Many of them died on the way

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jonathan Stefanko
  • 932nd Public Affairs

Vinh Nguyen was 15 when he left home. It was inevitable, he thought, but that acceptance failed to ease his pain. The friends he’s grown up with, a father left at home, a life he cherished — memories of love that would distort, then fade. He felt fear take root in his stomach; there was no turning back; he’d have his mom, sure, but neither spoke English, and they had just over $100 to survive. Hardships lay ahead, but it would be an opportunity for a better life. One was inaccessible to him if he stayed in Vietnam. This was his ticket, he thought, and he wasn’t going to pass it up. 

Nguyen and his mother, Diem, arrived in New York in 2005 before traveling to Minnesota shortly after. Unable to afford a motel room, Diem said she was grateful to have family in the area to lean on, though it would be a while before she or her son could truly rest. 

“Once we got to Minnesota, we were able to stay with my brother,” Diem said. “We were happy to have his support and a place to stay. We slept on the living room floor every night, waiting for his friends to stop partying. Vinh and I would hold our pillows and wait as soon as they’d leave, clean up, wash the floor, and finally lay down to sleep.” 

As restless as those nights were, Nguyen said the days were equally as exhausting, with much of his time spent at school or studying at home. 

“The major barrier I experienced was the language,” Nguyen said. “I felt lost because I couldn’t understand anything. But I overcame this challenge by putting more time and effort into learning English. Right after I arrived in the U.S., I took summer ESL classes — English for Second Language — read a lot of books, and watched T.V. news.” 

During these early years, Nguyen said his greatest motivator was his mom and that his successes: graduating college, becoming a U.S. Air Force officer and having a family of his own, wouldn’t have been possible without her. 

“I always look up to my mom,” Nguyen said. “No matter how difficult it was when we came to the United States, she never gave up. She worked hard to take care of both of us. She taught me to be strong and motivated me to achieve my goals.” 

“Since I was young, I wanted to join the military, and I am proud to be in the world’s best,” Nguyen continued. “I am very thankful every day for the opportunity to serve and give back to the country that gave me a second chance in life.” 

Now a first lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, Nguyen said he was able to follow his passion for medical science by becoming a biomedical lab officer for the 932nd Airlift Wing at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. However, he recently volunteered for a position at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he is on full-time orders, helping at the military hospital there. 

“I’m gone from my family more now, but I hope my daughter understands why,” Nguyen said. “She’s six, so she doesn’t know what I do, but she knows I’m gone and serving our country. She’s supportive, but she’ll always ask when I’m coming back home.” 

Nguyen said that moments like this, being away from home and family, reminded him of how vital resilience is to him. 

“Resilience plays a big role in my life,” Nguyen said. “Looking back, moving to the U.S. was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it taught me the value of never giving up and the importance of adapting to significant changes. 

“My grandparents used to tell me stories about how people fled Vietnam after the communists took over, how they tried to come to the U.S. through the ocean,” Nguyen continued. “They risked their lives to come here for a better life, freedom and opportunities. Many of them died on the way. I would tell everyone that immigrates to the United States: appreciate the opportunity and take it seriously. It will be difficult at the beginning but work hard and never give up. You’ll be able to overcome the challenge.” 

Nguyen hoped he followed this advice and achieved the life his mom sought for him. That she wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. That he didn’t let her down. 

“I knew Vinh would be successful in America,” Diem said. “And I’m glad he got the opportunity I never did in Vietnam. The man Vinh has become amazes me each day, and he continues to surprise me with new opportunities that I didn’t know were possible. As a mother, I am so proud of what he’s accomplished, especially his military service.”