By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It took more than 50 years for the Seattle Vietnamese community to heal after the Vietnam War. Now, the younger generation has discovered one thing the community has not done so far — acknowledge the sacrifices of these veterans, including many of their loved ones.
To tie in with Thanksgiving and Veterans Day, a group called Vietnamese American Community of Seattle & Sno-King Counties (VACSSKC), will hold the first appreciation dinner to honor Vietnam War veterans — both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese, on Nov. 18 at the Tea Palace Restaurant in Renton.
The younger Vietnamese Americans have heard countless stories about Vietnam War veterans being mistreated — including people spitting or throwing rocks at them.
Unlike other veterans who receive a warm welcome home or “thank-yous” in numerous ceremonies and dinners, and benefit programs for healing, Vietnam War vets got nothing when they came home. Many veterans kept quiet and were ashamed to admit they fought in an unwanted war.
In 2013, more than 57 percent of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a mistake, according to the Washington Post. Nick Rock, a Vietnam War vet who lives in Washington state, said he thought his service in Vietnam was not appreciated. He has changed his thinking with age.
Dale Kaku, vice commander of Nisei Vets, said some veterans didn’t want to reveal who they were at first, but many have decided to do so now. He also noticed that many homeless folks are Vietnam War vets.
Quy Quang Phi, a military pilot for 9 years, said he “felt very bad” for losing the war. He also was locked in prison for more than three years. Now at 71, he said he doesn’t volunteer the information that he’s a veteran. “It’s not necessary to tell people that you were defeated.”
During his imprisonment, Phi said he witnessed many friends who committed suicide. “The living conditions were terrible. We were badly treated. It cut our spirit. Our friends couldn’t walk because we didn’t have food.” To survive, Phi stayed on this back, lying down, to conserve energy and plotted his escape.
To him, escaping was easier than committing suicide. After his escape, he came to America in 1981. Phi’s story is typical among Vietnamese male refugees.
Why so many Vietnamese men in the military
Unknown to most, more than 80 percent of Vietnamese males in the community, are Vietnam War veterans, said Tien Ha, whose father is a vet and a member of VACSSKC.
VACSSKC President Tung Tran agreed with the statistics. Tran’s father is also a vet.
Both Tran and Ha’s fathers were imprisoned during the war.
Tran said at the time, all the men were drafted in Vietnam to fight the war. After the war, all those in the military and worked for the South Vietnamese government such as teachers, doctors and others, were arrested and jailed. The majority of the first wave of Vietnamese refugees (the boat people) were from military families. To this day, many Vietnam War vets carry scars of the war.
Tran and his family escaped as boat refugees to come to America. He realized the sacrifices the older Vietnamese men made. “They were older when they came to America, so they could get only low paying jobs. The children suffered too because their dads were in the military for many years and then in prison. They were raised without a father.”
Ha’s father, Chu, who fought in Vietnam and was imprisoned for seven years, said his dad had PTSD.
Tran and Ha represent the thinking of the younger Vietnamese generation who aim at shifting from condemnation and bitterness towards the war, to a sense of awakening — to heal and give back.
“More than 58,000 Americans died in the war,” said Tran. “They came to Vietnam when they were young men. We Vietnamese Americans, appreciate the veterans, and want to thank the American veterans and our country.”
“The Vietnam War vets have not gotten the proper respect and recognition they deserve,” said Ha. “They fought for freedom and democracy. We wouldn’t be here (in America) without the veterans. Even though we didn’t win the war, it is because they fought for these values (of democracy and freedom), that we survive. They shaped our lives.” Ha said he felt fortunate that he and his family got the chance to come to America because the veterans who fought for Vietnam.
When asked if Ha had ever thanked his own father, he hesitated. “I never realized that my own dad who fought in the war, gave up everything to come here.” The dinner will serve as a reminder for many younger Vietnamese Americans that it is important to show appreciation to their own fathers.
Tran said he shows his appreciation to his dad’s sacrifice through his way of life — having a successful career and family. “I think I am more proud of my dad than just saying a thank you.”
Phi plans to attend the dinner and would like to see “his friends and comrades.”
“I hope it will be a big reunion,” said Phi. “A thank you is not needed. It’s my duty (to fight the war.) Everything is over now.” On Nov. 18, it’s not just a dinner. There will be many thank-yous, hugs and heart-warming stories to share.
KING 5 anchor Mark Wright, president of the Seattle Rotary Club, thanked veterans on Nov. 8 at the Seattle Westin Hotel, “We civilians will never truly know what you (veterans) experienced… We will never know what it’s like to deal with aftermath of combat and service. Thank you for wanting to serve…for risking your lives and safety and wellbeing…to ensure the freedoms we all enjoy. Without you, there is no America. There is no freedom.”
Veterans are welcome to bring their friends and family members. The dinner will be complimentary for Vietnam War veterans.
For veterans who have stories or photos to share, send them in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org. The organizers also encourage veterans to wear uniforms.
Each ticket costs $35 including a six-course Chinese dinner. For reservations, email email@example.com with the number of veterans and non-veterans in your group.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.