By Hayat Norimine
The Daily News
LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) — In 1975, American troops pulled out of Vietnam after 60,000 troops were killed and 300,000 injured. The South Vietnamese Army lost the war shortly afterward.
South Vietnamese Army officer Quynh Dang left his home country on a boat to Thailand in 1979. He never returned, reported The Daily News.
But the bond between him and his army comrades remains strong. Recently, the Dallas resident was among a group of South Vietnamese officers from the class of April 1972 who traveled to Longview for a reunion.
It was a well-educated class of 1,000 South Vietnamese college students, who were pulled out of school in their early 20s to fight “a hopeless war,” said Thuy Vo, who organized the gathering. Vo, a Longview businessman and former city councilman, has hosted previous reunions at his home. This year, about 30 people attended from all over the world.
Vo said they spent their prime years fighting in a war that was impossible to win. They were kids forced to fight without adequate weapons or supplies, he said.
Vo left school and trained in the Air Force. But by the time he completed his training, the war was over. As many as 440,000 South Vietnamese military personnel were killed.
“We still feel very bitter about it. … We feel cheated out of our youth,” Vo said. “We were so, so young. We’re naive. We think we can make a difference. There was no hope for us.”
Vo said that experience was stronger than a blood bond between the officers. The reunion, Vo said, was a chance for the men to relive their youth. When they’re together, they spend their nights drinking and talking until they get tired. Anh Nguyen, Thuy Vo’s wife, said the reunion is like a kids’ sleepover.
“We really share the pain, and we really enjoy the time we have with each other,” Vo said.
Vo said he was one of the lucky ones.
Dang and Pierre Sinh Nguyen, who flew into Longview from Canada, spent years in a “re-education” camp — in other words, a concentration camp — where the North Vietnamese starved and brainwashed South Vietnamese people after the Fall of Saigon.
After the war, Dang walked 700 miles across Vietnam to the capital to escape from victorious Communist forces.
Shortly afterward, though, he was captured and sent to the camp.
Dang was 145 pounds when he entered the camp. When he was released four years later, the 5-foot-7 former 2nd lieutenant was 88 pounds. He can still remember the Communist songs the camp blasted from speakers.
“Of course you don’t believe it, but you still remember,” Dang said. “That’s what scares you.”
Dang traveled by boat to Thailand upon his release and lived in a refugee camp for a few months. Eventually he made it to Pensacola, Fla., where he wanted to pursue an education.
More than 40 years later, Vo reconnected with members of his officers class through social media. Quanmong Le flew to Longview from Paris.
But as they meet every year, he said their lives continue to change. The 64-year-olds don’t drink as much as they used to just a few years ago.
“Now we’re tired,” Vo said. “We cherish the moments we have. We become old men.”
“We’re not old yet,” Dang chimed back.
Vo and Nguyen have both returned to Vietnam a few times, though they feel out of place when they visit. Vo said even the language is different, with the dialect specific to North Vietnamese people.
“I probably think more like an American now,” Vo said. “I miss my friends, I miss my people, but I just don’t like the government. To be over there … it’s a different country.”
Dang, who now lives in Dallas, said he hasn’t been back to his native land since his escape in 1979. And he never intends to.
“There’s nothing for me.”