Embodying the American Spirit, honoring Asian Heritage

  • Published
  • By Randall Couch
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

It was April 28, 1975, and Saigon was about to fall to North Vietnamese forces, ending the Vietnam war. Tam Do Nguyen, a South Vietnamese naval officer, was fighting alongside the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet for three years when life as he knew it ceased to exist.   

With troops starting to lose hope at the impending fall of South Vietnam, the U.S. Navy offered him refuge in a ship to America.   

“The U.S. Navy gave Tam Do a difficult decision to make,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Tom Nguyen, 660th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintenance expediter and nephew of Tam Do. “Either stay in Vietnam with his family or get on a ship and go to America. Even though it would mean leaving the only country he had ever known and heading off into an unknowable future, my uncle got on the ship.”    

Saigon fell to communist forces two days after he left. Saving every penny he made, Tam Do settled in Corona, California, and eventually bought a house. He married, had two children and then brought 17 members of his family from Vietnam to the United States in December 1993 – Tom was one of them. Tom, a child of four years, was among the 17 individuals.  

Tam Do’s family focused their efforts on assimilating themselves into American culture, Tom gained U.S. citizenship at 16 years old and then pursued a career in the U.S. Air Force, attributing the idea to his cousin, a former U.S. Army Ranger.   

“I joined with the idea of giving something back to the country that has become my home and allowed me the opportunity to live in a free society,” said Tom, who joined the U.S. Air Force in 2011 as an aircraft maintenance technician.   

After completing basic training and technical school, Tom received an assignment to Altus AFB, Oklahoma, where he worked on E3-Sentry and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft before an assignment to Kadena Air Base, Japan.   

There he met Sawako Hanashiro, a native of Okinawa, in the summer of 2016 while she was home on break after attending college in Shizuoka, Japan. They married, had children and were later assigned to Fairchild AFB, Washington. After pursuing different avenues in search of a career and citizenship, Sawako joined her husband and countless others in military service just two years ago.   

“I joined the Air Force because I found it difficult finding meaningful jobs as a resident alien,” said Senior Airman Sawako Nguyen, 60th Healthcare Operations Squadron gastroenterology technician.   

Sawako now serves as a gastroenterology technician at David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis AFB. Not only has she taken the Defense Foreign Language Proficiency Test and serves as a Japanese translator for multinational joint exercises like Exercise Cope North, but she recently earned Senior Airman Below-the-Zone, set to promote six months before the standard fixed promotion date.   

"I want to be a bridge to people's communication. In patient care situations, as a med tech or as a translator during an exercise, I always try to fill the gap of communication in between so that somewhat, even a little bit, I can make their experience better,” said Sawako. “Watching this wonderful planning and conversation happening in front of my eyes, because I was there to be their bridge, was the coolest thing during Cope North."     

Representing their Asian cultural heritage, the Nguyen’s continue working to better themselves through their military careers. Sawako recently applied for her U.S. citizenship and Tom applied to become a First Sergeant.   

“My passion is helping people,” said Tom. “As a maintenance expediter, I try to get to know my maintainers…get to know what motivates them and try to help them. Becoming a First Sergeant will only give me more opportunities to help others.”   

The month of May was first designated as Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, commemorating the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the U.S., May 7, 1843, and to observe the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, with a majority of the workers being of Chinese descent, on May 19, 1869.   

"To me, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month signifies transcending stereotypes and realizing the potential for immigrants to surpass societal expectations,” said Tom. “Born in Vietnam and raised in America in the 90's, I witnessed firsthand the impacts of cultural resiliency and the acceptance of change, not only by enriching communities with our own traditions and cuisines but also by fostering and appreciating American culture. Honestly, after a long day of off-roading and fly fishing, who wouldn't savor a comforting bowl of Pho?" 

This month gives an opportunity to celebrate the many diverse cultures of Asians and Pacific Islanders like the Nguyen family and shine a light on their contributions to both their heritage and their country.