Several hundred veterans and their friends gathered recently at Vietnam Veterans Plaza in downtown Manhattan to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Angel Almedina Chapter 126 of Vietnam Veterans of America. Among them were a former Marine major who had served in the first Gulf War and a onetime Army Spec/5 who had spent ten months in Vietnam more than half a life ago. They shared hugs and beers.
"I come from a generation of military volunteers, but we don’t have the bonding and the love you guys who served in Vietnam have," the major said later. "You guys still have it."
The major was impressed by the Vietnam veterans he had met that evening. The veterans were impressed by him, and taken with his story.
The major, Quang X. Pham, also spent time in Vietnam – ten years, as a matter of fact, from his birth until April 23, 1975, when his father put him, his mother and three sisters onto a C-130 transport as Communist forces were closing in on Saigon. A life of relative comfort in a war-torn land came to an abrupt end that night.
For Quang, the panic and the chaos of those last frenetic days in Saigon are marked indelibly in his psyche. He remembers:
"On the night of the 22nd of April my mom awoke us. My father told us, Pack now; we've got to get you out. We packed two bags for the five of us and got on one of those big Lambretta scooters. Dad drove us to the airfield at Tan Son Nhut. All the lights were off. It was humid, and quiet.
Quang with his older sister, Thi, downtown Saigon, circa 1967
"It was completely dark, and maybe a hundred of us, mostly women and children, piled into a bus at the terminal. We sat in that bus for more than an hour. It was suffocatingly hot.
I could see Dad outside talking to people. Mom went out and he handed her $50 in American money. Then the bus was moving, and I could see my father's silhouette, waving to us. A few minutes later we boarded a C-130. Six hours later we woke up at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
"We didn't see my dad again until 1992."
His father, Hoa V. Pham, a former sergeant who became a lieutenant colonel in the Vietnamese Air Force and the recipient of the National Order of Vietnam (the highest medal awarded to veterans), the Air Force Distinguished Service Order, and multiple Gallantry Crosses, did not get out: a sense of duty and familial obligation cost him the opportunity to fly to freedom.
Instead, he would spend a dozen years in "re-education" camps established by the victors for officers and government officials of the regime they had vanquished.
Lt. Pham V. Hoa, 1959, the last B25 class, Reese Air Force Base, Lubbock, TX
"My father's combat experience endured for more than a decade before he went to prison. Mine merely lasted days," Quang said. "His first mission against the Viet Cong was in 1962 while he was assigned to Fighter Squadron 2 at Da Nang. After Vietnamization, he commanded a C-123 squadron that flew critical resupply missions during the 1972 Battle of An Loc. His last assignment was to train VNAF pilots in the C-130 during the last two years of the war."
A New Life
For Quang Pham, life in a new world was fraught with challenges, not all of them welcome. After arriving at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas, his family was sponsored by an enlisted man in the Navy named Al Minton and settled in Oxnard, California, an hour north of Los Angeles. There, young Quang got picked on, in part because he was the new kid in town, in part because he was . . . different.
He persevered. He learned not to take any guff from anybody. He took up sports; basketball and baseball and soccer; and learned to play as well as or better than a lot of the kids in his neighborhood. Torment soon gave way to grudging respect to full embrace. In high school, Quang became a scholar-athlete, dated cheerleaders, and captained the basketball team. He was just another American who came from some place else.
1992 Quang reunited with his dad at MCAS Tustin after a 6-month deployment
During these years, his dream – to become a pilot, like his father – was abandoned. When he got to college – he would major in economics at UCLA – his dream was rekindled. A Marine captain named Doug Hamlin helped him to see his own possibilities. He signed up for Marine Officer Candidates School. Between his junior and senior years, he attended OCS at Quantico, Virginia. It was "the hardest thing, physically and emotionally, I had ever done," said Quang, only the second American of Vietnamese descent to go through the program. There, he encountered some bitterness on the part of some Marines, "but I think most Vietnam veterans were rooting for me."
Of 65 candidates who started with Quang in his OCS platoon, 32 made it. Quang was one of them.
"A week before we graduated," Quang said, "we went up to Washington, D.C. At the Wall, it hit me: these 58,000 guys lost their lives for South Vietnam. For me and my family. Now it was my chance to give something back to the country that gave me a chance."
Excelling in his studies, Quang took the flight school path after infantry training in Basic School. While he made the grade to fly jets, he "got helicopters, just the luck of the draw." Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he spent the next seven years on active duty, followed by eight years in the Reserves.
He saw action in the 1991 Gulf War, co-piloting a CH-46 helicopter medevac on the last day of the ground war.
Fourteen months later, in May 1992, he was about to leave aboard the USS Tarawa for a six-month deployment and joint exercises with the Kuwaiti military when he learned that his father would soon be arriving in America.
Stowing his gear aboard the ship, he headed to Los Angeles Airport for a too-brief reunion with the man who was his hero before flying to Hawaii to rejoin his mates in Pearl Harbor.
As the Tarawa sailed across the Pacific, it came within a hundred miles of Vietnam. One night, standing alone on the steel flight deck and looking out across the expanse of the empty South China Sea, Quang tried to envision all the boat people who had died, tried to imagine how they would have felt to have seen a US Navy ship – salvation! – on the horizon.
Quang and his CH-46 crew at Kuwait International Airport, Feb. 27, 1991, the last day of the first Gulf War
After his second "visit" to Kuwait, Capt. Pham was sent to Somalia for the final, abortive days of Operation Provide Relief. He then flew home, to Marine Corps Air Station Tustin in Orange County, California and a real reunion with his father.
"One of the most memorable days in my Marine career came in 1997 when my father and my mother pinned on my major’s oak leaves," Quang said. His father passed away in 2000 after a bout with lung cancer. Hundreds came to his funeral service as he was laid to rest with full military accolades. In honor of his father, Quang still keeps the triangularly folded former RVN yellow flag with three red horizontal stripes atop a shrine in his home that he shares with his wife Shannon in Mission Viejo, California.
Opting not to make the Corps a career – he had made his mark, and made his father proud – Quang went to work as a pharmaceutical salesman, first for Merck, then for Genentech. Discerning an marketing opportunity in the Internet, he started MyDrugRep.com – it’s now called Lathian Systems, Inc. – winning a $5 million startup equity investment from Hummer Winblad Venture Partners in an international business plan competition. This initial investment was soon supplemented by a $9 million second round led by the Sprout Group (Credit Suisse First Boston). Lathian is now a leading provider of technology-based sales solutions for pharmaceutical and biotech companies. After serving as chairman and CEO of this venture for two years, Quang is now executive vice president for business development.
To his business ventures he brought three lessons imbued in him by the ethos of the Corps: Keep a cool head in hot situations, even if it means swallowing your pride. Always have a way out, a backup plan; never put all your eggs in a single basket. And always lead by example.
He has become a role model for other young Vietnamese-Americans, and a bridge between two communities: the world of a successful veteran, an entrepreneur at ease in board rooms of corporate giants; and the world of ex-patriot Vietnamese in sprawling Orange County, California, career military men who had commanded others yet who had become anonymous immigrants trying to survive.
He has become a prolific writer, penning Op-Ed pieces about the experiences of Vietnamese-Americans, about the legacy of the war that tore them from their homeland, about his years in the Corps, for the Wall Street Journal, the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times. He is writing a memoir about family, duty, and the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. A gifted public speaker, he tells his story of duty and assimilation at gatherings of civic groups and veterans organizations. He recently helped with the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial in Westminster, California: two 11-foot bronze statues of an American G.I. and an ARVN soldier standing side by side as allies during the war.
For Vietnam veterans, Quang holds a special place. Which was one of the reasons he attended the celebration in lower Manhattan. "You guys fought for our freedom. How you guys got treated when the tide of public opinion turned against the war was wrong, yet you still joined and served under very stressful conditions. You earned my respect."
As Quang X. Pham has earned ours.