Vietnamese-American Army Reserve Soldiers reflect on Vietnam War, serving America in uniform

By Story by Staff Sgt. Neil W. McCabe | Army Reserve Medical Command | April 28, 2015

April 28, 2015 — TAMPA, Fla. - For Asian-American and Pacific-Islander Heritage Month, three Vietnamese-American Army Reserve Soldiers serving with the Army Reserve Medical Command spoke about the journey they and their families took to America and how they think about the Vietnam War.

Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, three Vietnamese-Americans serving in the Army Reserve Medical Command reflected on their heritage, the journey they and their families made to America and their decision to become Citizen-Soldiers here.

Three Solders, Lt. Col. Tam Nguyen, a head and neck surgeon, or otolaryngologist, assigned to the 4005th U.S. Army Hospital, Lubbock, Texas; Capt. Phan K. “Kim” Helgemoe, an Army nurse and former commander of the command's Pinellas Park, Florida, Headquarters and Headquarters Company and Sgt. Diane N. Nguyen, a pharmacy technician, assigned to the command's headquarters company staff each bring a different perspective.

No war has brought more trauma to the American psyche that our military operations in Vietnam, a chapter that closed April 30, 1975 with the fall of Saigon, South Vietnam's capital to North Vietnamese forces. The reunification of Vietnam under the North's Communist regime drove hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees out of the country and eventually they came to the United States.

Joseph Galloway, the co-author of We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, the chronicle of the 1st Cavalry Division's introduction of helicopters to move infantry, Air Cav warfare, in the Ia Valley, said he is happy to see how the Vietnamese have contributed to America and have been welcomed by Americans.

“The Vietnamese who came to our country as refugees after 1975 were truly some of the finest additions in over a century,” he said. 

“I have many friends in the Vietnamese-American community and I am truly proud of their many achievements and successes,” said the author and war correspondent. “Their children have made their mark in America's colleges and universities and in our military academies as well.”

Sgt. Diane N. Nguyen

Nguyen, assigned to the Army Reserve Medical Command's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Pinellas Park, Florida, said because she was born in America and has been raised as an American, she feels a distance to the Vietnam War and Vietnam. 

"I don't have much feeling over the Vietnam War, and there aren't very many stories about it," she said."There's not much that I know about my history, but what I do know has been repeated to me throughout my entire life!"

She said she joined the Army Reserve herself in 2010. "I wanted to serve my country and this was the best way to do it."

The sergeant said her father and his family fought for South Vietnam and they consider Saigon, the former capital of the South, now called Ho Chi Minh City, their home. "My father came here after the war with his friends, with whom he is still close. My father met my mother in China, and brought her back to America." Her grandfather was a manager at a bug spray factory.

“We don't talk about the past too much," she said. "I don't blame them; they came to America to make a better life for themselves."

Capt. Phan K. “Kim” Helgemoe

Helgemoe said she was born in Saigon in 1972.

“I am very proud to wear the Army uniform. I do feel despite all the bad press, Americans in Vietnam did have a positive impact--plus the fact I wouldn't have been born if the conflict had not occurred,” she said. “I am especially proud to be an American Nurse.”

“I left Vietnam as a child. I was a little over one year old,” said the captain, who was assigned to the Army Reserve Medical Command's Surgeon Section before her transfer to the 108th Training Command, Charlotte, North Carolina. “The experience was not harrowing or stressful to me in any way.” 

Helgemoe, who was the HHC commander before her transfer, said although she has no memories of the war, it was devastating to her mother's family

“My parents met during the Vietnam war,” the captain said. “My mother worked as a secretary in the JAG office where my dad worked. My dad left the Army and then went back to Vietnam to marry my mother.” JAG is the common Army shorthand for its legal offices, or Judge Advocate General.

“My grandfather was assassinated by the North Vietnamese while my mother was a child. As a result, my mother and aunt spent time in an orphanage while my grandmother tried to earn enough to bring them back home,” she said.

“My family lost a lot of the Vietnamese culture. My mother was acclimating to the US culture and we were never around many other Vietnamese families. I wish I could have learned more.”

Lt. Col. Tam Nguyen

Born in 1962 Saigon, Lt. Col. Tam Nguyen said he has vivid memories of two critical events in the Vietnam War, the 1968 Tet Offensive and the 1975 fall of his city and country.

The Tet Offensive was a surprise campaign by North Vietnamese conventional and guerrilla forces during the traditional truce practiced by both sides of the war for the Chinese New Year. As the South Vietnamese relaxed for the two-week season, the Viet Cong kicked off hundreds of simultaneous attacks throughout the South. 

Even after South Vietnamese and American forces inflicted massive casualties on the North Vietnamese and drove them back to their pre-Tet lines, they never shook off the shock of Tet, making it the war's emotional pivot.

The most significant attacks were in Saigon, specifically the attack on the American Embassy, which was near the colonel’s house, as was an American combat support hospital. His father was an South Vietnamese Army doctor.

“I remember that the fighting is fierce. I've seen injured American soldiers, because they're right next to where I live,” he said. “We see a lot of traffic, a lot of ambulance,” he said. “The fighting is pretty intense; I heard guns going off constantly for a couple days.”

The colonel was 13-years-old when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into his neighborhood the day South Vietnam fell. As military resistance to the North Vietnamese Army collapsed, the boy went to his father's hospital to see what was going on.

“On the day before the fall of Saigon, which is, I remember vividly, is April the 29th,” he said. “I saw a- company-size group of the paratroopers--Republic of Vietnam paratroopers. They came into the hospital to get some weapons, to set up before they go out--these were young men, very brave.”

Before the soldiers left the hospital, the surgeon said he listened to their captain's speech to his men. 

“I say that you have two choices. Right now, we don't have a leader. We don't have a commander. I am the commander by rank, because I'm the highest rank that's still not running yet." 

The paratrooper captain offered to these troops the choice, the doctor said.

“We're surrounded by three divisions of NVA. The fact is, pretty much, at this point, futile. You have the option, you can change to- get rid of your uniform and your weapons and returning to your family or you're with me. I cannot guarantee of your safety or anything. I cannot guarantee that we can survive this.” 

None of the paratrooper took off their uniforms.

Nguyen said at around one or two o'clock in the morning all the paratroopers left into the dark night. “They went out to the intersection and then turned west—that's where the column of NVA tanks was coming into the city.”

The next day, after it was announced that South Vietnam surrendered, the colonel said he watched the evacuation of the American embassy on television. Because the airport was shut down April 28, 1975, Nguyen said the helicopters ferrying Americans and South Vietnamese to the Navy ships standing off the coast were the only way out.

For five years, his mother tried to get her son out of the country, he said. Because his father was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, he was arrested and died in a labor camp. 

Finally, Nguyen escaped Vietnam with a group of 10 others with forged documents wearing the uniform of a North Vietnamese Army lieutenant. Once in Cambodia, he found a refugee camp and eventually made it to the United States and went to college and medical school on scholarships.

Already a medical school graduate, the colonel joined the Michigan National Guard in 1997, and then two years later transferred to the Army Reserve because he felt it offered a better opportunity to work with active-duty doctors and participate in mobilizations. 
April 10 he left for a humanitarian mission in Chad with other Army Reserve Medical Command Soldiers.

Helgemoe said she is optimistic because the new generations have distance from the war.

“I think the future of Vietnamese, American relationship is hopeful. The country is beginning to open its doors to tourism. It is a young country since many of the elders were killed in the war,” she said. “The young population is more accepting of Americans and seems more amenable to starting a good relationship between the two countries.

In the years after the Vietnam War, millions of Vietnam-Americans have become woven into the fabric of America. For many, that fabric is the digitized pattern of the Army Combat Uniform.

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