Vietnam War refugee, career guardsman honors Texas, America
Story by: 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain
Air Force Lt. Col. Don Nguyen, assistant director of operations for the 273rd Information Operations Squadron (IOS), Texas Air National Guard, with his parents, Phuoc and Mai Nguyen, during his retirement ceremony in San Antonio, Nov. 23, 2014. Nguyen retired after 27 years of military service, including time with the Texas Army and Air National Guards. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Eric L. Wilson / Released)
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – LACKLAND, Texas – A career guardsmen was surrounded by friends and family as he capped off a 27-year military career by paying tribute to Texas and the United States, his adopted home, during a retirement ceremony here, Nov. 23, 2014.
Air Force Lt. Col. Don Nguyen, assistant director of operations for the 273rd Information Operations Squadron (IOS), Texas Air National Guard, retired from military service after lifting himself up from unlikely circumstances – a child refugee of the Vietnam War.
In the late 1970s, Nguyen’s family took to the high seas to escape Vietnam’s Communist regime, which took control of that nation in 1975.
“Our family and other families barely survived the five days lost at sea as ‘boat people refugees,’” Nguyen said. “We experienced starvation, dehydration, turbulent weather, life and death situations, and (were) without fuel – drifting until rescued by Malaysia’s international humanitarian effort.”
Following the ordeal, Nguyen’s family was initially sheltered in Malaysia, he said, and was then sponsored to come to the United States.
“I truly understand the genuine meaning of receiving freedom and the opportunity that our magnificent nation has provided to me, my family and many others,” Nguyen said. “I want to remind other Americans that you should do your very best with the freedom, opportunity, and always remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedom.”
“I was just 10 years old when we immigrated to America, in November 1979,” Nguyen said. “I grew up in Houston, Texas, and quickly learned the English language, and how to become a Texan and an American.”
Army Col. Suzanne D. Adkinson, commander of the Texas Military Forces Joint Counterdrug Task Force, presided over the ceremony. In addition to his traditional, part-time role with the 273rd IOS, Nguyen was assigned to the Joint Counterdrug Task Force, at a location in El Paso.
“’Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,’” Adkinson said, quoting the poem placed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. “’Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift up my lamp beside the golden door!’”
“You guys wanted to breath free,” she said, “and here you are.”
In 1987, Nguyen enlisted in the U.S. Army, and later served as a signal officer in the Texas Army National Guard before transferring to the Texas Air National Guard in 2002, when he became a U.S. Air Force cyber-communications officer.
“During my service with the U.S. Army,” Nguyen said, “I was naturalized and received my U.S. citizenship.”
Throughout his life and military career, Nguyen has sought ways to give back. This included making the most of his military service and volunteering with youth programs in his community.
He also volunteered and deployed in support of numerous state and federal missions.
During the ceremony, Nguyen was presented with the Meritorious Service Medal, and the accompanying state award, the Texas Outstanding Service Medal.
Nguyen’s service includes participation in state preparedness and response efforts related to Hurricanes Rita, Dean, Gustav, Dolly and Ike, which impacted Texas during the late 2000s, according to the medal citation. He led support teams for planning and engineering with the 254th Combat Communications Group, based in Grand Prairie, in north Texas, and deployed “six emergency command and control communications and supply distribution points” during the state’s response to the hurricanes.
He also supported the state’s Operation Lone Star (OLS) on three occasions, by “providing communications infrastructure support.” OLS is an interagency, state mission, led by the Texas Department of State Health Services, and has provided annual humanitarian medical and dental services in the Rio Grande Valley since 1999.
Additionally, Nguyen answered his nation’s call and deployed numerous times in support of federal combat operations abroad, including the Gulf War, in 1991, and twice for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
During his OIF deployments, Nguyen served as an operations flight commander leading more than 100 people, according to the medal citation. He provided “expeditionary combat communications and air traffic control landing systems support to U.S. Central Command while subject to over 100 indirect fire attacks.”
Nguyen tied his success to leaving his home of birth and immigrating to America.
“It wouldn’t have happened if I never left Vietnam – I thank my parents,” Nguyen said. “I do whatever I can to serve the state of Texas and the United States of America.”
Adkinson expressed appreciation for Nguyen’s service to the Texas Army and Air National Guards.
“What a true patriot,” Adkinson said. “It’s absolutely amazing to me.”
The 273rd IOS is a geographically separated unit of the 149th Fighter Wing, Texas Air National Guard, which is headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland, Texas.
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