Originally Published: January 9, 2019 8:49 p.m.
I met Dong (American pronunciation “Dome”) in 1970. He was my Vietnamese interpreter at the 95th Evac Hospital in Da Nang, South Vietnam. His was a face imprinted with a permanent smile despite the daily challenges to cheerfulness in those war-ravaged days in Southeast Asia.
He assisted me in my early deployment days as an interpreter during interrogations of North Vietnamese prisoners until I could manage using my own training in the language.
Upon arriving in country to begin a 12-month tour way back then, I sympathized with the South Vietnamese soldiers. After a year, American servicemen would rotate home to their civilian lives, families, jobs and schooling. South Vietnamese soldiers were in uniform for the duration of a war that already had consumed much of their youth and, in large measure, promised to claim their future.
Dong and I spent time attempting to secure intelligence from prisoners of war, but also, we enjoyed leisure time talking and playing table tennis in the USO hut in the compound. The saddest part of leaving Vietnam was saying goodbye to Dong in 1971 as he faced his uncertain personal prospects and those of his country. I never expected to see him again.
Several years later, I was elated to learn that he had made it to America having escaped the Communists who filled the vacuum in South Vietnam following our pullout of U.S. forces.
To understand the danger of the enemy occupation of South Vietnam, it’s estimated that 65,000 South Vietnamese were executed by the Communist government and 1 million were sent to prison/re-education camps where as many as 165,000 more died. Of the estimated 1.5 million Vietnamese who fled the Communists, 50,000 to 200,000 died by drowning in boats not equipped for ocean faring or at the hands of pirates.
Once in this country, Dong and his wife raised two sons and became the all-American family. When we visited, he’d proudly show me photo albums of vacations to Yosemite, Yellowstone and many other of our/his national parks. He loved being an American and raising his sons as such.
But this column is not a eulogy of Dong. I’m sure that tribute was well-delivered at his funeral. These few words are meant to celebrate the man I knew him to be and to express my own sorrow at his passing.
His life was very different from most of ours as native-born Americans. We may face financial, domestic or health concerns from time to time, but few of us have fought to survive a murderous regime or to overcome a 9,000-mile, obstacle-laden odyssey half-way around the world. Few of us have had to succeed in an alien society and to combat prejudices that inevitably infect the cultural contract. Few of us have had to learn English as a second language well enough not just to endure but to thrive. These are not the accomplishments of an average man. An average man would never have reached our shores. I would make the same judgements of Yen, his wife. These are the types of citizens that America needs and cries out for.
Dong was my age, having been born only a few months later than I was. What cosmic imbalance gave me a free country from birth and a longer life with which to enjoy it? He deserved the same blessings.
Into whatever years I have left, I will carry Dong’s memory with me. I was so lucky to have met him.
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