The Curse of Being a Hero

by Cole Gilbert

“Our helicopter was hovering five feet over the ground as we were assaulting the firebase. Bullets were whizzing through the air like a swarm of bees. The door gunners yelled: ‘Get out!’ and the man right next to me took the first jump. He screamed in pain as he hit the dirt. I was filled with fear, but I still jumped next.”  That was Joseph Taylor Gilbert’s first mission in his tour in Vietnam. He is my grandpa, a great man but often gruff and serious. When I first thought of him as a possibility for my interviewee, I was excited to learn about his service in the military but I was worried he would try to block out the emotional side of his experience. I thought and re-thought, then pondered and re-pondered, and I realized I was scared to ask him these questions. Veterans, through their tours of various places, go through far more than many of us in our entire lifetimes. After 49 long years of suppressing these memories, how would he feel bringing that emotional baggage back from the depths of his memory? Could he bring these memories back? I decided I would just have to call him and see where it went. I drew a notebook out of my overstuffed backpack and I began to scribble a header: “Interview Project.” This writing would be barely legible to anyone who didn’t know my writing well; luckily I am a master of reading my unintelligible print. Finally biting the bullet, I dialed him on my phone; on the other end his old fashioned dial phone began to ring. “Hello?” I asked politely.

“Hi, sweetheart!” It was my grandma. I explained to her that I was interested in interviewing grandpa about his time in Vietnam. To my surprise, she thought it would be a great idea, so she walked with the phone to find my interviewee. My grandparents live on an expansive lake in upstate New York, a beautiful place. I imagined it sunlit, bathed in orange evening lights, sparkling snow on all the rooftops. It would be the perfect setting for an interview; I wish I could have been there in person. As my grandma wandered into the living room calling for my grandpa, the cord from the old phone carelessly wrapped around the furniture.

“Is that my favorite grandson?” Grandpa asked into the phone, his favorite opening line as I was also his only grandson, which he conveniently “forgot” to mention. I replied that I was here to interview him, and I explained the details of my project. Unfortunately, there was a football game on, and he was not going to miss the Forty-Niners overtime game, so he said he would call me back. Then, he settled into his brown leather reclining chair, and hung up the phone. Looking back on this moment, although my grandfather loves football, I imagine this was his way of preparing to unpack all of these events and stories that he had not experienced, thought, or spoken about in years. 

I began by asking him when he served in the Vietnam War, what his role was, and if he had any control over his position. He served from March of 1970 through March of 1971 as a platoon leader of the 101st airborne, first battalion, 506th infantry. As a platoon leader, he “didn’t have to do much shooting, I just had to make sure my guys didn’t get shot.” He had been called into action via the draft; however, being the organized planner he is, had joined the ROTC earlier to guarantee himself a position where he could tell people what to do, not be told what to do. Grandpa still admitted, “I still got told what to do, you have to remember, there was always someone higher up than you.” 

“How did you arrive in Vietnam and how did the journey there feel?” I inquired. On his way into Vietnam, my grandfather flew in on a large passenger jet; he was filled with fear but he knew his duty. He recalls the man on the tarmac telling the new recruits to “get out quick in case of a mortar attack.” As soon as he exited the aircraft, he immediately began to choke on the soupy, humid air. The first thing he noticed was how dirty, smelly, and sweaty the whole environment was. 

I then asked him what his first mission or outing was in Vietnam. He creased his wrinkled brow, his square, wire rim glasses sliding down his nose. He began to explain the first time he assaulted a fire base. 

“Wait, wait, what exactly is a firebase?” I enquired. 

“It is a mountaintop base that we would use as a home base,” he answered matter of factly. They were a useful strategic holdout, allowing the troops to expand outward from this defensible position. “They had five helicopters going in [to attack the base], as the new platoon, we were in the fifth, scheduled to enter the firebase last. Unfortunately, nothing ever goes to plan, and we ended up being the first helicopter out. We came down onto the mountaintop and the pilot hovered 4 maybe 5 feet above the ground. The door gunners began spraying bullets, deafening us. ‘Get out!’ they yelled.” The man right next to my grandfather exited first and screamed as he hit the ground. “I thought he had been hit by a bullet, but I exited next anyway,” Grandpa supplemented. It turned out he only sprained his ankle. He then directed his men to form a perimeter and begin firing, making sure to be directing, not shooting. My grandpa explained throughout his time he did not know if he killed anyone and he liked it that way. He tried to fire his gun as few times as possible, but he called in many artillery strikes. I scribbled this down as fast as I could, the college-ruled lines on my paper ignored by my frantically flailing fingers, striving to get all of his story on paper. He went on to explain that the rest of his tour he couldn’t recall. I paused for a minute, looking at the illegible notes on my paper, remembering the limitations of memory. Is it possible they were suppressed; or were they just eroded by the passage of time? Silence ensued for a moment. 

“Did you at least make any lasting friends in Vietnam?” I asked politely, trying to coax something out of grandpa’s memory. Silence continued, he was thinking. I began scribbling a circle on my messy paper, the scratching of the pencil punctuating the silence. He shifted in his leather seat. “I remember their callsigns, nothing else. Our platoons would shift around so much I would never get to know anyone.” Grandpa continued, “One time, I had a platoon that was supposed to have maybe 44 people. Twenty-two showed up, the rest were injured, dead, missing, or sick. So you can see getting to know people was a difficult business,” he said with a nervous laugh. Personally, I couldn’t imagine being somewhere for a year and not bonding with anyone. Vietnam was clearly a different situation than what we have here.

“What did you do when you came back? How were you treated?” I asked. 

“I was perpetually looking forward to the day I would leave. It was very day to day.” As he entered the jet to leave he took one last look at the Vietnamese landscape. My grandpa stood up and looked out over the vast lake outside his window, recalling leaving Vietnam. He might not have been fondly recalling Vietnam; however, he was recalling it nonetheless. “When I arrived back, I was greeted by protesters and some friends and family. We actually got spit on. It was not popular to have been involved in this war.” I connected this back to today, where our veterans are regarded with the utmost respect. What a different time. I was still scratching away at my paper, trying to take all this in. 

“So no one wanted to hear your story?” I queried, hoping the answer wasn’t what I feared. 

“No one wanted to hear about Vietnam, everyone just wanted the war to be over.” I couldn’t believe this new development. I set my pencil on my desk, baffled at the lack of respect people showed toward our heroes. Politically and socially this was an unpopular war, and my grandpa alluded to this; however, I still could not believe the lack of respect people had for my grandfather, Joseph Taylor Gilbert. I could tell he knew the amount of reverence and respect I had for him, and this was truly moving for my grandpa, especially after suppressing these thoughts for so long. He finished the call by saying, “I love you,” which, to me, showed his gratitude. 

When I started this project I didn’t think it would have impacted my relationship with my grandpa in such a positive way. My grandpa’s opening up to me showed a more emotional side of him than I had ever encountered. Getting to know the hardship in people’s lives inexplicably brings those people together. This project did that with my grandfather and me. Hearing about the adversity he faced makes him even more of a hero in my eyes, and I will make sure he knows that.

The Voluntary Victim: Bearing Witness in Worldwide Crises

By Alex Leblang

Can someone voluntarily become a victim? We have read accounts of people who suffered unbearably through no fault of their own. But what about people who thrust themselves into the middle of a crisis and lead a double life—seeing severe suffering while simultaneously secure and self-confident, knowing they will safely return home. Can they also become victims? Can they tell the same types of stories? And what can we learn about being a witness by talking to someone who has experienced not just one, but multiple tragic events all around the world?

In every crisis there are people who do not run away from the terror but instead choose to run toward these unspeakable events out of a sense of compassion and the acknowledgement that a human life wherever it may be and whoever it may be is worth the time and effort to save. These people are important, but not only do they bring relief, but in a global climate where victims’ voices are forgotten and not heard, it is the voice of the relief worker who can bring international recognition to these often horrible events. 

I was fortunate enough to interview Professor Rudy Levingston (a pseudonym), who worked in the humanitarian sector for over 19 years with the United Nations. While at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) she was stationed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as an Emergency Officer;  in Khartoum, Sudan, to assist in food aid distribution and effectiveness; in Monrovia, Liberia, as a Humanitarian Field Officer to coordinate efforts in western Africa; in Indonesia and Pakistan dealing with the recovery from a devastating tsunami and earthquakes; and in Dili, Timor-Leste, coordinating emergency operations in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the Timor-Leste security crisis. She was then named Humanitarian Advisor to William Clinton in his role as UN Special Envoy for Haiti and ended her time at the UN as Chief of the Policy Analysis division of OCHA. Since the UN, she has held several posts at the American Red Cross. She spoke to me by phone on December 2, 2019, from her office at the University of Virginia where she is currently a Professor at the Batten School of Public Policy.

 Prof. Levingston has been involved in crises that sprang from natural disasters, famine, and conflict. Although not immediately apparent, in many cases humanitarian crises arise as a side effect of racial, religious, or ethnic conflict. Famine in Yemen? Houthis are blocking the port of Hodeida, and so emergency provisions cannot be landed. Earthquake recovery difficult in Pakistan? Military blocking non-government organization (NGO) access to areas in dispute with India. So the experiences of the few aid workers can reflect and amplify the experiences of the millions of those who suffer from all types of crises in silence, because they do not have the opportunity to provide witness themselves. 

I felt that it was important to understand how someone can move from crisis to crisis around the world, do her best to provide aid, communicate with her compatriots at the UN, figure out what can be done better in the future, and still be able to come home and live their lives with their families. If people with the  ability to bridge the gap between the horrors of humanitarian crises and the safety and security of their “home” lives did not exist, then humanitarian crises around the world would be worse, because aid, even if inadequate to address the enormity of the crises, would not exist. With much of the globe to cover I started off by asking, “Looking back, does any one event stand out to you?” 

This launched the interview. Over the course of our time talking, I learned how she coped with these traumatic events in a professional setting, and even more importantly, got to understand what it takes to become a witness. 

“I was deployed to different conflict crisis zones all over the world, and so in that I witnessed a lot of firsthand devastation: human, physical, environmental, and economic.” She paused and took a moment to collect her thoughts. “Nothing stands out, it [the devastation] takes on different forms. For example, the war in Liberia caused a lot of people to flee from the countryside. And so when I got to Monrovia there were  hundreds of thousands of people just sleeping in parking lots, in the stadium, in gas stations, in schools, just everywhere.” 

I had a hard time visualizing hundreds of thousands of people without homes. I thought of Stanford Stadium, filled with people sleeping everywhere, and with no food. As she continued, it became clear that the main concern was with providing food to all of these people, while not just one but two different rebel armies were advancing on Monrovia. “How did you mentally deal with this, with all the stuff that was going on?” I asked. 

“Well, my mind goes into how can I assist these people? What is a short term solution? What is a medium solution? What is the long term solution? What experts do I need to find to solve the problems: military logistics, medical, people who are distributing food to local groups.” She went on to say that over time she learned that she had to break the problems into small pieces and figure out who could tackle each piece. She said it is much easier to mentally handle the big problems, to compartmentalize and step back, so she sees the problem but not the people. But then she is back on the front lines, where the abstract becomes concrete. “I was spending time talking to these individuals, and could feel and understand the trauma of a mother who doesn’t know how she’s going to feed her kids.  It just feels really jarring.”

“In what way was it jarring, did it change you?” I prompted, eager to learn more about how this changed her.

“Well, you see whole communities living in these conditions, with no food, and we are trying to figure out how to get them even small amounts of food,” Prof. Levingston recalled, “and then I think back to home, to the high school and university cafeterias, and you know that what each kid throws out in a single meal is probably more than an entire family would have to eat in an entire day. It’s really the inequity in the world that makes the trauma hard, the difference between those who have and those who don’t.”

That made me stop and think of what I ate that day and how for me food trauma is getting hungry because I had late lunch. How much did I throw out? While I know that I couldn’t magically transfer that uneaten food to people without, I could start to understand the types of things that she was dealing with. I had to ask, “Were you depressed all the time when you were working?”

She thought about that for a long time before answering. “Well, no, otherwise it would be difficult to continue. I would see human resilience and compassion; a global community coming together to try to assist. There’s something really beautiful and motivating about that. So you’re not feeling constant despair and trauma, you’re also seeing the best of humans, people coming together for solutions and being resilient.” I thought that this was a good answer, but I wondered if that’s what she felt when she was there, or if time had tempered her thoughts, and so I asked if in the moment she thought that way. After considering my question, she said yes, but that there were specific instances that made her angry, but it was usually the uncaring responses of people who could be doing something.

She told me the story of seeing a former classmate after her first deployment to Ethiopia. He asked what she was doing, and after she told him, he said, “Do you ever think about survival of the fittest?” which got her furious, because here he was, from his position of wealth and comfort and food, talking about survival of the fittest, while Prof. Levingston  was thinking of a woman she worked with in Ethiopia, a woman who crossed a desert to get to safety, with six children, two of whom died on the way, and somehow got to the refugee shelter and survived. While her classmate, she thought, wouldn’t last more than half a day in the desert. So I realize that it is the compassion that keeps her going, and the anger isn’t necessarily directed at those who cause the suffering, but instead at those who not only don’t help, but who lack the compassion to even care.

“So,” I said, thinking about the difficulties of communicating to people who haven’t experienced or witnessed such suffering, “on the topic of global compassion, how do you convey the magnitude of the suffering to the people who weren’t there with you and hadn’t seen it?”

“That’s really the heart of the matter,” she said, as she continued to think aloud about how to communicate effectively. Some of her co-workers actually suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and there is a huge amount of burnout in the field, because the aid workers don’t want to think about what they saw, much less bear witness. Prof. Levingston said that usually when she returns from a trip and someone talks to her and asks her how it was, she says “terrible” and then switches the subject to something else, because she says that all too often it is too difficult not only to think about what really happened but to properly convey the severity and magnitude of such trauma to people who have not experienced it first-hand. Even when she was working for the UN, her reports were more factual and less descriptive, because it was too difficult to convey the magnitude of the horror. Only in retrospect does she now, as a professor working on humanitarianism, see the need to convey what she saw, and to teach her students what it was like. There is much truth when she said, “It is much more pleasant to just go to the mall with a friend than to relate the truth of what happened.” 

I thought about her statement, and about how I was learning about bearing witness. I realized that bearing witness is not just the ability to relate the facts, it is not just the ability to tell a story, it is not just the ability to connect with others. It is the ability to reach deep into yourself and to pull out memories of events so horrific that someone just wants to keep buried away; memories that can hurt just as much coming out as the body and mind hurt when they were going in. And so it takes a huge amount of courage and fortitude to become a witness and to share the horrors so that others may get just a small taste of what it must have been like. 

And so I bow my head in respect of all those who have had the inner strength to both survive and to tell their stories.

 

Angelica G.

By Maya B., Emily V., Aico T., & Yaretzi M.

 

She was covered in burns and scratches after rolling out of the speeding car, but the pain wasn’t as bad as knowing she had left her 1-year-old daughter and husband behind.

Angelica was born in the small town of Aljojuca, Puebla, Mexico. It was a very dry and dusty place. Her house was made of cement. It was one big room divided by curtains. The living room and dining room only had a couch and a small table where they would eat. Outside of her home, there was some land where her mom would plant seeds and she and her siblings would play. She was the only girl out of five kids. Her parents did not make enough money to buy enough food for all of them, so most days they would only eat salt tacos. On good days, they would eat beans. Her dad worked in the fields and her mom sold tortillas. With the money they made, they tried to pay for their children’s education. But, no matter how hard they worked, they were never quite able to make enough money, and Angelica only made it to 9th grade before dropping out. “Siempre mis padres trataban de mejorar un poco nuestra vida…siempre hubo enfermedades nunca había suficiente dinero para educar no… era bastante dinero.” (My parents always tried to improve our life a bit.. there were always challenges…there was never enough money to educate us… it was too much money).

After dropping out of school, Angelica got a job in making and selling tortillas. Around this time, her father left for America in search of opportunities. Three years passed before her father finally returned. Throughout those three years, she and her siblings worked in order to buy clothes and food. Her dad would send them the little amount of money he would make. Even with that, they were still in poverty. Angelica thought of America as an amazing place with several opportunities and a great place to start a family. All the people she saw coming back from America were always wearing nice clothes and would bring their children toys she could have never dreamed of having.

In time, Angelica got married and was pregnant with her first child. She lived with her mother-in-law, who was also in extreme poverty. At times, they didn’t make enough money to feed themselves or their new baby. Her daughter grew up and craved more, but Angelica was unable to provide for her. She would often have to drag her sobbing child out of the store because she couldn’t afford an apple. Her daughter never asked for candy or junk food, or toys, all the little girl wanted was a piece of fruit. This caused her immense pain. She soon came to the decision that she would work in America. Her husband begged her to stay, but she had already made up her mind. She would go to America and buy her daughter the apple she always wanted.

Angelica and her sister-in-law made a plan to go to the United States. Angelica wanted to support her family with the money she’d earn in America. Her sister-in-law wanted to unite with her husband who had moved to the U.S. before her. Angelica’s two brothers who had immigrated to the United States helped pay for coyotes, smugglers who would help them cross the border. The smugglers gave them a piece of advice: do not bring any items, this includes food, water, and clothes. The coyotes were not responsible for any of the items lost or damaged.

In March of 2000, Angelica and her sister-in-law left their homes in Aljojuca to go to the dream land, America. Angelica’s heart ached as she left her family behind. Angelica and her sister-in-law got into a white van that drove them to Mexicali. It was nighttime; the coyotes told her and her sister-in-law to hide in some bushes nearby. The two of them squatted behind the bushes trying to make as little sound as possible. They waited patiently until a bright light shone upon them. It was an immigration officer’s car. The officer saw Angelica hiding behind the bushes and immediately arrested her. But, the officer did not see her sister-in-law who was hiding nearby. When asked for her name and address, Angelica gave the immigration officers false information. At the station, she was given a sandwich and apple juice. After a while, she was released from the police station and she flagged down a taxi to take her to a hotel. She stayed at the hotel until the coyotes came and drove her to a house. That was Angelica’s first attempt. The next day, Angelica heard word that her sister-in-law had arrived in America safely. She was motivated and determined to get across the border and support her family from America. Hearing that her sister-in-law made it across reassured her that she could make it if she persisted. She continued her journey with the guidance of the coyotes on the same day. She attempted a second and third time but she still failed.

On Angelica’s fourth attempt, she succeeded. It was early in the morning when she began her last attempt. When she got to the border, the coyote was there to help her get over the tall fence. She climbed onto his shoulders and made her way up the fence. There was an empty immigration truck on the other side. The coyotes told her to hide at the back of the truck and wait for further instructions. Twenty minutes passed, then forty minutes, then an hour. She became anxious as she heard footsteps coming towards her. Two immigration officers got into the truck and the car started to move. Angelica panicked. “A lejos nomás oír un grito baja cuando puedas.” (From afar all I heard was, “Get off when you can!”) She rolled off of the moving truck. She felt a burning sensation as she desperately hid behind the parked cars along the road. She was in so much pain, she wanted to cry. When the area was clear, Angelica stood up and walked slowly towards a car. She looked into the car’s wing mirror and noticed all the burns and scratches she had obtained from her escape. She walked towards a Carl’s Jr., and looked through her pockets to find coins given to her from the smugglers. She inserted the coins into the payphone and dialed the coyotes’ number. The coyote picked Angelica up from Carl’s Jr.. They told her she was extremely lucky to have made it. The driver was able to successfully drop Angelica in front of her brothers’ apartment building. Angelica had made it to America.

She was finally here. Relieved, she walked into her brothers’ home. It was a crowded, one room apartment she shared with her two brothers; it was the first home she had in this new world. Having to adjust to the weather, food, culture, and language was extremely difficult, but the biggest hardship was language. “Era muy difícil hablar inglés. All we want to do is come here to work.”

After a few moves, she landed a job and a home. She became a live-in helper for a nice, supportive family; they gave her food and shelter and were empathetic about her situation. The little money she made was enough to both support herself and send some back to Mexico for her family. She was extremely thankful for this family and continued to work for them for a few years.

Eventually, Angelica’s husband finally came to America to stay with her; however, they had to leave their now 2-year-old daughter in Mexico. This pained them, but did not discourage them. They both continued to work hard. After five years, Angelica and her husband had another child. America was their home now. They eventually brought their now 6-year-old daughter to America. Finally reunited, the Garcia family was complete and ready to live new lives in America.

It is now 2019, Angelica is a 42-year-old woman and a mother of three girls and one boy. She often thinks about what’s happening with immigrants in the United States. She listens carefully to what is happening in our government. “Pienso directamente que siempre nos está afectando.” (I believe that politics are always directly affecting us. Especially being an immigrant. Politics have a greater impact on me, for I have a daughter that’s only supported by DACA. We know that we have committed a crime and have broken laws but all we want to do is work and reunite with our family.) She is constantly reminded that she could be deported with her oldest daughter and husband back to Mexico, leaving the rest of her family behind.

As an undocumented immigrant from the poor town of Aljojuca, she often feels homesick. Although she desires to spend time with the rest of her family back in Mexico, she fears that she will not be able to come back to her other family in the United States. It’s an endless battle of desire. As much as she wants to visit Mexico, she doesn’t want to risk losing all that she sacrificed for, being able to raise her family in America.

Minh Huynh & Hung Huynh

By Billy H., Brian M., Kurt K., & Dylan S.

 

In 1939, on the South side of Viet Nam, Minh Huynh was born. He lived in a small household, surrounded by greenery and rice fields, with his parents, four younger brothers, and two younger sisters. “Living with six younger siblings was more than just a struggle, but I still loved and endeared them more than anything in the world,” said Minh. They didn’t have a shower, and so when they wanted to cleanse themselves, they would use a bucket of water and poorly fashioned homemade soap. When he turned 19 in 1958, Minh began working as a tailor, cutting cloth and fashioning clothes for others, but just five years later, he was forced into the military and was immediately sent into combat.

The Vietnam war had been raging for years, and with the Vietcong as their enemy, it would be a difficult battle. Fighting alongside the South Vietnamese and American troops, Minh was deeply and truly frightened. “It was absolutely traumatizing, and just the mere sound of gunshots shocked me. It was even further distressing when I saw so many of my comrades die right before my eyes.” The war continued for a decade, until the Vietcong won and all South Vietnamese troops were captured.

Around this time, Minh and his wife adopted a child, Hung Huynh, who they loved dearly. Minh, a capitalist, was mainly targeted as a prisoner of war, for he had fought against the Vietcong, who were communists. He was immediately captured and sent to prison. Working for the Vietcong in prison was tiring, laborious, slave work; he was forced to plant and harvest rice crops for hours a day. This lasted two years until he was released from prison in 1978. After he was released, a program called Amerasian started to help kids that were half Asian and half American, by sending them to the United States if they wanted to go. Minh and Hung both had various reasons for leaving Viet Nam. When asked if he wanted to go, Minh did not hesitate and he soon flew out of Viet Nam, heading to the Philippines.

Hung had a lifelong dream of going to college and would do anything to attend a college, even if it meant leaving his home country and leaving behind friends and family. Due to being half African American and half Vietnamese, Hung was unable to attend college; the Vietnamese government had decreed that anyone of mixed race was unable to attend college. Hung was heartbroken; all he wanted to do was go to school and get an education. “My parents and I all wanted to leave Viet Nam, but I especially wanted to leave so I could go to college and get smarter. When they told me I could go to America for free and go to college at no cost, I was already ready to say yes. I wanted that more than anything in the world.”

Before arriving in the United States, Hung was sent to the Batans, a section of the Philippines; it was a rocky, mountainous area, with plenty of flourishing, green vegetation. “The area was not that different from Viet Nam. “There was a lot of greenery, the weather was nice and hot, and it was near the beach, so I felt right at home.” There, he spent a seemingly everlasting six months mastering the English language and discovering the aspects of American culture.

As time passed, Hung was eventually nearing his lengthy, 13-hour journey to the United States. “Finally,” he thought, “the liberty and freedom I’ve been longing. I can have it at last!” He embarked on the airplane, along with all the other American Vietnamese who he had stayed within the Philippines. Looking out the window, he recalled his departure from Viet Nam, and although he was indeed eager to arrive in the United States, he felt a sad wistfulness; he would dearly miss his home country, the only place he had ever known. As if on cue, the pilot started the engine, rumbling the plane and shocking Hung back to reality. Soon afterward, the plane took off, leaving the Philippines behind and leaving Hung to look forward to his new future.

In the meantime, Hung’s parents, Minh Huynh and Lan Tran, sat in their small, one bedroom home, dearly missing their son. His temporary loss brought them an unbearable melancholy. “Coming to America would be an absolute blessing to us; the land of the free is full of opportunity and is the savior to our burdened, harsh lives,” said Minh and his wife.

Soon after Hung arrived in the United States in 1990, he felt as if a loaded barbell had been lifted off his shoulders; he had finally had the weight of dependence and captivity lifted off of him. He was elated to arrive in a country of freedom, a country of independence and liberty, contrary to Viet Nam. Hung was dispatched to Mobile, Alabama, where he would stay for about two years. He lived in a small apartment, stuffed in with another family he had never met; it was cramped with all his belongings and furniture, along with the others’ property. Being on his own, he had to work multiple jobs to sustain a stable income and pay his bills. Every morning, he would wake up at 4 AM and work at a crab meat factory for four hours. He would then make his way home and prepare to go to school on little to no sleep. After school, which ended at 2 PM, he would continue to work at a very crowded and busy Burger King joint until sometimes 12 AM, leaving him with four hours of sleep until the next laborious day. As time passed and Hung continued to labor tirelessly, Amerasian contacted him once more; they were preparing to bring his parents to the United States legally! The second he received the news, Hung was beyond elated.

Once Minh and his wife arrived in the United States, they were also flown to Mobile, Alabama, where they were immediately presented with a small, one bedroom apartment. It was heavily constricted in terms of size; nonetheless, it was far more luxurious than Minh’s previous home, and so they all gladly moved in. Minh, a tailor in Viet Nam, continued his career in the United States. He would work as a tailor in one shop from 8-5 and then walk to his next job at a  dry cleaner, where he would continue to work until 9 PM. His wife, Lan Tran, worked with him in the same tailor shop.

As time passed, Hung and his family grew morose over their living situation; there was only one minuscule bedroom, which Minh and his wife shared, and Hung slept on the ancient, battered couch, so they moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Minh wanted to move because he had a relative there. However, to Minh’s disappointment, Minh and his family soon found out after two years that the winters of Pennsylvania brought icy, biting weather that they could not bear. “Pennsylvania’s winters were the one thing I could not stand, and so I just didn’t want to stay there anymore,” said Minh. Once again, the family moved, this time to California, where they reside to this day. During this time, Hung had gone to five different colleges, for he wanted to become as educated as he could.

Minh is now retired with his wife, and his main priority is to pick up his grandson from school. He says, “To be free, able to enjoy life with family, and safe, is more than enough to keep me happy. Having the ability to see my grandkids grow up in a free country and not to have the worries which I had is amazing.” Hung is working as a resource manager at Cadence Design Systems. He says, “I have a wife and two kids, both of which I am beyond proud of fathering.” Both Minh and Hung are extremely grateful to be able to live a stress-free life in the United States.

Ted Nguyen

By Karthik M., Timothy N., Michael P., & Ethan P.

Through the harsh seas and rough air, Ted Nguyen survived through the terrors of Vietnam. When having his home and his clinic taken away, his family persevered. When alone without a true home in a new country, Ted Nguyen created a home.

Ted Nguyen was born in February of 1974 in the small city of Binh Duong, Vietnam. During Ted’s early life, he had an easy childhood. He had caring, laid-back parents. Economically, they did well and would have been considered middle class, as his father was a doctor. However, splitting the money with eight kids was not easy. “You had limited resources because of the big family. You had fewer clothes, toys, attention, etc.” His school life was rather boring. He was filled with work from the inside of rooms. He longed to go outside. In fact, his most vivid memory of school was when he left to visit the wild. “I went on a great camping trip, it rarely happened, but it was a gift to go out.” If only he had known that he would be traveling across countries in just a few years.

Communism spread like a disease across Vietnam with the south suffering the most. The south, who had fought against the Communists now felt the full might of a ruling Socialist Regime. Anyone associated with the southern government was harshly discriminated against. Southern Vietnamese soldiers were detained in concentration camps and worked to death. Southern Vietnamese families were forced out of the city and into the poor rural countryside. A small family in the city of Binh Duong lost their house and clinic to the government for “Collectivisation,” which meant the property was “shared.” “They took privately owned property for the ‘public’ so the government could have all the profit from it.” Although Ted’s family didn’t fight in the war, they were still discriminated against for being Southern Vietnamese. “In school, they favored kids whose parents worked for the government.” Kids of government officials had better chances of going to college and getting a good education. Ted’s parents knew that even though they lived in their small house in the countryside, at any time government officials could take someone from the family to work in their labor camps or the whole property could be taken for “public” benefit. With their children’s futures so uncertain, Ted’s father, Hay Quan, knew it was time to leave.

Hay Quan, father of eight, planned a daring escape in 1982. Paying for seats in a smuggler’s boat, they would sail with almost 200 other people to the Philippines. Tan, now known as Ted, would be rushed onto the overcrowded boat not having a clue of what the occasion was. All he was told by his father was that they were moving somewhere. Ted didn’t know why there were so many other people crammed in a little boat. He didn’t know why they were all rushing and being so secretive. Ted’s father, mother, and seven other siblings huddled in their own respective area of the boat as it set sail. As they sailed, great waves rocked their boat, causing them to slam into others. This would continue for several hours until their boat was illuminated by a bright light. It was the Vietnamese Coast Guard! They were all forcefully arrested without resistance and taken to a prison called Xuyen Moc. Fortunately, in Xuyen Moc Prison, the family was interviewed by the warden and only had to stay in jail for one day. The warden was more lenient on families with many children. But, this was not the end of their journey.

Ted’s father had to plan another escape, but this time only Ted’s older siblings would go. Three years later, the escape plan was initiated. Ted was ten at the time and the details of the escape were unknown to him. A few months later, he found out from his father that the escape was a total success and his three older siblings Tuyen, Tri, and Thi had made it to the United States. Now, at the age of 13, it was Ted’s turn with his two other siblings, Thuy and Thach. Since he was older, he was told all the details of his father’s plan. They would leave on a smuggler’s boat the same way they had tried before, destination — Philippines. The journey would take less than a week if everything went according to plan.

In late 1988, Ted, Thuy, and Thach boarded in the pitch black of night with only lamps revealing the crammed boat they would again be riding on. They huddled with absolutely no room between them, surrounded by strangers. “It was just a regular fishing boat crammed with people so there was hardly any space to move, we were all squeezed in.” The condition on the boat became considerably worse day by day. Excrement slowly lined the boat as there was no room to go to the bathroom and going on the edge of the boat was too risky. Everyone’s clothes were damp by the continuous splashing of waves. Many people were starting to show signs of hypothermia and others vomited at the horrific smell of human waste, making the smell even worse.

It was the seventh day of their trip, and the fear of running out of food rations had become a reality. Ted had no idea how far they were from the Philippines, but with 200 other people on the boat, he knew their food supplies wouldn’t last another day. The boat condition itself had also become dire. There was always the fear of capsizing, and they had no lifeboats or life vests to help. Throughout the seven days, damage to the hull from the waves had severely lowered their chances of survival. The boat was on life support and could sink at a moment’s notice. Luckily, they were rescued by the Philippines Coast Guard.

Those on the boat were given medical care and emergency food for the children and then moved to a refugee camp on an isolated beach. The conditions at the camp were decent compared to Vietnam, with huts made out of tree leaves and wood. They would get daily rations of fish and fruits from nearby villages. Thuy was the only one who knew how to cook, so Ted and Thach relied on her to cook all their meals and take care of them. There was nothing to do at the camp and there was nothing to play with, as they were on a barren beach. Swimming wasn’t an option because of the chances of getting sick. He lived this dull life in the refugee camp for about eight months until delegates from several nations came to interview the refugees. Each family was interviewed together to determine which nation they would go to. Most refugees were looking to go to America, but it was not their choice to make. “The refugees there would be interviewed by government delegates from different countries but most preferred to go to America, and we were interviewed by the American Government and got accepted.” With this, their fate was decided. They were going to the United States!

They were driven to Ninoy Aquino International Airport and Ted was excited to ride an airplane for the first time. As the plane lifted, Ted felt the rush in his ears and the sight outside the window was magnificent. As it was nighttime, the city shined bright next to a vast blue ocean. When he awoke after the 12 hour flight, he found himself in a totally new world.

He felt isolated in this new land. Every step felt like a new planet, causing awe to arise at a force beyond his control. The immense buildings made him feel like he was in a futuristic world. “You got big modern buildings, everything seemed bigger than in Vietnam, you know it’s the first time you are on an airplane, and all the technology, and the roads, and everything is so massive.” Eventually, he enrolled in school and was a decent student, mostly sticking with the same group of friends. Looking back on his time, he said, “You’re mainly on your own and you just had to figure things out on your own.” In college, he worked as a Great America food server and a support engineer, yet was also on welfare for a time. After graduating, he became a software engineer.  Nobody had any idea that he would come this far. When asked if he is happy now, it is clear that he is. “You start a new place, you gotta [have a] better future, and get kinda get used to the place, you come alive, you grow up here, you went to college, graduated, got a job, your life is stable and more secure than if you compare it with the conditions with Vietnam.”

Today, Ted has a wife, Cindy Nguyen, and two children, Timothy and Andy. As his children grow, Ted is thrilled to see that all of his efforts were not for nothing. When Ted looks back on his past, he is very grateful that he is in America now.

If there is one thing to take away from this journey, it is that Ted persevered constantly. And because he did, he has given his children an opportunity greater than they could have imagined if they had stayed in Vietnam.