FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Full of fear and anxiety, a 10-year-old Vietnamese boy sailed across the South China Sea for 10 days, in 1986, with the expectation that a better life awaited him across the ocean.
In his mind, the only way he could live a full and prosperous life was by coming to the United States.
“If it was not for America, I probably would be dead long ago,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Thinh Huynh, the senior enlisted advisor for the 1st Battalion, 504th Infantry Regiment here. “If I didn’t escape, my life wouldn’t be like this.”
Born in a small village in Southern Vietnam, Huynh and his siblings spent most of their youth in poverty, fighting for their daily survival.
“We were so poor that we used to watch people eat,” he said. “We were barely eating. We would eat only two or three times a week.”
While recalling the struggles he faced growing up in post-war conditions, the infantryman relates to images of children suffering from chronic malnutrition.
“When I see those TV commercials where they show the kids that have bloated bellies, to me, that was how I grew up in Vietnam at that time,” he said.
War, Loss, Escape
Huynh believes the Vietnam War, along with other wars, determined the outcome of his family’s future.
Before the war, his family were rice farmers. After the war, they were forced to share their harvest with the communists, he said.
“Not only that, but they took away our home,” he said.
It was then that his family decided to escape Vietnam in hopes of a better life.
Packed like sardines in a tiny fishing boat, Huynh and his family sailed across the South China Sea.
“I looked at old slave-boat drawings and I would compare us to that,” he said. “We were all packed in tight with no space to spare.”
Being hungry, thirsty and tired for an extensive amount of time altered the other passengers’ character.
“When people think they are about to die, they will do just about anything to survive,” Huynh said. “This brought out some of the worst behavior from people that I ever witnessed.”
Huynh said he observed a lot of things that kids shouldn’t have seen.
“I saw greed, fear and anger,” he said. “Some people were so greedy they would drink as much water as they could while the rest of us had about a shot glass per day.”
After ten days of sharing the small space with 86 others, they arrived at a refugee camp on Pulau Bidong Island.
Huynh’s hope finally became his reality.
”One of the happiest days of my life was the day I escaped out of Vietnam,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not, but I was happy and very excited.”
Huynh and his family lived in the camp for nearly two years before coming to the United States.
He spent his time learning how to read and write, and studying America’s culture.
On Sept. 28, 1989, Huynh and his family moved from the refugee camp to a small town in Iowa.
Being interested in the military throughout grade school, he chose to focus his first American homework project on the U.S. Army.
Huynh enlisted in 1996, at age 22, but waited to tell his loved ones because of his fear of disappointing his mother.
“When I joined the Army, I didn't tell my parents until two days before I went to basic,” he said.
“My mom was really upset, because I was in college at the time,” Huynh added. “Nobody wanted their kid to escape out of Vietnam and go through all that just to join the military.”
In spite of their fears, he believed there wasn’t anything better than serving the country he now calls home.
“Ever since I was in the refugee camp, I wanted to be a U.S soldier,” he said. “Every day I would say, ‘I need to be in the Army.’ So that’s what I did. I joined the Army. I don’t have any regrets.”
Twenty one years and six combat deployments later, the paratrooper says he’s gained resilience, honor and a profound love for the United States.
Caring for Soldiers
Although he has led many soldiers, Huynh never predicted he would become a command sergeant major in the 82nd Airborne Division.
“I never had the goal of being a command sergeant major,” he said. “My goals were to always take care of my soldiers. Now that I’m a command sergeant major of an airborne infantry battalion in the 82nd, I’m enjoying every minute of it. It is such an honor to be in a unit that is filled with so much history, pride, tradition and some of the best soldiers and leaders in the Army.”
According to his youngest sister, Thanh Huynh, he always possessed the qualities and had the desire to be a soldier.
“The characteristics that helped him become a command sergeant major are leadership, loyalty, initiative and courageousness,” she said. “Growing up, that’s all he ever wanted to be.”
At a young age, he demonstrated selfless service by putting Thanh first in every situation.
“When we would come across a river while going fishing, he would always make sure I got across safely by finding anything that would float because I can’t swim,” she said.
Huynh believes his experiences in Vietnam developed his appreciation for the freedoms he has as a U.S. citizen.
“I would never take America, or the freedom I have here, for granted,” he said. “I know what it's like growing up without freedom [and] fearing for your life on a daily basis.”
Nearly 30 years ago, Huynh left Vietnam and found a place he could call home.
“I realized once I set foot in this country, that this was now my country,” he said. “I was born in Vietnam, but I escaped. America is now my country.”