U.S. Army Maj. Lan T. Dalat, Force Design Analyst for Force Design Division of ARCIC shares his story with us in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
It is not too often that an Army soldier and the former Top Gun commander of the Navy share a common bond in history. But in an event in Garden Grove, Calif., I finally got to thank the Naval officers and crew members who saved my life nearly 31 years ago on the other side of the world.
On April 21, 2012 Vice Adm. (Retired) Adam M. Robinson, Jr. addressed a crowd of nearly 2,000 people inside Crystal Cathedral at the beginning of a ceremony that highlighted the achievements of the “Lucky Few” during Operation Frequent Wind.
Robinson brought to light the efforts of U.S. Navy sailors aboard the USS Kirk, a destroyer with a mission to escort air craft carrier. It took on a new role April 30, 1975, when the Kirk and its crew took on the mission to rescue more than 30,000 Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea.
Along with Robinson were other former commanding officers of the USS Kirk and the USS Ranger, who shared stories of their efforts in rescuing refugees. Retired Navy Capt. Dan A. Pedersen, who commanded the USS Ranger CV-61 “Top Gun,” spoke about rescuing these starved and dehydrated people floating in a barely seaworthy 35-foot wooden boat.
During his speech, he asked a woman in the audience to stand up for recognition. That woman was my mother, Ton Nu Cam Quy, who took extreme risk when she put all of her four children into that wooden boat, seeking freedom outside of Vietnam.
“Cam Quy went on raised four wonderful children and turned them into active contributing members of the United States,” Capt. Pedersen said. “They all graduated from college and now one of them is serving in the military.”
Pedersen then called for me to stand up in the audience. As I stood there, I thought about how a decision that was made some 31 years ago on the South China Sea had made such a profound impact in my life today.
When I was a young boy growing up in Orange County, I forgot about my status as a refugee. I was busy training with the cross country team to earn a varsity letter and working after school to help my struggling mother with the bills.
One day, I went to a surplus store to look for cheap camping equipment, I discovered a navy blue baseball cap with the bold print USS Ranger CV-61 along with a silhouette of the ship. Immediately, I was fascinated by that discovery and began my effort to find members of this ship to thank them for saving my life. (My search was short, since the ship was decommissioned.)
Then, I thought to myself, “What would I say when I actually find the member of that ship?”
That brainstorming session led me to a decision of joining the military after my high school graduation. I enlisted in the Army Reserve.
As a reservist, I had to find a full-time job to support myself and to help my family. I attended a junior college at night and worked full time during the day. I did this for several years until I was “let go” from my civilian job for deploying with the Army Reserve on a long training mission in Korea. Returning home without a job, I decided to focus on my education and applied for the Army ROTC program at California State University, Fullerton.
With the support of my cousin, Becky Nguyen, I attended the university full time. I was desperate to find someone from the USS Ranger to thank. Fortunately for me, the Internet allowed me to expand my search worldwide. Within weeks of moving my quest online, the U.S. Navy responded.
Prior to my graduation from college, I was reunited with Pedersen, who commanded the ship that rescued my family. My effort paid off. I had the opportunity to thank the skipper in person for saving my life and the lives of so many boat people on that hot day of March 20, 1981 from the deadly South China Sea.
In 1997, I graduated with a bachelor degree and earned a commission in the Army.
Today, we met again in a place where thousands of Vietnamese Americans (who had once been refugees, “the boat people”) had come to share their success stories and thanking the Navy and the United States of America for the freedom and the opportunity to live the American Dream.