In 1975, when Viet Luong was nine years old, he, along with his parents and seven sisters, escaped Vietnam for the safety of an American aircraft carrier, just a day before the fall of Saigon. Almost 40 years later, Luong has become the first Vietnamese-born general in the United States military.
Brigadier Gen. Luong's journey from the chaos of war to the highest echelons of the Army brass began from the earliest moments on the Navy carrier that brought his family to the U.S. "That was such a profound moment for me, to see our service men and women and get an appreciation for what they did," Luong told Army Times. In his 27-year military career, Luong has seen combat leading paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq and the storied Rakkasans infantry regiment in Afghanistan.
Reflecting on his improbable story, Luong noted, "It's a testament to what this nation stands for, and her ideals, and the opportunities my family has gotten."- - Mike Barry
Brig. Gen. Viet Luong's family escaped Vietnam when he was 9, shortly before the fall of Saigon. He is the first Vietnamese-American general officer in the U.S. military's history. (Army)
Luong, the 1st Cavalry Division’s deputy commanding general for maneuver, and his family escaped Vietnam in 1975 as political refugees. The infantry officer and 1987 graduate of the University of Southern California has commanded a battalion of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers in Iraq and led the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, the storied Rakkasans, into combat in Afghanistan.
“It’s a personal honor for me to be promoted to the rank of general officer, but I don’t want the promotion to be too much about me,” Luong told Army Times. “It’s a tribute to my soldiers and [noncommissioned officers], the folks who’ve worked to get me where I am.”
Luong said he is grateful for the opportunities granted to him as a U.S. citizen.
“It’s a testament to what this nation stands for, and her ideals, and the opportunities my family has gotten,” he said.
Luong, the only son in a family of eight kids, was born right outside Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City.
His father served in the Vietnamese Marine Corps, so “during a time of war, my dad was always away,” Luong said.
He was 2 during the 1968 Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.
“I don’t remember much about it but images of explosions and bad things happening,” Luong said. In 1975, when Luong was 9, his family escaped the chaos in Vietnam. “My family made the escape the day before the fall of Saigon,” he said. “We barely escaped.”
They were taken to the USS Hancock, a now-decommissioned Navy aircraft carrier, and eventually to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, which was set up to receive refugees from Vietnam. Luong and his family stayed there for about two months, until one of his father’s friends helped the family resettle in Los Angeles. The family, starting from nothing, worked hard, and “over time, we were able to send all the kids to college,” Luong said.
The family’s experience has made him and his sisters “very patriotic,” Luong said.
“As a transplanted American, or an immigrant coming from a different country, there’s no sense of entitlement as far as earning that citizenship, and working hard to contribute to our nation,” he said. “There’s a sense of service, for me, to be able to give back to our nation for all the opportunities it’s given us, saving us from harm’s way but also the opportunity to assimilate and move up through education.”
Luong said his father, “the biggest influencer in my life,” inspired him to serve in the military. But he knew he would serve even as he stood on the deck of the USS Hancock, Luong said. “That was such a profound moment for me, to see our service men and women and get an appreciation for what they did,” he said.
Luong initially considered joining the Marine Corps to become an infantryman like his father. Then he met an ROTC instructor, an airborne-qualified sergeant major, who told him about the opportunities offered by the Army and ROTC.
His 27-year career has been highlighted by the opportunity to command troops in combat, Luong said. “Those were the most challenging times for me,” he said. “I’ve lost so many soldiers, and that has always been part of what the future has in store for me, in trying to really get people to understand that freedom comes at a pretty high price. For us who’ve lost troops in combat, it’s very personal.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed all of those who served in them, he said, and Luong is preparing to return to Afghanistan later this year.
The 1st Cavalry Division headquarters is already deployed to Afghanistan and is running Regional Command-South.
When RC-South, as part of the ongoing transition and drawdown in Afghanistan, is converted into a one-star Train, Advise and Assist Command, Luong will deploy to lead the new organization.