Boat People

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Forty years ago today, my father stood outside the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, amongst thousands watching the last of the helicopters depart.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, my mom and her five children were among the first Vietnamese boat people. Crowded into one of hundreds of boats of all sizes, we soon came upon a huge cargo ship named Challenger. Although there was no gunfire, it was chaotic with everyone scrambling, jumping from the outside boats towards the ship. I was 13, carrying piggyback my eight-year-old brother, Sy.

At one point, I jumped onto the side wall of a boat, landing on the thin ledge, just enough space to stand. My arms reached out wide, grasping the wall like Spiderman. A "bang" rang in my ears as my head slammed on the boat's wall, then a second "bang" as Sy's head also hit the wall above me. I felt no pain because we did not fall backwards into the waters, where we would have been crushed between boats.

At dusk, standing onboard the Challenger, I heard the heart-wrenching cries from what seemed like 1,000 people left behind. I could not forget those cries as we were transported to Guam, then to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. I cannot forget them to this day.

My father miraculously escaped Saigon and eventually reached Wake Island. With the Red Cross' help, we were reunited in Fort Chaffee three months later. Since then, the American public has resettled over 800,000 Vietnamese refugees into homes, churches and communities, including 3,000 orphan babies airlifted in "Operation Babylift."


Now, 40 years later, I've the honor of volunteering with the Red Cross on the very same program that united my family. On this anniversary of my family's escape, I don't focus on the defeat of the Vietnam War. I remind my sons of the compassion of the American people, our humble refugees' beginnings, and not to take our comfortable lives for granted.

With a Perspective, I'm Thu-Thuy Truong.

Thu-Thuy Truong is a board member of the Red Cross Silicon Valley chapter and co-founder of a local manufacturing company.