STORY // Tinh N.



By: Jimmy Patel-Nguyen

I have been fortunate in my adult life to have had meaningful conversations with my parents. They are my role models and are the inspiration for the REFUGENE project.

Bố (my dad) had a heart attack several years ago, and it was my wake-up call to take more opportunities to know him better. Since then, I have recorded important conversations with my folks to preserve influential experiences in their lives.

The stories below are a transcription from a conversation I had with bố over lunch at his home. He has been a soldier, a refugee, a father, and a man of strong faith among many other things. Enjoy!

[Edited for grammar and brevity]

“In my life, I think my assignments were guided by the Holy Spirit.”

// Changing environments

I was born in a poor family. My family lived in the North. And then, after the treaty in 1954, my parents left North Vietnam with our family to start a new life in South Vietnam. Almost the same as when I left the country and then went to the United States in 1975.

Had I ever thought that one day, I would live in the United States? No. But it happened in my life.

When I was a student, had I ever thought that I would be drafted in the army, and become an officer, to be a fighter, and then be responsible for forty men in the battlefield? No. No way.

But when I grew up, and then I got into the army, I entered an environment that I didn’t plan to be in.

People have a tendency when they get into new environments—if it’s good then you're happy, but if it’s not good then you get angry. You deny it. You complain. But that is a critical point, whether you hear the voice or not. God gave you the opportunity to recognize your mission.

Your mission is to change your environment. To be happy in that environment for yourself and then to help others. It’s true in my case.

// Life as a fighter

As soldiers, our ideal was to protect the country—the southern part of Vietnam. As an officer, my mission was to be responsible for the group—their lives.

I could order one group to go first and attack on one side, but my directions could push them nearer to death. I felt my assignment was too big for me to do. I thought, “I cannot handle that.”

I mean, how can you know that the bullet is going to avoid you? You don’t know. How do you know the airplane doesn’t drop bombs on the wrong side? It happens. You don’t know.

One time, we had a mission to clear a path to deliver supplies to a village. We got ambushed. People died. Then at night, the survivors called air support to protect themselves. I happened to observe that the bombs were dropped on the soldiers killed earlier that day. I remember thinking, “those men...they died twice.” And then I wondered, “why are people killing each other?”

I think God wanted me to be there. He wanted me to be a witness.

// New assignment. Same relationship.

They say 130,000 refugees left the country in 1975, and somehow, I was among them. Why was I among them?

I thought there was no way to get out. And then suddenly I got into a refugee camp, met your mom, and later on we married. So that was the new assignment in my life. Be a husband. A father. A worker.

Different environment. Different assignment, but same relationship with God.

It took me a long time to realize that. 

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Do you have an experience you would like to contribute? We would be honored to hear it—send your stories to stories@refugene.com.