From the VETERANS series:
Chief Warrant Officer Andrew Le
Louisiana National Guard
FROM REFUGEE CAMP TO THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITIES
by CW2 Andrew Le
I was born in 1970 in Vietnam during the Vietnam conflict. Growing up, there was no school because of the war, so I stayed in my grandparents’ basement, where my grandparents provided my only education. Every now and then when my parents took me somewhere, I would see tanks, kevlars, military equipment, and body parts in a war-torn country. Witnessing those events as a child forced me to grow up faster and be more resilient to life’s challenges. We realized that there was no opportunity in Vietnam, so my father finally decided that we were going to flee Vietnam for the United States.
In 1978, my father bought a 60-foot boat to escape from Vietnam. This was extremely dangerous. If we had been caught, the VC would have killed us. My father, however, was able to bribe enough VC officials and soldiers to turn a blind eye and allow our family of 9 to escape. We fled Vietnam in that boat for the Philippines with about 60 other refugees when I was 8 years old. I have only been back to Vietnam twice since.
During the dangerous two-month journey to the Philippines, we ran out of food and fuel, and several refugees died. Others resorted to cannibalism to survive the journey. My mother was 8 months pregnant with my youngest brother, and had to give birth to him while we were still on the boat. There was no doctor, so we used a cooking knife to cut the umbilical cord. He eventually died on the boat. After 2 months, a cargo ship passed us, picked us up, and brought us all to a Philippine refugee camp.
In the Philippines, my father’s boat was confiscated. For the next year, we lived in a refugee camp for a year. We lived on a ration of one bag of wheat per week for an entire year. We cooked the wheat with whatever other food we could get to survive (fish, coconuts, etc.)
A year later, two of my uncles were sponsored by Australians, and soon moved there. My immediate family and two uncles were sponsored by a Baptist Community in Aliceville, Alabama, about two hours south of Montgomery. We were the only Vietnamese family in Aliceville and were treated very well, felt safe, and never needed to keep the doors locked. When I was 9 years old, I found it traumatically difficult in school because I had to learn Basic English, and adapt to an entirely new culture. The other kids in school were learning fractions, history and science, while my sister, brother and I were learning ABC’s, 123’s, and ESL (English Second Language).
In 1980, we moved to New Orleans, after my extended family had moved there for the fishing industry. New Orleans was much different from Aliceville: the neighborhoods were rougher, and crime and theft was common. My parents worked at Mackenzie’s bakery at minimum wage raising 7 kids total. We all went to a New Orleans Public School.
Growing up in America overall was very different from a war-torn country. I was allowed to go to church and pray (we were all Catholic). I had the freedom to go to school. I did very well in public school, and received a scholarship for LSU. When I was at LSU, I joined a fraternity, partied too much, and then lost my scholarship. As the oldest in the family, I was ashamed to go home and tell my parents that I messed up, so, through a Vietnamese friend already in the LA National Guard, I learned that the LA National Guard would give me another chance to go back to school in return for military service.
I went to an Army National Guard recruiter and told him to sign me up for the fastest, easiest MOS he had so I could hurry up and get back to school. Within two weeks, I was at Basic Training in Fort Knox, KY. I did not tell my father that I had joined the Army until two weeks before graduating Basic Training (they thought I was still in school). I went to AIT in Fort Eustis, VA to be a Cargo Specialist. In 1991, I joined the 415th Military Intelligence Battalion because they were looking for Vietnamese linguists to support POW missions in Vietnam. Since then, I’ve deployed with the 415th to Iraq once and twice to Afghanistan. I was also activated during every hurricane in the state of Louisiana. I rose to the rank of SFC in 2002 and was offered the opportunity to go to Warrant Officer School. I pursued this course and was commissioned as WO1 in 2010. I would have pursued this course earlier but Hurricane Katrina had destroyed my business in 2005.
Aside from my military career, I’ve been self-employed all my life. I have invested in real estate development such as hotels, shopping centers, apartments, and mobile home parks. During Hurricane Katrina, I was the LNO for St. James Parish, which had been severely damaged from Katrina. My home and businesses were flooded and looted in New Orleans, but because of my duty as LNO I was unable to return to my home or fix my businesses for an entire year. Everything I owned and all my businesses were destroyed, but with the grace of God I was determined that a hurricane would not destroy what my family had built in this country.
When I was finally able to rebuild, I was able to collect some insurance money, and remained living in a generator-powered hotel room, eating Red Cross food, gas only available several miles away, and no amenities. It took about 2 long years to rebuild my businesses and home from the ground up. It took another 3 years until my businesses were at about the same level as before Katrina.
What I have learned is that in this country, no matter how hard things get, and no matter who you are or where you have come from, there is always a chance to succeed and prosper. Opportunity will always be there if you look for it and you remain optimistic.