Reunion of Vietnamese Women Veterans
By Jackie Bong-Wright
“Oh, Phi Phan, I am so happy to see again after such a long time,” exclaimed Kim Nuong, a former Vietnamese veteran who had driven in from Pennsylvania. Phi Phan, a former paratroop officer from San Jose, was happy to see her friend and so many other familiar faces. They were among the sixty women who gathered at a luncheon in Falls Church, Virginia, for the third reunion of Vietnamese women in military service. Some came from as far away as Australia, France and Denmark. The first reunion took place in San Jose in 1998, and the second in Orange County in 2001.
Phi Phan, a short-haired, handsome woman in her late fifties, wore an elegant fatigue uniform with a red beret on her shoulder. She was in charge of a group of thirty of her colleagues who had come from different parts of the world. Known for her parachuting prowess (45 jumps at shows and parades in Vietnam in the late 1960s), she had retired after six years in the army. She became a journalist, and often accompanied Vietnamese male paratroopers to the battlefield to write her war reports.
Strong Ties Between American and Vietnamese Service Women
The dean of these veterans, Dam Trang, 86, from Arizona, had on her “once upon a time” light blue uniform. She recounted her time in the military in Vietnam. “When war comes to your home, women have to stand up and fight!” she said. And they did in many ways. She herself enlisted in the military social service section, and distributed food and medicine to wives, widows and children of soldiers for three years. She then served in the medical service division as a midwife for another ten years. Nowadays, she remains active as a board member of the Vietnamese Seniors Association in her state of Arizona, and is motivating people to register and vote in the important up-coming elections.
Dam Trang studied in the Women’s Army Corps School (WAC) where Captain Tuyet Hoa was the Commander of the Freshman Course in 1968. Established in 1965, the WAC had two sections, the first for military drilling and the second for staff work. In ten years, they trained about 900 armed forces women. Their role was to support the one million drafted men in combat zones. They were part of a multiple corps that helped take care of the families of the 250,000 military who died in the war and the 750,000 injured soldiers who were recovering in military hospitals.
Tuyet Hoa remembered her “wonderful” training in the Basic Army Course with other WAC and American women officers at Fort McCleland, Alabama. Lt. Colonel Lois Beck, an American veteran and special invitee to the reunion, recalled, “There were two platoons of 56 members. We lived in barracks together with a handful of Vietnamese officers. We ate in the mess hall and we learned to work together. We trained in military customs and courtesy, personnel, logistics, military justice, geopolitics, and leadership responsibilities. After six months, I got my on-going posting and the Vietnamese service women went back home for their new assignments.”
Beck said that some Vietnamese officers at the captain and lieutenant colonel level were sent back to Ft McCleland to take the Advanced Officer Course, as she did. They were trained in budgeting and management, public speaking, race relations, map reading, and women’s military history. After 22 years in the army, Beck retired to Alexandria, Virginia. There in 1992 she helped Captain Nguyen Thi Hoa, a classmate in the Advanced Officer Course when Hoa arrived in this country. Beck said she often wondered what had happened to her Vietnamese colleagues when Saigon fell into the hands of the Communists in 1975.
She did not know at the time that Captain Hoa had been imprisoned for being part of the Republic of Vietnam army and an ally of the U.S. Hoa suffered high blood pressure, a liver ailment, and rheumatism after almost three years of ill-treatment and under-nourishment in “re-education” camps. She was fortunate enough to migrate to Virginia in 1992, where she worked in the assembly line of a medical manufacturing company.
Hoa felt more blessed than her boss, the only Vietnamese woman to reach the rank of Colonel. Colonel Tran Cam Huong paid an even higher price for her devotion to the Vietnamese Armed Forces. She was jailed for ten years by the North Vietnamese Communists when they took over the South, and died in 1986.
Hoa was delighted to meet up at the luncheon reunion with Lt. Colonel Hanh Nhan from Orange County and the 60 other WAC alumnae. They chatted about what had happened to themselves and their families, before going to lay wreaths at the Vietnam Memorial and the American Women Armed Forces Statues in the capital city. Leading the group, Hanh Nhan said emphatically, “We would like to pay respect and show our deep gratitude to our American comrades in arms who fought valiantly to help free Vietnam from Communism. Their goal has not been in vain. They planted the seed of friendship, freedom and democracy in our hearts and souls. We are fortunate to live now in a free country where people are treated equally and with respect and dignity. My fellow WACs and I regularly send money home to help feed our family and friends who are unemployed or sick, and still live in miserable conditions.”
In the evening, the WAC alumnae joined 600 hundred other Vietnamese families and friends at a celebration dinner at the Sheraton Premiere hotel. Former State Senator Leslie Byrne, Lt. Colonel Beck, and other distinguished guests paid tribute to their immense contributions to their country in time of war.