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Air Force Colonel's American Dream Started In Vietnam
by U.S. Air Force Stephen Warns
February 11, 2017

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Col. Quy Nguyen, budget execution and analysis branch chief for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, describes his career and life as a ... meaningful journey.

It’s a journey that began when his father, Anh, and mother, Lieu, loaded their six children on to a small rowboat in search of a more stable life in the United States after war ravaged Vietnam.

It’s also a journey of resiliency that continues to shape him personally and professionally.

January 4, 2017 - U.S. Air Force Col. Quy Nguyen is the budget execution and analysis branch chief for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center. His ability to focus on the task at hand and stay positive impresses Maj. Edith Coon, AFIMSC chief of financial operations and integration. “He’s very good at balancing family and work,” Coon said. (U.S. Air Force photo by James J. Truitt)
January 4, 2017 - U.S. Air Force Col. Quy Nguyen is the budget execution and analysis branch chief for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center. His ability to focus on the task at hand and stay positive impresses Maj. Edith Coon, AFIMSC chief of financial operations and integration. "He’s very good at balancing family and work," Coon said. (U.S. Air Force photo by James J. Truitt)

Quy Nguyen was born in Saigon, on Dec. 16, 1971, during the height of the Vietnam War. Among his earliest memories were seeing Anh lacing up his boots to go to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Marine Corps’ 1st Division. The colonel also remembers taking trips to book or fabric stores Lieu owned and wanting for nothing.

His life changed April 30, 1975, when his childhood plunged into “total chaos” after the fall of Saigon. Bodies lying on the road, along with uniforms taken off dead soldiers, are seared into his memory.

“We were basically walking really fast and even running at times heading to some place at the time I didn’t know,” the colonel said. “Then turning around and going back home. At one point, we got back under our beds as the house was shaking from the bombs that were exploding in the surrounding areas.”

The Nguyens earned a decent living before the war ended, but conditions deteriorated for the family. Anh and Lieu decided to flee to the United States with Quy and their five other children.

The family tried five times, unsuccessfully, to escape.

“Each trip was a secret endeavor, and you’d have to move from house to house until you get to your point of departure in secret,” he said. “I remember one occasion where Stephen Warnsities were coming where we were hiding, and we just ran. We were shot at, and I remember bullets whistling past and striking the rice paddies. Eventually, we would make it back home and try again.”

The family succeeded on the sixth attempt in 1981.

In order to escape, Nguyen said, families had to find someone with a boat. They paid in gold because inflation was rampant after the war.

The Nguyens departed Vietnam in a small rowboat early in the morning before meeting with a larger boat at dusk with more than 60 people on board. After boarding the larger boat, it set sail on the South China Sea. On the fourth night, their boat lost power and floated for three days before a Hong Kong fishing boat spotted them.

“I remember being so cold and hungry,” Nguyen said. “Before we were picked up, I closed my eyes and I remember talking to God that I’m going to die now. As a 9-year-old boy, I was content and ready to die, but as luck would have it, I did not die.”

The boat took the refugees to Malaysia, where they were picked up by the United Nations and taken to a refugee camp. Anh then served as an interpreter for the camp.

Based on Anh’s military experience and his desire for his family to settle in the U.S., the Nguyens were sponsored by Lieu’s cousin, who married a U.S. Army colonel during the war, and settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The family spent nine months in Malaysia before they left for the Philippines to study English and acclimate to American culture.

“Some of the first movies I saw were ‘Superman,’ and we learned to sing ‘Row row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.’ Of course, the stream became an ocean,” the colonel said.

Things that Americans might take for granted – such as grocery stores, household appliances and snow – quickly made an impression on Nguyen when he and his family arrived in Colorado in 1982.

“Snow was one of the first things I saw that really struck me about being (in the United States),” the colonel said. “My visualization prior to arriving was something like Saudi Arabia. I thought the U.S. would be desert-like with camels. I remember walking in a grocery store and seeing the aisles of food and goodies and wondering: ‘Who is watching all this stuff?’ And then coming home to my cousins’ house and turning on the faucet to hot water was interesting too.”

The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs also made an impression on Nguyen, but not what one would expect from a future U.S. Air Force officer.

“The truth of it is I hated the military as a child,” he said. “Anytime I saw anyone in uniform, there was a (negative) reaction to it, and that’s probably from the war.”

Nguyen was a standout student, athlete and citizen at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs. Though he harbored animosity toward the military, he also realized he needed the discipline and a way to attend college. So he applied and received an ROTC scholarship to the University of Colorado.

“(The U.S. Air Force Academy) definitely was a big influence and seeing all the airplanes,” Nguyen said. “Part of it, too, was my parents were poor, and they couldn’t afford college. For me, I wanted to do something that would make my parents proud. I knew my dad would be extremely proud if I were to join the service, so I went for it.”

Inspired by the movie “Wall Street,” the colonel switched his major to finance from software engineering and was commissioned as a second lieutenant after graduation. He began his active-duty career in 1995 as a finance officer at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, in the Information Operations Systems Program Office.

Nguyen originally was going to separate from the Air Force as a captain in 2001.

Then, Sept. 11 happened, where terrorists hijacked airplanes with two hitting the World Trade Center, one hitting the Pentagon and the fourth being forced down in a field in Pennsylvania.

Col. Charles E. Jones, who was a mentor to Nguyen, was on the second plane that hit the World Trade Center.

“At that point, it sort of opened up to me,” he said. “I actually put in papers to get out as a captain, and I had a gut check as soon as I turned them in. I had an opportunity in the Air Force to do something much bigger than myself. I changed my mind literally within minutes.”

Nguyen re-committed himself to the Air Force, but again faced adversity.

In 2008, he received a reduction in force, or RIF, notification from his wing commander while he was stationed at Kunsan Air Base, Korea.

“What I did immediately was go for a run,” the colonel said. “There’s a track in the middle of the base where I ran and ran. I talked to God and said, ‘I know you’re trying to tell me something, and whatever it is you’re trying to tell me, I’m listening.’”

It turned out Nguyen had a missing officer performance report and decoration. Those missing documents made the difference of the U.S. Air Force board retaining or not retaining him. He wrote the board for correction of records, and by Christmas he was notified by the wing commander he was being retained.

“I tell that story in that not only in my personal life that I experienced challenges, but in my professional career, I’ve had to overcome some significant events,” Nguyen said. “If there’s a message I would pass on to anyone who would like to think about resiliency and how resiliency actually plays out, it’s the ability to stay positive. Externally, others will observe how you react to a situation, and it might influence the decision. Internally, the ability to be positive helps you get on to the next task.”

That ability to stay positive and focus on the task at hand impresses Maj. Edith Coon, Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s chief of financial operations and integration.

“He’s very good at balancing family and work,” Coon said. “I think he’s good at setting the example, but also making sure he’s taking care of his troops. They always say if you take care of your Airmen, your Airmen take care of you, and it takes care of the mission.”

Nguyen helps oversee a $5.4 billion annual budget that funds and supports mission support programs for 77 installations, 10 detachments, nine major commands, six primary subordinate units and two direct reporting units.

“Finance is a discipline that is misunderstood,” the colonel said. “When I tell people I’m a comptroller or perform financial management, most people think it’s about the numbers. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the people, it’s about emotions and it’s about being able to work with a wide range of situations and data.

“I think that relates to being resilient because it’s about understanding emotions and needs versus the impact, then processing all of that and being able to recommend what’s more important to the commander or boss wherever you might be,” he added. “(Being a financial manager) is a difficult discipline because no organization has enough funding to do everything they’re asked to do. Part of it is that my background really helps me to formulate solutions to get beyond where we are now to where we really need to go.”

Capt. William Kiser, AFIMSC budget analyst, calls Nguyen the “diesel-powered” engine responsible for providing strategic resource direction and decision support for AFIMSC.

“I think it’s safe to say his life experience certainly drives us,” Kiser said. “In his case, his experience has driven him to seek excellence.”

By U.S. Air Force Stephen Warns
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2017

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