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Soldier's Journey to Service Began in South Vietnam

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have helped shape the history of the United States, and many of their lives have been dramatically influenced by moments in U.S. history. Every May, the Defense Department joins the rest of the nation in celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Army Col. Danielle Ngo said she encourages young people to consider serving, whether it be in their communities or in the military.

For as long as she can remember, Ngo said she wanted to be a soldier. Her path to that career started halfway around the world in South Vietnam.

A vintage photo shows a woman, a baby and a young child.
Family Portrait
A 1973 photo shows Danielle Ngo, right, with her mother, Thai-An, and baby sister Lan-Dinh in South Vietnam.
Photo By: Courtesy Army Col. Danielle Ngo
VIRIN: 730430-O-D0439-001

In late April 1975, at age 3, Ngo said the world her family had known was collapsing around them as North Vietnamese forces began to overrun the defenses of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.

Her mother, Thai-An, and sister, Lan-Dinh, left their paternal grandparent’s Saigon home where they were visiting, for the Tan Son Nhat airport for evacuation. Ngo’s grandfather took eight short-distance buses and scooters from the seaside village of Vung Tau, where they all lived together, to take Ngo back to her mother because the South Vietnamese government had issued an off-limits restriction for traveling that week. He did not want them to be separated.

Seven adults and two small children pose outside for a photo.
Extended Family
During the Vietnam War, relatives of Danielle Ngo pose for a photo in the early 1970s in South Vietnam. Ngo is being held by her aunt, Tuong Van, on the far right.
Photo By: Courtesy Army Col. Danielle Ngo
VIRIN: 710430-O-D0439-001R

Ngo said they were among those eligible to be evacuated because her grandmother had worked at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Ngo has only a few, vague recollections of the evacuation because she was so young at the time. As aerial bombs rained down on the airport, their airplane took off. Ngo said her mother told her it was most likely the last plane to leave. Unfortunately, her father wasn't on the evacuation flight. He stayed behind to fight, as he was a captain in South Vietnam's army. Many years later he emigrated to the United States.

Ngo's mother took her two daughters and settled in Massachusetts, living first in the town of Melrose and later in the towns of Malden, Hingham and Watertown. 

A woman and two children pose for a photo.
Sisters and Mom
Danielle Ngo, right, poses for a photo with her younger sister, Lan-Dinh, and their mother, Thai-An, in 1978.
Photo By: Courtesy Army Col. Danielle Ngo
VIRIN: 780430-O-D0439-001

Growing up, Ngo said her mom taught her all about the Vietnamese culture and how to make Vietnamese food, which she enjoys preparing even today.

At age 17, Ngo said she coaxed her mother to sign enlistment papers so she could serve in the Army Reserve.

People pose for a photo.
Basic Training Grad
Then-Army Pvt. Danielle Ngo poses for a photo after graduating from basic combat training in 1990.
Photo By: Courtesy Army Col. Danielle Ngo
VIRIN: 901109-O-D0439-001

At 19, Ngo found out that her grandfather was sick in Vietnam, so she went to see him. It was the first of four trips she would take to Vietnam to see the country and visit relatives or travel for Army assignments. 

The U.S. at the time had established diplomatic relations; today, Vietnam is a valued U.S. partner.

In 1994, Ngo graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Science in finance and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army, serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Since then, Ngo has had many assignments, including in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Her many decorations include a Bronze Star Medal with oak leaf cluster.

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In November 2016, while attending the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, Ngo was one of the authors of a study titled "U.S.-China Competition: Asia-Pacific Land Force Implications." One of the other writers, Hung Nguyen, was an exchange student from the People's Army of Vietnam. Ngo said their collaboration on the project was truly rewarding, and she only regrets that her Vietnamese vocabulary is limited.

She is currently the executive officer for the Army Inspector General at the Pentagon.

A soldier poses for a photo.
Engineer Award
Army Col. Danielle Ngo, the executive officer to the Army Inspector General, displays her Asian-American Engineer of the Year trophy in her office at the Pentagon, May 4, 2021.
Photo By: Army Maj. Jennifer Blackwell
VIRIN: 210513-A-A4438-1703R

Her younger sister, Lan-Dinh, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served seven years of active duty in the Army.

Ngo said that whenever she meets a Vietnam veteran, she always asks them to tell their story and then gives them a hug — with their permission, of course.

She also tells them that, were it not for their service and sacrifice, she wouldn't have been able to live her dream as an American.

"They had gone through hell and back and they never really got the appreciation that they truly deserve," she said.

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