When Chief Master Sergeant Phuoc Phan retires in June from Barksdale Air Force Base, he will have served 30 years in the U.S Air Force.
His journey began at 8 years old and only made possible by those who served in Vietnam.
"I came home and I remember seeing my mom in the house, she had two trash bags," explained Phan. "She was packing one of them with clothes and packing the other with some food, and she said we had to leave because the North Vietnamese Army was invading South Vietnam at the time."
With his Dad fighting off the north, Phan remembers grabbing whatever they could carry.
"We left and just walked on the roads from town to town. I like to say when the sun came up we’d walk when the sunset we'd just try to find a place to sleep. Most of the time it was out in the open, sometimes it was in an abandoned building. If you’ve seen historical footage of the war in the hordes of people on the road, that was us," he continued.
"No matter how far we went, we could always hear the fighting in the background. I remember hearing the artillery and the small arms fires and those kind of things."
Phan and his family traveled more than 350 miles to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Once there, they reunited with his father.
"My dad probably would’ve been sent to re-education camp, so they made a decision to leave Vietnam," explained Phan. "My dad got us onto an amphibious landing craft, and we went out into the open ocean. The South China Sea remember, this was in the mid-70s, the South China Sea was a pretty dangerous place and we got out there I remember our boat had some engine problems."
Left stranded on the open water, the U.S. Navy came to the rescue.
"They had us on the back end of their boat, a big flat area I think they called the fantail. They had all of the families back there and they fed us c-rations. The meals ready to eat back then in the 60s and 70s canned food, wet food. When I think about it, if you gave me a can of food from back then, I probably would not touch it today, but back then you know we had gone a long time without water, without food, or with very little of it, so it was great, but that was the first time since we left our home, since we left Vietnam that we had shelter, safety, food. So those cans were more than just cans of food, it represented hope for our family."
Phan and his family were then sent to a refugee camp in Guam.
"We had cots to sleep on, we had three meals a day, we had showers, we had all of that. It was just about getting into a routine, and getting into lines to do things," he explained. "Then one day, we got in line and we got on a plane, and my Dad told us we were coming to America, and that was just a great day."
They were headed for Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. A primary housing and processing center for southeastern Asian refugees. The fort processed more than 50,000 refugees during the Vietnam War, giving them the tools needed to adapt to life in the U.S.
"We were in Fort Chaffee for several months, and this American family, this older couple sponsored our family."
Phan and his family went to work on their farm for two years, before moving to a small town in Oklahoma, where he spent the rest of his childhood.
"On that farm life was great," he recalled. "This is all we knew of America the time."
"The lesson I learned the most from my Dad during that time was, I never heard him complain. I never heard him complain about the life he had and how it’s changed. He did what he needed to do to take care of his family and that’s a work ethic I got from him."
After graduating high school and a little bit of college, Phan enlisted in the Air Force. A job that gave him more than just a steady paycheck.
"At the time I joined the Air Force, I was not an American citizen yet. That was in 1988, and in 1991 I became an American citizen, and that was also about the same time the Gulf War kicked off."
"During that first enlistment is when I realized why I have what I have. It’s when I realized the freedom that I have was not free," explained Phan. "Our entire family here, we are free today because of their sacrifice because of their service. None of that would’ve been possible without what they’ve done for me and my family, and for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese here in America."
Phan is adamant his story is not about him, it's about the goodness of people willing to fight for complete strangers.
"I understand the sacrifices that were made, not any sacrifices that I made, but the sacrifices that were made to give me the freedom that I have. I know that 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam to give me the opportunity to be free. I know that tens of thousands of Americans came home from the Vietnam War with physical, emotional injuries that just haven’t healed, their sacrifice give me the privilege to be an airman; and I know that hundreds, if not thousands of Americans were captured as POWs beaten and tortured, suffered for years, their sacrifices will give me the honor to be an American airman."
Watch an extended version of Phan's interview right now on our Roku channel.
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