Coming to America

Coming to America

By David Hale

In 1975, as the last helicopter lifted off of the U.S Embassy in Saigon, weighed down with the painful realization of our defeat, it carried away South Vietnamese Captain Tan Le’s last hope of a free Vietnam.

As a finance officer and educational administrator, he never saw the torture of combat, but two weeks after America left, the Communist North Vietnamese began teaching him the torture of imprisonment. It was a lesson learned over the next 15 years.

His first two years after the war were spent being “re-educated” at a POW camp in Central Vietnam’s Datrang District. He followed orders and kept his mind.

“While I was there, the things they were teaching me wouldn’t sink in.” Le said. “I just couldn’t accept what they were saying. It didn’t make any sense.”

Le’s expectations of freedom had obstructed any thoughts of an aftermath of defeat. By the final days of America’s withdrawal, it was too late to arrange an escape. He and his family were trapped with nowhere to go.

He started his career as an NCO and was chosen to attend the USAF-sponsored Officer School in Vietnam. His final position as an SVAF officer was as the director of the General School of the Vietnam Air Training Center.

Le’s SVAF service was part of the symbiotic relationship with the U.S. Air Force. Theirs was the closest of relationships. Nation building for the same goals, soldiers dying for the same people. This closeness afforded him the opportunity to spend six months in the U.S.A. at the USAF Finance Officer School.

He went home from his first internment in 1977. For the next six years at home, there was little rest or peace. Their home was invaded at the leisure of the Communists at least twice a week.

They thought I was a revolutionary,” Le said. “We lived in fear and terror every day. The Communists’ fervor was like that of Islamic extremists.”

In 1983 he was sent to jail for another six months for trying to escape Vietnam on a boat. It was a prelude to the toughest years of his life, when he was interred a third time in 1984 for the next six years.

The first year of his third imprisonment was spent locked in a solitary confinement hole large enough to stand in. He stayed locked down for one year never leaving. He had one bowl of rice a day. The ground was his toilet, cleaned three times in one-year. He never had a bath.

When finally released from confinement, he couldn’t walk, so he crawled wherever he went. The sores on his entire body festered for months. His eyes were unable to process sunlight, so he remained blind for nearly a month after release. All the while, his mind remained strong.

“I had to survive and think only of my survival,” Le said. “Anything else, and I would have died.”

After six years of hard labor, constant beatings and dashed hopes, he went home.

While he was in prison his family didn’t escape their own torture.

On the day he was arrested the third time, the Communist Security Police stormed the family home at 5 a.m. The 12-member family was lined up with their hands against the wall. The youngest child was two-year-old Nhung Le. With the father gone, the mother, Hoa, was left to care for the 10 children.

The children eventually found ways to make money. They sold cooked rice at the local rail station. The Communists would see them selling the rice and kick their bowls over and take whatever money they made. At the rail station, the Communists saw the family’s 18-year-old sister-in-law selling rice. When she tried to run, she was shot in the back.

“We learned not to run when the Communists came to harass us,” 36-year-old brother Minh Le said. Our sister-in-law was shot in the back and killed for running away.”

The family endured multiple beatings, and some of them were arrested and thrown into local jails for short periods. Twice a week for six years, the Communists raided their home in the middle of the night, ransacking and stealing whatever they found.

“Their goal was to starve us. They took everything we had, and they threatened to destroy our home,” said 24-year old daughter My Le. “They tried to break our spirits. We can never forget what the Communists did, but now we are happy to be free.”

In 1990, things began to change. According to the family, the government and the Communist people of Vietnam began expressing more forgiveness and mercy. This Glasnost helped to ease some of the official harassment, but they still faced daily harassment from teachers, neighbors and occasionally the police.

With the easing of official political harassment came opportunities to leave Vietnam legally and go to America. In 1995, Mr. Le wrote to the American consul in Thailand requesting a hearing for immigration to the United States. His hearing was granted.

He went to Saigon for his interview expecting a warm reception, but was faced with a hostile North Vietnamese Communist translator who knew who he was. His story to the American official interviewing him was conveniently lost in the translation. His request for immigration was denied despite the years of abuse. The official reason given was that there was not enough documented proof of political oppression. This time his hopes were severely bruised because he felt this was his and his family’s last chance to escape Vietnam’s oppression.

“I didn’t think we would ever leave. I felt like it was our last hope,” Le said.

He endured and kept his mind. Four years later, he wrote to a relative already living in the U.S.A.—the same relative his family is now living with in Rockford on Broadway above Café Tam. She wrote to the Immigration and Naturalization Service explaining everything. One year later, he had another interview with an American official and a foreign national translating.

Twenty-six years ago, he looked into the eyes of his last American colleague. No promises were made, no long good-byes were spoken. On August 29, 2001 he came home to the country he once fought beside, and the love he once felt for his homeland, long buried in years of torture, was rekindled for his new land when his feet touched American soil for a second time in his 67 years.

Though the family is free, their struggles are not over. Upon arrival, Mr. Le was sick. He was taken to the hospital the day after his arrival, where he has undergone a number of surgeries, without which, according to his doctor, he would have died. The family speaks very little English but is learning. When they left Vietnam, they left what few possessions they had and are starting over with the clothes on their backs.

“We want to find jobs and participate in America,” said Deim. “Once we find jobs, we will make our way and enjoy our freedom more every day.”

The Vietnamese Family Relief Fund is set up through Alpine Bank in Rockford to aid the family’s transition to America and to cover such basic expenses as housing and food. Currently, the U.S. government is not helping them in these areas. If you would like to contribute to the fund, please contact Sheryl Adamson at Alpine Bank.

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