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From Vietnam to the Wardroom: A Vietnamese-American Sailor’s Story
US Navy | May. 24, 2023
Ten years since emigrating from Vietnam, eight years as a U.S. Navy Sailor, and three goals to achieve – Retail Specialist 2nd Class Thuy Nguyen has made the most out of an unexpected journey, while at the same time opening the door for many others to do the same.
Nguyen, who was recently selected to commission as a naval Supply Corps officer, started his Navy journey at 19 when he enlisted from Wichita, Kansas. However, that’s not where his story began.
It began with a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. It was the summer of 2013; he was 17 years old and living with his parents in Ho Chi Minh City.
“I remember the day we received the letter,” said Nguyen. “I was thinking, ‘What’s happening? Are we leaving?’ I realized this was something big. Everything happened so fast after getting that letter.”
That letter was an approved immigrant petition for Nguyen and his parents, and it allowed them to apply for residency in the United States. Receiving that letter was the result of an immigration request that was initiated in 2001 by Nguyen’s uncle and aunt who lived in the United States.
“My uncle, who was a pilot, sponsored my family when I was 5 years old. The process took 12 years to complete,” Nguyen said.
Determined to provide their children with greater opportunities, Nguyen’s parents completed the visa process as fast as they could, and by October of 2013, the Nguyens were standing in Wichita as official residents of the United States.
“When I came to the U.S., I had to re-do my senior year twice,” Nguyen said. “In Vietnam, I was supposed to graduate in 2014, but when I started school in the states, I couldn’t graduate until 2015 because of the different course requirements.”
At the age of 17, Nguyen had to learn a second language and adopt a new culture, while looking toward an uncertain future. But through his school’s English as a Second Language Program, and with the help of some new friends, Nguyen went from knowing little about the language to passing his AP English literature class before graduation.
During his senior year, Nguyen also worked at a lounge and a fast-food restaurant. While Nguyen could not see a future in these minimum-wage jobs, he knew he could not afford college either. Then, one day one of his coworkers said, ‘I’m going to be a Seabee in the Navy.’
“Navy recruiters happened to show up to my class that next week,” Nguyen said. “I wrote my number down for them and the rest is history.”
Nguyen signed up for the Navy before graduating from high school and arrived at boot camp in December of 2015. After eight intense weeks, Nguyen not only became a Sailor, but also a naturalized American citizen.
Despite not knowing much about the maritime service, Nguyen was not unfamiliar with the risk and sacrifice that come with serving in the military.
Two generations of his family prior to him had served in the Republic of Vietnam Military Forces, who fought against the Viet Cong alongside the United States during the Vietnam War.
Nguyen’s grandfather retired as an infantry Master Sergeant in the country’s Army, while his three uncles served as officers: one as a pilot in the South Vietnam Air Force and two in the Army infantry. One was killed in action during the war.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Nguyen’s surviving uncles were sent to re-education camps. Because of their military service, they endured years in these prison camps operated by the Communist government of Vietnam. Both of his surviving uncles were eventually released from their camps, and later immigrated to the U.S. and Canada during the 1990s.
The values and sacrifices of his lineage instilled in Nguyen an enduring sense of gratitude and duty. Nguyen said that when he decided to carry on the family tradition of service, it was primarily to give back to the country that had given his family freedom and opportunity.
Driven to seize every opportunity while writing his own narrative as a Vietnamese American immigrant, Nguyen also set three goals for himself to achieve while serving in the Navy: gain his American citizenship, money for college and financial independence.
Over the past eight years, Nguyen has attained all three.
In 2022, he received his Bachelor of Science in Retailing and Consumer Science from the University of Houston – using tuition assistance and his Post-9/11 GI Bill to complete courses in his off-duty time.
“I wanted it so bad, I just pushed myself as hard as I could,” Nguyen said.
In February of 2023, his hard work paid off again. Nguyen received his official notice that he was accepted to attend Navy Officer Candidate School, putting him on track to commission as a Supply Corps Officer – fulfilling a dream that he had worked toward since he was a young E-2.
“When I joined the Navy, I saw so many benefits and so many opportunities. I just decided to go for them,” Nguyen said.
Opening the Door for Others
“My goal is to make the same impact on Sailors as my leaders and shipmates have done to me. That includes developing Sailors toward their personal and professional goals,” Nguyen said, reflecting on his role as an enlisted recruiter at Navy Talent Acquisition Group Houston.
Since arriving at NTAG Houston, Nguyen has welcomed 47 individuals into the Navy. Through his own story and work, he has been able to open the same door of opportunities for others, many like himself with Vietnamese roots.
“I reached out to the Vietnamese community in my area and advocated for the Navy because I was able to relate my story to theirs,” he said.
“I have a Sailor who received a NAM within his first month onboard; another Sailor who was recognized by a flag officer within his first six months in the Navy; others who were recognized at basic training, A-school, et cetera – this is how I know I am positively impacting our Navy,” Nguyen said. “As I leave recruiting, I can put a big smile on my face because I know the Sailors I’ve put in will make the Navy a better place.”
As Nguyen prepares for OCS and his time as a recruiter comes to an end, he continues to coach and mentor the Sailors he’s helped join the service. He said his greatest reward as a recruiter has been seeing his recruits come back to visit him in uniform. Many thank him for changing their lives.
Nguyen closed out fiscal year 2022 as one of the Top Five Recruiters at NTAG Houston, and received numerous region and district awards.
Just in ten years, Nguyen has overcome challenges that most Americans will never have to face. He has put in the work, demonstrating gratitude and commitment at each level, and chooses to continue paying it forward to the next generation of Sailors.
The Navy is committed to enabling a workforce demographic similar to that of the nation it serves. The MyNavy HR Team, comprised of more than 26,000 dedicated professionals stationed worldwide, attracts, develops and manages the talent that ensures our advantage at sea while providing exceptional HR service to our Sailors and their families.