From Buddhist to Warrior Fighting for Family
By Dalton J. Narine (decorated Vietnam veteran)
A heartrending story so painful you cannot bring yourself to put it down!
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. 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 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,’” his brother 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. In due course, they became parents of four boys.
Nam, a Gung ho commander of a Special Forces unit, fought the Viet Cong every day. He made major within 10 years.
One night in 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.
The onslaught didn’t phase Nam. he was among a group of officers selected for advanced training with the U.S. Army Special Forces.
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.
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 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,” His son, Hoang says.
That Nam found himself among the thousands of South Vietnamese officials and officers whom the NVA (North Vietnam Army) rounded up and shoveled through re-education camps was no secret. Nam was a thorn in the NVA’s side, considering that he worked with American advisers.
“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 the legacy of Nam Van Nguyen solely 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. We all have at least a Bachelor’s degree.”