Survivor: one man’s journey across an ocean to help others survive

by Thomas Warner
LRMC Public Affairs

***image1***Richard Nguyen, a retiring radiologist who spent the past three years at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, has a story that goes much deeper than two decades of military service. The lieutenant colonel beat long odds and escaped a negative environment when he brought his family to America in the 1970s.

It’s a story of how an educated, accomplished person wound up on an overstuffed boat, amid a throng of desperate people, fleeing his homeland. It’s a testament to old-fashioned hard work and proof positive that anything is possible if a person maintains a sense of optimism.

“Dr. Nguyen was a steadying force here and the fact that he’s completed 20 years of military service while accomplishing so much in the field of medicine is extraordinary,” said Lt. Col. Ricanthony Ashley, Chief of Radiology at Landstuhl. “I would use him as an example for my children.”

Dr. Nguyen, earned his medical degree at the University of Saigon, but, lost his standing when Communists overran South Vietnam in 1975.

“I hate Communism because I’ve seen what it did to my own country,” Dr. Nguyen, 56, said. “We had to run away.”

The war was for a good reason, he said. It helped create a new way of life for people. The war today is the same, he said. “This war is to protect the people in our country and to protect people throughout the world,” Dr. Nguyen said. “It’s to give them more freedom, a better economy … safety.”

France controlled Vietnam before a stunning and decisive battlefield defeat in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu at the hands of Ho Chi Minh’s Communist forces. Many families like Dr. Nguyen’s, who lived in the north, were fleeing to the southern part of the country where outside nations had stepped in to try and help preserve democracy.

Nearly 20 years of fighting ensued, with the bulk of the military maneuvers involving the United States, but those forces were all pulled out in 1975 as the country fell to Communism.

“My family owned a jewelry store and I had a brother who had already fled to America a few months earlier, so we were being watched at all times by the secret police there,” said Dr. Nguyen’s wife, Serena Nguyen. “

Still, one night, the Nguyens gathered their children, climbed into a boat and set out under the cover of the night. Their group of more than 30 people stayed adrift for nearly two weeks, battling modern-day pirates, sickness, the elements, and time.

Two people died, Dr. Nguyen said, and their bodies were deposited in the ocean. The survivors were finally picked up somewhere in the Pacific and taken to Hong Kong, where they spent the next 10 months in a refugee camp.

Dr. Nguyen says representatives from the United Nations came to interview them before they and many others were sent to the live in the United States. It took a year to study and pass his test to be a doctor in the States, but it was two years before he learned to speak fluent English.

“Once I became certified to practice, the Air Force recruited me to join,” Dr. Nguyen said. “I wanted to give something back to the country that had given us our freedom. I only had an obligation for two years, but I found the environment to be so friendly and the people I worked with to be so good to be around, that I decided to stay in the military.”

Dr. Nguyen spent time at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, March AFB in California and at Nellis AFB in Nevada. The longest stop of his military career was at Yokota Air Force Base near Tokyo, Japan. After six years there, he came to Landstuhl in 2004.

“I worked with Dr. Nguyen at Nellis and we were both majors,” said Col. Dean Bricker, commander of the 435th Medical Wing at LRMC and an internal medicine specialist. “He is an excellent radiologist and I was always bugging him to help me interpret X-rays.”

Dr. Nguyen’s first medical position in the United States was in the early 1980s, working in a nursing home which housed people afflicted by cerebral palsy. Throughout his life, he’s watched people endure excruciating pain− mentally and physically.

“Much of what I saw during the Vietnam War will stay with me forever and I’ve seen a lot of injuries here at Landstuhl – people who’ve lost eyes, lost limbs, or their bodies are burned,” Dr. Nguyen said. “Some have very tiny injuries but are critical. Some may be paralyzed.”

“I like seeing how people fight for survival. The attitudes of most patients I’ve seen have been positive. They are hardly ever unhappy.”

Each of the Nguyen’s three children established themselves in America. Eldest son, Vu, is now a captain in the Army. Their daughter Nhi is married to a Navy reservist and the youngest son, Hoa, is a chiropractor.

“Freedom from many of the bad things we are seeing in the world today – that’s why my son and I wear our military uniforms,” said Dr. Nguyen, who recently celebrated his retirement at LRMC and moved to California, where he will continue to work as a radiologist.