National Nuclear Security Administration

OST attorney reflects on childhood journey as refugee

May 22, 2018

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Anh Nguyen, left, talks to OST Deputy Assistant Deputy Administrator Kerry Clark.
Anh Nguyen, left, talks to OST Deputy Assistant Deputy Administrator Kerry Clark.

Two weeks before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Anh Nguyen’s father told him that his family was going to leave Vietnam. Nguyen, now a contracts attorney with the NNSA Office of Secure Transportation (OST), was six years old at the time. His father, a lieutenant colonel in the Vietnamese Air Force, had made arrangements with friends in the U.S. military for his family to be airlifted out of the country.

Anh had no idea where they would end up.

“I remember going to Tan Son Nhut Airport in Da Nang in the middle of the night with hundreds of other people,” Nguyen said. “My dad and mom, my sister and brother, and other family members walked onto the tarmac where there were dozens of C130s waiting for us. Early the next morning we were in the Philippines.”

After a few days in the Phillipines, and then several weeks in Guam, he found out the family was going to the United States, a place called Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.

Today, Fort Chaffee is a National Guard training facility, as well as the home of OST’s Training Command for federal agents. At the time, it was a U.S. Army garrison base that became a temporary home for more than 50,000 Indochinese refugees after the Vietnam War. The resettlement process, known as “Operation New Life,” was created by Congress in the Indochina Migration and Assistance Act of 1975.

“I remember it was very hot that June at Fort Chaffee and that there were streets full of dorms with bunkbeds,” Nguyen said. “I remember playing in the barracks and eating MREs (meals ready to eat). I loved drinking orange Tang with those meals.”

About two months later, the family was poised to move again. They had invitations from friends in Chicago and Albuquerque as they looked for a new place to call home.

“The Chicago winters did not appeal to us, so my dad chose Albuquerque, even though he didn’t know anything about it,” Nguyen said.

In New Mexico, the family settled into an old house near the railroad. The sound of rail cars uncoupling reminded them of the sound of mortar rounds in Da Nang.

“In the Vietnamese Air Force, my father was involved in helicopter maintenance, search and rescue, and recovery missions. It was dangerous work,” Nguyen said. “In Albuquerque, he began with $40 startup money and eventually found a job washing airplanes at the Albuquerque airport. He found an old bike and rode it uphill to work every day. Later, my mom found a job at a thrift store.”

While in high school, Nguyen got an internship in DOE’s Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) program. He continued to working for UMTRA after completing a mechanical engineering degree from the University of New Mexico.

Nguyen later attended law school at the University of New Mexico, focusing on environmental law, and he met Kerry Clark. Nguyen returned to DOE and was eventually recruited by Clark to join OST as a procurement attorney. Clark is currently the OST Deputy Assistant Deputy Administrator.

In 2013, Nguyen made his first trip back to Fort Chaffee since childhood. He stayed at the OST training facility while attending a U.S. District Court settlement conference.  

“I stayed in one of our training dorms at the OST Training Command,” he said.  “These are the same dorms that our Agent Candidate Training students stay in while they complete the 20-week program to become a federal agent, but it wasn’t the same dorm that I stayed in when I was a kid. My guess is that the building where my family was housed had burned down during a big fire some years ago that destroyed many of the dorms at Fort Chaffee. I had the feeling of déjà vu when I drove onto Fort Chaffee to get to the OST Training Command. I felt like I was back home.”