CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - Sgt. Thanhtam Nguyen, micro miniature repair technician, Reparable Management Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 15, 1st Marine Logistics Group, originally from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, moved to Lancaster, Pa., at a young age.
As an eight-year-old boy, Nguyen witnessed more gruesome acts than any child ever should. These acts were a result of the Vietnam War, and somehow, Nguyen used his past experience to fuel his desire to support his Marines. The stress-free work environment he provides coupled with his sense of humor allows his Marines to feel like they can go to him for anything.
Nguyen found success early in the Marine Corps and was meritoriously promoted to the rank of corporal. Recently, he also won a regimental drill competition.
Q: What can you recall about Vietnam?
A: “I can remember everything. I was born in a refugee camp over there. It was the after-effect of the Vietnam War. My mom got me out of there. We got put on a waiting list to emigrate over to America, and we were on that list for four years.”
Q: What was the atmosphere like in the camp?
A: “My first memory was this lady getting blown up by a grenade, because she tried to run away. The refugee camp is like the ‘safe zone.’ No [violence] happens in there. It was on the boarder of Vietnam and Malaysia – and that’s where you’re safe. If you try to leave, you’re fair game. This woman freaked out and tried to run away. I remember playing – I was probably two or three years old – and I looked up. This lady hopped the chain-linked fence and ran. I heard someone yell ‘grenade!’ My mom grabbed me, and I looked up and saw her get blown up.”
Q: That’s a harsh thing to see as a child. Was there anything positive about spending the first few years of your life there?
A: “We got food twice a day and it was similar to the instant noodle packs, which ironically, I can’t stop eating now. It was a pretty tight-knit community. Everybody took care of everybody – especially the kids. Everyone would give up their food for the children even when they didn’t have a lot. Even though the war had ended for America, it still kept going for Vietnam.”
Q: How long did you stay in the camp?
A: “I stayed there for the first four years of my life, and then we stayed with my grandparents for another four years until our immigration was granted."
Q: Why did you and your mom decide to come to America of all places?
A: “We thought we would have a better life. She decided to take me here to make a better life for the both of us. The education system is better here, there’s clean water … I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity we had to come to the States. I would probably be in a gang or something if we still lived in Vietnam.
I’m thankful every day that we were able to come to America where I can actually voice my opinions without fear of getting shot. Over there, if you speak out against your leaders, you’re probably going to get killed. It’s freedom. It’s pretty awesome to be able to say what you want to say and be rewarded for hard work.”
Q: What made you want to join the Marine Corps?
A: “My grandpa; he fought the south with the Marines. That’s why we were in a refugee camp, because when the south lost, anybody that fought with the south, got were either killed or pushed into the refugee camps. My grandpa fought alongside the Marine Corps when they were over there. He translated for them. In the four years that I lived with him, he really inspired me to look toward the Marine Corps.”
Q: What did he say about the Marine Corps?
A: “He said that they were a bunch of men running around who he didn’t understand half the time, but that they were crazy as hell and he loved it. He told me they brought him food, and clothes with their own pay checks. He said it was the time of his life, even though it ended in a pretty bad way. He said he made some of the best friends he ever had while he was with the Marines.”
Q: How did it end badly?
A: “The whole company of Marines he was with died. They were slaughtered, but he made it out. He always said that he loved every moment he spent with the Marines.”
Q: I hear you can drill fairly well, and exceeded everyone’s expectations during a drill competition. Can you tell me a little about that?
A: “One day, out of nowhere, someone from the company comes down and says that there’s a drill competition coming up and that they need someone to do it. There was a different sergeant who was supposed to do it, but he got put on a list to go to Hawaii, so I stepped up and said I’d do it. They asked me ‘Do you even know how to drill?’ I told them no, that I was a drill waiver in boot camp. I actually sat in the squad bay when they did final drill. We had a total of six practices with the whole platoon. They did great. I had to practice by myself basically all day. I finally got the moves down with the help from the whole platoon. They all helped me out. I ended up messing up quite a few moves, but apparently I displayed confidence and I was the loudest. I ended up winning it and went from there. Thanks to that competition, I’m actually pretty solid at drill now. I’m actually training the person who is going to do the next competition.”
Q: So far in your four and half years, what have you learned and what do you hope to teach your junior Marines?
A: “It’s all about attitude. To me, it’s the biggest thing in the Marine Corps. There’s a saying I learned when I was in Vietnam: ‘If you’ve earned something, it’s because of you. If you lose something, it’s also because of you.’ It boils down to whatever happens in your life, it’s all on you. It’s your attitude that makes it happen. If I had gone out there and lost that drill competition, it would have been because of me, not because people didn’t teach me or I didn’t have enough time – it would have been because I didn’t do enough for it. I won it because I went to find people to help me. I stayed up late flipping that sword. I won because of me. It’s always about attitude. If you have the right attitude, you will succeed.”
Q: You also picked up meritorious corporal. How did that go?
A: “It was actually a pretty bad time for me. The first board that I went on, I did well up until the part where I told them that I didn’t want to be a corporal. That set me back. My leaders pulled me aside and taught me that it wasn’t just about me picking up meritorious corporal. They explained to me that a lot of Marines stuck their necks out for me because they thought I was ready for the responsibility and that by me telling them ‘no,’ that was like a slap in the face. I learned from that. I went back up on another board after doing a Marine of the Year board, and I picked it up the second time and never looked back.”
Q: Why did you tell the board ‘no’ on your first board?
A: “I didn’t think I had enough experience. I had literally just gotten to the fleet, and three months in, they put me on a board. I got nervous. I didn’t think I was ready to lead Marines. I was wrong and my leaders saw that I was ready. It was very humbling that my leaders saw my potential in me before I even saw it myself.”
Q: How have your past experiences affected how you lead your Marines?
A: “My leadership style isn’t focused on yelling and acting hard. I’ve learned that Marines are still regular people and they have their own issues and their own problems. You can get a lot more out of a Marine by speaking to them as an adult than just chewing him out immediately. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time for yelling, but just talking to a Marine can be just as effective if not more.”
Nguyen’s future in the Marine Corps looks as bright as it started. He wants to apply for the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Educational Program or fill out the Enlisted to Warrant Officer package. Although, if those don’t pan out, Nguyen said he hopes to be the best staff noncommissioned officer he can be. Either way, he’s here for the long haul and wouldn’t have it any other way.