When the city of Saigon, Vietnam, was seized by communist forces in 1975 it marked the end of war in that country the minds of many Americans. But for thousands of United States allies, the Fall of Saigon was the beginning of life-altering events, many of which ended in tragedy as groups of Vietnamese were either executed or sent to “reeducation camps”—a euphemism for prison facilities where thousands were tortured and killed. Among those targeted for the camps were members of the South Vietnamese military and Catholics. Cach Van Dinh, a soldier serving in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, was both. As word grew of the city’s takeover, so did Dihn’s fear that he, his pregnant wife and their nine children would likely be killed.
With the help of a friend in the Vietnamese navy, Dinh arranged for his family to board a small boat to escape the battle that raged in the city. With little more than the clothes on their backs, the Dinh family abandoned their home, possessions and native country for an uncertain future. Alex, the youngest of Dinh’s three sons, was only 5 years old, but remembers the confusion and panic that ensued.
“We got on a boat with maybe 70 to 100 other people and went out to sea to a larger boat that had maybe 1,000 people,” Alex recalls. “Then we headed out to international waters where we listened to the radio and heard that the government had fallen. Then the adults had to decide whether they should return to shore or stay out to sea. Some people that still had family in Vietnam wanted to go back and they did. My parents didn’t want to be under communist rule, so we continued forward.”
But not everyone in the Dinh family escaped.
“At that time one of my oldest sisters was with my grandmother,” says Alex. “When this happened it was chaos, as you can imagine, and we left without her and she had to stay back. It wasn’t until about five years later that we were able to reunite with her.”
After more than a week of floating aimlessly at sea with little food or potable water, their boat was spotted by a U.S. Navy vessel, which took aboard the Dinh family and their fellow refugees and transported them to Guam for processing. After weeks of vetting and documentation, the Dinhs were airlifted to a refugee camp at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.
“We were placed with thousands of other families and awaited sponsorship from a local family or organization to help get us started with our new life,” Alex recalls. “It felt like a long time, but we were only there for about six months. I was only five, so my memory is pretty obscured, but one of the memories I have is of soldiers giving my brother and me oranges to eat…and I remember they were really good! I don’t know if it was because we didn’t have a lot of oranges before or if we were just hungry, but that’s a memory that kind of stands out.”
Little did those soldiers know that the kindness they showed to a little boy would not only leave him with a positive impression but also help shape his career as an adult.
While at the camp, Alex’s mother, An Thi, gave birth to twin girls whom she and her husband named Viet, for Vietnam and My, the Vietnamese word for America, which Alex says pays homage to both where his family came from and the bright future before them. For Alex it was a future that would include a degree in engineering from Drexel University and a career with the Defense Logistics Agency.
“I’ve been at DLA since 1991,” Dinh says. “I started right out of college and interned with DLA in Philadelphia for 10 years before coming to New Cumberland. Now I work as an industrial engineer for DLA Distribution in the installation management group. Thinking about it now, it’s pretty amazing I’m able to work for the U.S. government who took our family in and gave us so many opportunities that we wouldn’t have had if we were still in Vietnam. In a way, it’s like I’m giving back for what they provided for my family. The work that I do now is in support of the warfighter, which is very rewarding.”
The Dinh family’s involvement in government service didn’t end with Alex. In 2008 Joseph Nguyen, the oldest son of Alex’s oldest sister, was attending Clarion University and staying with Alex when he heard DLA was hiring for an administrative position in the same building where his uncle worked. Now more than a decade later, Joe Nguyen works in command support for DLA Distribution two floors above his uncle.
“The thing I like about working at DLA is the service we’re doing for our country,” says Nguyen. “The gratitude I have for what they did for our family, for getting them established here, it’s like it’s made a full circle. The fact that we provide services for the warfighter seems to go hand in hand for the service they provided to my family.”