Army Reservist Brings Unique Past to ROTC Classroom
By Joe Skoglund
Special to American Forces Press Service
MILWAUKEE, Wis., Oct. 29, 1999 Growing up in war-torn South Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s, Khanh Pham never dreamed he would someday escape to the United States, graduate from college and be commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army. But that's precisely what he did.
Today, Capt. Khanh Pham is one of 16 soldiers from the Army Reserve 84th Division (Institutional Training) serving as ROTC cadre at Marquette University here. He brings an unusual background to the classroom.
Pham escaped from communist Vietnam in 1979 aboard a small boat and made his way to the United States in 1980. Following his graduation from college, he said, he joined the Army to give something back to the country that had given him so much.
Pham vividly remembers growing up in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, particularly when he and his four siblings hid under a bed during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The children were not allowed to leave the room or turn on the lights for several days.
He also remembers well the collapse of the South Vietnam government and the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Pham was 15 at the time.
"Bullets and bombs flew everywhere," he said. "The whole city was chaotic. People were on jeeps with guns just shooting -- there were no laws."
After the fall of South Vietnam, the communists took strict control. "The communist government controlled everything in Vietnam," Pham said. "Whatever the communist party put out was the official version of what the people would hear. There was no CNN running around."
Three years later, Vietnam declared war against China and Cambodia. On his 18th birthday, Pham was drafted into the Vietnamese army. During his three months of training, he was part of a three-man team that shared one AK-47 assault rifle and was issued three rounds of ammunition each time they went to the range.
When his unit went to battle in Cambodia, Pham saw his opportunity to escape. "I would not serve a system that denied my education and sent my father and other relatives to 're- education camps' after the fall of Saigon in 1975," he said. "There was only one gate to our camp, and I crept out the back around 4 a.m. and hitchhiked back home to Saigon."
He hid for months in the homes of different relatives during the day. Army officials and police constantly visited his parents to see if they had seen him.
After nearly a year of hiding, Pham and 10 friends decided to leave Vietnam. They built a small boat they hoped would survive a voyage to the Philippines. By 1979, the government had confiscated all ocean-worthy boats.
The boat was 40 feet long and only six or seven feet wide, Pham recalled. "Very small for an ocean crossing," he said. It had a one-horsepower engine and space for a few hundred gallons of gasoline. With limited drinking water, a compass, an AK-47 and several grenades, the friends set out to sea on Oct. 4, 1979. To avoid patrols, the escapees traveled by night.
"If the authorities thought we were trying to escape, they probably also thought we would die anyway, so they didn't bother us," Pham joked.
Twice during the 15-day ordeal at sea, the escapees were captured, beaten, and robbed -- the first time by Thai pirates and the second, he claimed, by the Malaysian coast guard. The Malaysians strip-searched the escapees, even dumping their precious water supply to search the containers for valuables. After robbing and beating them, Pham said, the Malaysians towed the refugees into international waters and cast them adrift.
"I thought I was going to die," Pham said. "It was so desperate. At sea there is no division between sky and ocean, especially at night. We used ponchos to catch rainwater to drink. After a few days we saw the flame from a Canadian oil platform."
The crew of an Indonesian oil rig rescued Pham and his friends. The Indonesians put the ragged crew into a refugee camp and, in March 1980, Pham arrived in the United States. The rest of his story is the stuff of the classic American dream -- graduation from college, a commission in the Army, and success in the civilian sector.
In civilian life, Pham works for a Milwaukee investment firm and is an award-winning artist. On the military side, he served with the 1st Infantry Division during Desert Storm. From 1992 until he joined the Marquette cadre, he had served as an Army Reserve Medical Service Corps officer and was a medical detachment commander.
Today, as an assistant professor of military science, Pham is part of the Alternative Staffing Program, a test that replaces full-time ROTC cadre with reservists.
"Everything people here in America may take for granted, I don't," Pham said. "Everything I choose to do now is my destiny. If I had not escaped from Vietnam, this would not be possible. Despite all the bad things, the United States is still the best place on earth and is still the land of opportunities."
(Joe Skoglund is a senior at Marquette University and an ROTC cadet in its Golden Eagle Battalion.)