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Why We Serve

  • Published
  • By Maj. Thutam Elliott
  • 6th Logistics Readiness Squadron
In 2006, I had the privilege of speaking at a traveling Vietnam Wall event. I was honored to pay respect to all our veterans, especially our Vietnam veterans. I myself am Vietnamese, so as you can imagine, this was very personal to me. If it weren't for those brave soldiers who fought in a war half a world away, I would not be here today. If it weren't for their sacrifices, my family and I would not have had the incredible opportunities we've had. 

The following is a condensed version of the story I told a couple of years ago. It's a personal story about my family. Hopefully it doesn't sound self-indulgent. I don't share this story with many people. But today, I share it with you in hopes that my family's story will remind you what it means to sacrifice and what it is like to work and fight for what you really care about. 

I was born in Vietnam during the midst of the war. Two of my older brothers were also born during the war. I'm the youngest of seven kids. My father was in the Vietnamese Air Force, and my mom was a homemaker. When I tell people of my past, this is usually where I end my story. But today, I'll tell you that my father was the wing commander at Bien Hoa Air Base. I'm extremely proud of that fact, but on a fateful day in April 1975, my father was not very proud. You see, one of his men was a traitor. This traitor dropped the bomb from his F-5 aircraft on the Presidential Palace in Saigon. The bombing of the palace catapulted a series of events that quickly sent America rushing out of Vietnam. With the impending Communist take-over, we knew our lives were in danger. I'm not talking about the kind of danger that comes from an oppressive Communist regime. I'm talking about the kind of danger that gets your family killed because your father was a leader in the South Vietnamese Air Force. Before too long, my family and I found ourselves on a plane leaving Vietnam. However, my father had to stay behind to take care of business. 

So there we were: my mom alone with her seven children-- ranging from 15 years old down to 2 years old--leaving our country on an American C-130 going to God-only-knows where. We ended up in Guam where my father met up with us then eventually to a refugee camp at Eglin AFB. My family was one of the lucky ones. We didn't have to fight for standing-room only on a helicopter or brave the oceans as boat people. When we got to America, we were sponsored by a generous U.S. Air Force colonel and his family. Old family pictures show faces with lots of smiles, but I remember something very different. I remember my mom being very depressed. She was only 37 years old with no family except her seven children in a foreign country and didn't speak a lick of English. Our sponsor helped us get our own place--a one bedroom trailer--and our own transportation--a big gray Oldsmobile. After six months in Fort Walton Beach, our family of nine piled into our Oldsmobile and drove to Arizona where we settled near Williams AFB. 

In the years following our immigration, my father did what it took to support his family. I can never forget the fact that he went from being a wing commander to jobless. As you can imagine, it wasn't easy to find a job in America. After all, what did he have to offer?He was a military officer from a country that just lost a war. We in the military know how hard it can be to translate military skills into a civilian resume. And throw in a foreign country and it is nearly impossible. But nothing is impossible in America, and my father was never too proud to take a job. He used to mow lawns in the grueling Arizona heat, and he even once took a job as a janitor at Arizona State University. How many of you can see your wing or post commanders, or presidents or CEOs of your companies, losing their jobs and accepting one as a janitor? Actually, of all his jobs, that one was probably my favorite. When I was about 5 years old, I remember him taking me into the Biology department after all the students had left for the night and showing me jars with preserved brains. I thought that was the coolest thing in the whole world! 

My father passed away in 1997, and when I think about him, I remember all the sacrifices he made for us. And I think about more than just his sacrifices...I think about all the opportunities he was given in America to start over, to succeed if he wanted to. It's absolutely amazing to think about what a person can achieve in this country if he wanted to. I knew I had a lot to be thankful for. We weren't rich by any means, but I was never in need of anything. And I had incredible teachers and mentors as I was growing up. My childhood wasn't always easy but at least I had indoor plumbing which is more than I can say for my relatives in Vietnam today. For these reasons and a million others, I knew I had to give something back to my country, to serve my country...and when I say "my country," I mean the United States of America not Vietnam, for it is America that gave me everything I have and taught me everything I know. 

So this conviction led me to apply for the Air Force Academy. When I graduated from the Academy, I told myself I'd get out of the military when my career got too political. Well, I'm not sure when it happened, but it did get political. However, I was too busy to notice. When I stop and ask myself if it is time to get out of the military, I remind myself of why I joined in the first place: to give back to my country, to serve my country. There is still much to be done, and my country still needs me, so how can I walk away now? 

Before I deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, someone asked me if I was scared. I told her it doesn't matter if I'm scared. What matters is that I don't have the right to question my requirement to go. I'm not talking about the legalities of following orders or being absent without leave. I'm talking about personal convictions. Me--the 2 year old who had the opportunity to come to this beautiful country in 1975 because of American soldiers fighting for a war they didn't understand. Who am I to turn down an opportunity to do the same for another kid and her family? Yes, this is very personal for me. I, perhaps more than others, know how important it is to support the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can say I've "been there, done that," but now the shoe is on the other foot; and I plan to give back to my country what it has given to me. 

So now you know my personal story. I hope my story makes you think of your family, or maybe your neighbor's family and what sacrifices they may have endured. We all have something to be thankful for. But most importantly, I hope my story reminds you what it's like to be a proud American. Think about it every day, like there is no tomorrow. Because for some young Soldier, Airman, Sailor, or Marine, there may not be a tomorrow...but I can guarantee you they're thinking about what it means to be an American.