as director of the Military Program Office at Naval Sea Systems Command, and as Deputy CIO at NAVSEA, where currently serves as deputy commander of the Cyber Engineering and Digital Transformation Directorate.
Brig. Gen. John Edwards was born in Saigon to an American father and Vietnamese mother. His father was a former Army noncommissioned officer assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group who later served as a civilian with the U.S. Navy. Edwards grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, graduating from the University of Hawaii and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in 1995. During his 27-year career, he flew combat missions in two conflicts, commanded a flying squadron, a flying group and a bomber wing, and held multiple assignments on the Joint Staff and Air Staff. He is currently assigned to the National Security Council at the White House.
These Vietnamese-American flag officers’ paths to America are an embodiment of the American dream. They proudly and honorably serve in the U.S. armed forces and dedicate their lives to our country, and recognize that their success was due to generous people helping them along their journeys.
Biographies of the flag officers:
Maj Gen. Lapthe C. Flora, U.S. Army, https://www.nationalguard.mil/portals/31/Features/ngbgomo/bio/2/2979.html
Maj. Gen. William H. Seely, U.S. Marine Corps, https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/133/MajGen%20Seely%20William%20H_%20III%20Bio.pdf?ver=5iMyyMPnc7xdjBCe2Q-rKA%3D%3D
Rear Adm. Huan Nguyen, U.S. Navy, https://www.navy.mil/Leadership/Flag-Officer-Biographies/BioDisplay/Article/2236499/rear-admiral-huan-nguyen/
Brig. Gen. John R. Edwards, U.S. Air Force, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Biographies/Display/Article/2241440/john-r-edwards/