The AK-47 round that Nam Van Nguyen took in the leg wasn’t by happenstance. It left the chamber intent on making a name for itself, leaving the South Vietnamese Army officer screaming in horror as his leg snapped like a twig in a Monsoon wind. He went into shock, losing consciousness just as the initial euphoria from the Kalashnikov rifle subsided.
The medic, unable to live up to his own expectations, shrank back from the mutilated limb. Gathering himself, he called for immediate amputation and decided to do it himself, unmindful of a warrior’s instinctive will to survive. The major awoke at the critical moment and exploded, threatening to shoot the medic.
In a sense, the wounded man’s bluster convey a special meaning to our constitutional traditions on Memorial Day. The measure of courage it would take a Vietnamese family to give back to America the best years of their lives, and a broader perspective on the virtues of freedom, cross-cultural understanding and sacrifice, ever since they arrived on our shores as boat people.
Maj. Nam Van Nguyen, a heroic figure in the Vietnam War, understood all sides of a conflict that engaged three countries. Born in North Vietnam, he fought with his new homeland in South Vietnam and trained with the Special Forces in the United States.
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Nam hailed from a Buddhist family of farmers. When the country was temporarily divided after the First Indochina War with France (1946-54), he avoided conscription as the family fled south to Long Khanh, 50 miles west of Saigon, where his brother Tuan and five sisters were born.
At 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds, Nam, a budding intellectual, was accepted at the Da Lat Military Academy of Vietnam, the “West Point” of Southeast Asia. The first in the family to attend university, Nam graduated with the Luc Luong Dac Biet (LLDB), the Vietnamese Special Forces. A raw lieutenant in the early 1960s, he nevertheless had the mettle to lead counter-insurgency units against the Viet Cong, North Vietnam’s proxy forces in the South.
“He used to say, ‘If you last six months in the field, you live a little bit longer due to experience,’” Tuan recalled.
Nam proved adept at both love and war.
He met Lan Thi Nguyen, a multilingual Catholic, in Saigon. With suitors vying for her hand, she couldn’t resist his charisma. The couple would marry in 1968, after four years of courtship. The lavish wedding took place in an old church in Cu Chi, not far from his base. In due course, they became parents of Hoang, Quoc, Hung and Dai, all boys.
Nam, a Gung ho commander of a Special Forces unit in the 5th Division, fought the Viet Cong every day. It wasn’t a struggle to climb ranks. He made major within 10 years.
Sometimes, battle lines did indeed ebb and flow in dramatic surges. One night in 1966, near Tay Ninh, in War Zone C, the pell-mell rush of the enemy overwhelmed his forces and wiped out a company. Nam passed out after being wounded early in the fight. The Viet Cong usually prod the bodies, especially after an ambush, and no one survived the onslaught. Later, he was discovered alive by elements of his battalion. He had taken multiple bullet wounds to the body and grenade shrapnel in the face.
“I was a sergeant on a minesweeper in the Navy then,” Tuan, 66, says. “My brother was a tough soldier. He said he was also bayoneted in hand-to-hand fighting that night.”
Lan Thi, who speaks French more fluently than English, communicating through oldest son, Hoang, speaks of her husband’s heroism, and the decorations he received for bravery under fire.
“Yet, he rarely brought up his experiences, because he was so involved in the war,” she said.
In 1967, with both sides ratcheting up the war, the U.S. increased its division-sized bases across South Vietnam, shipping in boatloads of troops to bolster its commitment. Meanwhile, Nam was among a group of officers selected for advanced training with U.S. Army Special Forces.
“It was an effective program,” recalls a former Special Forces instructor, who also taught indigenous teams at Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) camps in Vietnam.
“The way I saw it — that’s one American that we didn’t have out there. They had good schooling in infantry tactics, gathering intelligence and analyzing information. We taught them the advantage of delegating responsibility, too. They did well in absorbing information, so they could train others to take care of themselves.”
Back in the jungle, Nam leads a 12-man team like a Green Beret, trained by one of the best at covert military operations in the world, so the cadre could respond more effectively to the guile of the guerrillas. Each is assigned a specific role. One sergeant is a walking encyclopedia on weapons. Another serves as a critical guardian of the communications network. And the medic can be clinical at saving lives as well as taking them.
Considering its familiarity with the Special Forces, the enemy shows a blatant disregard for the new tacticians straying in its area of operations.
To the Viet Cong, Maj. Nam doesn’t carry the cachet of an American hero in camouflage. They see him as an Ugly American. His seventh grievous wound would come from a bullet to the head. In an operating room at a field hospital, however hard they tried, doctors aren’t able to extricate the round.
“The process of taking it out would have killed him,” Hoang says.
Thereafter, Nam became a officer with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. An area of practice included representing soldiers during courts-martial.
By 1975, the war had turned ominous for the South Vietnamese, particularly officers. While staff of American military and civilian companies jostled for seats aboard choppers — even as the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were replacing South Vietnam flags along the way to Saigon. Nam found himself among the thousands of South Vietnamese officials and officers whom the NVA rounded up and shoveled through re-education camps.
Maj. Hoi Van Do, a former leader of the Vietnamese Community Association of Central Florida, still can’t shake the hardships prisoners endured. “If an officer worked with American advisers like I did, it was especially difficult,” he said.
Nam’s brother, Tuan, jumped the gun in 1970, seeking refugee status in the U.S., among hundreds of war-weary compatriots aboard a South Vietnamese Navy cutter bound for Subic Bay in the Philippines. A U.S. merchant ship ferried the whole lot to Guam. Four months later, Tuan flew to a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, where an American adviser with whom he served sponsored him. Tuan eventually found a home in Houston, and a job on the Halliburton oil rigs, all the while bemoaning his brother’s fate.
“He wasn’t doing well,” Tuan griped. “They worked him to the bone in that concentration camp. What you plant, you eat. They don’t give you nothing. They drive you to your death slowly.”
But Nam had formulated a plan, as if he were leading a team out of a jam in the bush. He would escape the camp, gather family, friends and supplies, then hunt for a boat and a worthy engine.
“The North Vietnamese never could keep pace,” Tuan says. “To him, his war wouldn’t end until he made it to the States with his family.”
The chill of waiting for the moment hanging on a while, Nam’s sacrifice finally paid off.
“It was a small fishing boat, and 41 people climbed aboard,” Hoang recalls. “We made the refugee camp in Indonesia, where Dai was born. A couple years later, a Vietnamese family sponsored us and we wound up in Houston.”
Nam’s odyssey from military man to American took two and a half years, but tragedy was to follow: his life was snuffed out like a candle in a breeze at the intersection of his dream and reality. Just 56 days after arriving to his new home, Nam was killed along with two family members he was teaching to drive when one of the trainees ran a stop sign.
Far be it for Hoang, or Lan Thi, to hang Nam Van Nguyen’s legacy on his heroism in the war. “His goal was to get us a good education,” Hoang says, “and my mom’s goal was to see that we accomplished that. All of us have at least a bachelor’s degree.”
Lan Thi endured a lot, Hung, 39, admits. A University of Miami alum and probate lawyer, Hung heads The Nguyen Law Firm in Coral Gables.
“When dad died, we went on public assistance. She’s independent, loyal, caring. And the years have toughened her — losing a country, learning a new one, raising four kids in the projects in Houston [including Linda, who was born in the U.S.”
In April 2014, Hung married Karen McCarthy, a management consultant from Brooklyn, NY. They plan to commemorate Memorial Day American style. “It’s not a Vietnamese thing,” he says.
His brother, Hoang, 45, concurs.
“We always remember those who died and sacrificed for us as a nation,” Hoang says. “War is a nasty business. Monday marks a special day of remembrance, respect and appreciation. To me, America means freedom, opportunity, progress, tolerance, acceptance and welcoming.”
Dalton Narine is a retired features editor for the Miami Herald and a Vietnam veteran with PTSD who served in the Iron Triangle and War Zone C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.