Feature   Know Your Military

Face of Defense: Second Chance at Life

Aug. 13, 2019

Army Maj. Dat Nguyen escaped communist-ruled Vietnam and pursued his American dream by working to ensure the nation's security.

Army cadet holding his cap and sword in a portrait in his graduation uniform.
Dat Nguyen
Army Cadet Dat Nguyen, now an Army major, poses for a portrait shortly before graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 2003.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 190808-D-CZ999-007C

Army Maj. Dat Nguyen
Hometown: Santa Clara, Calif.
Unit: U.S. Africa Command
Stationed: Stuttgart, Germany
Job Title: Strategic Requirements & Capabilities Officer/Army Major

What life lessons has your military experience taught you?

Leading soldiers in combat is the ultimate test of leadership and the most fulfilling experience for a leader. Combat truly tests the mettle of the leader and the unit in all aspects of leadership. When the environment is harsh, the mission is demanding, and the bullets are flying, it's up to the leader to provide the motivation to drive on, brave the danger, and accomplish the mission no matter what. It's a real test of character on the part of the leader to lead in such conditions. I always look back on this experience as a young lieutenant to shape my leadership style. It taught me to internalize the 11 principles of Army leadership, and those principles have proven timeless from my experiences in combat.

Army officers pose for a photo in the doorway of a building during a cold-weather exercise.
Field House
Army 2nd Lt. Dat Nguyen, now an Army major, left, stands in a portable field house with his fellow soldiers during a cold-weather field exercise in 2005.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 190808-D-CZ999-002C

Know yourself and seek self-improvement. As a young leader, I was still growing as a leader, but combat pushed me to grow fast.

Be technically and tactically proficient. Combat exposes any weakness a leader has in these two aspects.

Develop a sense of responsibility among your subordinates. In a combat environment, we had to work around the clock to have our equipment ready for the next mission. I was blessed to have great soldiers who took initiatives to work on our tanks.

Make sound and timely decisions. In combat, we cannot hesitate. Make a decision and "adjust fire" continuously as the situation develops.

Army cadet stands alongside his fellow cadets during a field training exercise in a forested area.
Dat Nguyen
Army Cadet Dat Nguyen, now an Army major, right, stands in the woods during a 2001 U.S. Military Academy field exercise.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 190808-D-CZ999-001

Set an example. This is where leaders gain the respect of the soldiers they lead. Do everything that I expected them to do. Roll up the sleeves, get under the tank, and "break tracks" with your crew.

Know your people and look out for their welfare. I learned that I needed to talk with my soldiers continuously to know them and find out how they are doing.

A family celebrates around a table.
Graduation Celebration
Army 2nd Lt. Dat Nguyen, now an Army major, as a newly pinned Nguyen celebrates with his family with a banquet after his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy in 2003.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 190808-D-CZ999-008C
Family poses around a table for a family photo.
Family Members
Dat Nguyen poses with family members in Vietnam in 1988.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 190808-D-CZ999-009C

Keep your people informed. Information flows down the chain of command by word of mouth in a deployed environment. It's critical to inform our soldiers immediately for them to prepare.

Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions. There are an overwhelming number of tasks to do in a combat environment. Take initiative to take care of those tasks for the unit as soon as you recognize that they need to get done.

Ensure assigned tasks are understood, supervised and accomplished. A good unit with good noncommissioned officers will handle this well. 

Army cadets pose in a half circle with their swords drawn in their graduation uniforms.
Army Pose
Army Cadet Dat Nguyen, now an Army major, poses with his fellow graduating cadets with their swords pressed together for a group photo before they graduate from the Officer Basic Course in 2003.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 190808-D-CZ999-006C

Train your people as a team. This is where training for the "next man up" pays dividends. We all rely on the people in our unit to keep us alive. Every soldier needs to work as part of a team.

Employ your team in accordance with its capabilities. This was where our tank unit took on additional training in order to conduct operations in an urban environment where sometimes our tanks couldn't traverse. We had to dismount and conduct patrols on foot. It was not something that armor crewman traditionally did, but we expanded our capabilities as a result.

What advice would you give to someone else who recently came to America and is trying to get a fresh start?

For new immigrants lucky enough to settle in the United States, take full advantage of the education system that the country has established. It's the foundation of attaining the American dream. Education is essentially free when one studies hard and goes beyond the minimum requirements. K-12 is free, with so many classes and programs to build a foundation of knowledge. With good grades, one can receive scholarships to attend the best universities in the world and pursue higher learning. With a college degree, the doors open up for a person to attain a good life. Yet the most important aspect is the freedom to pursue one's passion for any profession and live a fulfilling life.  The resources available are plentiful to help anyone willing to work hard. Always seek and learn everything. Grow in intellect and in skills. It's the one principle that will help new immigrants succeed in the United States.

Two Army cadets pose for a photo in front of historic West Point art in their green service uniforms.
Dat Nguyen
Army Cadet Dat Nguyen, now an Army major, right, and a fellow graduating officer pose for a picture in front of historic West Point portraits shortly before graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 2003.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 190808-D-CZ999-004C

What does being a soldier mean to you?

Being a soldier means being a patriot in the truest sense, willing to lay everything on the line for the security of the nation. There's no other profession that can claim a more honorable contribution. There’s no worthier way to earn the citizenship of a nation than to serve in uniform. There's no better way to give back to the country than working to ensure the nation's security. There's nothing more fulfilling than to put on the uniform each day and lead the young men and women of the United States Army.

Video by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Castellano, Defense Media Activity Europe