When the U.S. withdrew from the Vietnam War, my parents and I were forced to flee
BY THY YANG
NORWICH RECORD | Spring 2022
This summer, when the initial videos and photos of American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan began to emerge in our collective newsfeeds, my own social media accounts were inundated. They were full of side-by-side photo comparisons of Kabul in 2021 and Saigon in 1975. Who couldn’t be moved by the image of an Afghan father handing his infant son to a U.S. soldier over a barbwire fence outside Kabul’s airport? Looking at the pictures of the chaos and reading the stories of people desperately trying to leave, I recall telling myself, “That baby is me.”
I was still an infant when my family fled Southeast Asia for the United States, four years after the Americans withdrew from the Vietnam War. By all accounts, we were the fortunate ones. My father had direct ties to the U.S. military, having served alongside American personnel, so we were spared protracted years in refugee camps awaiting processing to enter the United States. I didn’t have a seat on the plane bound for this country; my mother had to hold me in her arms. She tells me I cried and cried, and she was so worried about me.
Forty-plus years later my family’s story and their relationship with the military still shapes the person that I am today. My father could not have been prouder when I told him that I had taken a job at Norwich. Arriving as immigrants with limited English and no marketable skills, my parents had to start all over landing in Florida, moving shortly to Texas, and eventually settling in Kansas, where they spent the remainder of their adult lives working low-wage jobs. They didn’t have many friends outside of our Hmong community due to language and cultural barriers. To the larger community, they often felt invisible. But when my father came across veterans, none of that mattered. My father felt seen, and he felt at home. My father passed away in 2018. But before he did, he spent nearly 20 years working to get formal recognition for the Hmong who fought so valiantly in the Vietnam War on behalf of the United States. Collectively, my father and his war buddies were able to get a Hmong and Lao memorial built at Arlington National Cemetery, ensure the passage of the Hmong Veteran’s Service Recognition Act, and the awarding of many commendations and citations to his fellow servicemen. My father received a Purple Heart.
Many Norwich students today are the grandchildren of Vietnam vets or of refugees from other wars in other parts of the world. Unlike their parents, who were so focused on survival and fitting in, these young people are the embodiment of the third-generation principle: they have the luxury of being curious about their grandparents’ plight and upbringing. Among this group, there is a growing interest in serving in the military and also a desire to learn more about conflicts and wars which occurred in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
Because of my unique up-bringing, when I survey the make-up of our student body at Norwich, I can’t help but think about the various wars and conflicts that our students are inextricably linked to — the Vietnam War, the Second Sudanese Civil War, the Bosnian War, and, now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, among others. Because of my unique upbringing, I can’t help but wonder what we can do to help our students better understand the conflicts and wars their parents and grandparents went through. I wish to capture their stories of how they landed at Norwich and what more can be done to support those students who are the children of war refugees. Do their classmates — whose own families fought in these wars — understand these connections? Surely they possess the same curiosities.
I want to contribute to how we can better support the next wave of students from Afghanistan, who are being embraced so warmly by the military community yet have so many hurdles to overcome in the larger society. All across the country, we see success stories of war refugees overcoming many obstacles and achieving the American dream. They are able to obtain college and professional degrees, own businesses, serve as elected officials, and commission in the military. We at Norwich can play a special role in bringing all of the players together to learn, to commiserate, to celebrate, and to build on our collective strengths drawing on our collective shared experiences.
Thy Yang, MBA, is the assistant vice president for international education and oversees the International Center at Norwich University.