Infantryman and Vietnamese American tells his story
By the time Spc. Vuongkhang Luong joined the Army, he had already lived a pretty full life. He spent a few years in Marine Corps Reserves. He worked as police officer at a local law enforcement agency. He was even married and expecting his first child.
These things alone made him stand out from other entry-level Soldiers. However, there was one more thing about Luong that set him apart. He is also the child of Vietnamese immigrants.
“The Vietnam War is what brought my parents over here,” said Luong, who now serves as infantryman with 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment “Black Lions,” 3rd Infantry Division. “My grandfather served with the U.S. Army. That’s why my mom and dad were able to get a visa to come over.”
Luong grew up as the only child in his family. He said his parents raised him in a traditional Vietnamese manner, but things started to change when he went to school.
“Growing up learning one way and then going to grade school and learning a different way,” said Luong. It was a hard adjustment for him to make.
Luong said that while his parents were traditional by his standards, they paled in comparison to the parents of those who were freshly emigrated from Vietnam.
“Kids who came over from Vietnam were taught a different way,” explained Luong. “It is crazy seeing how the generation that was brought up in Vietnam is different than those raised in America.”
This point was reinforced when as a child, he and his parents took a trip to Vietnam. It was an eye-opening experience for him.
“It was a different experience going over there,” said Luong. “I didn’t know anything. I had never been to Vietnam.”
He felt like he stood out, even though his family was from the country.
“They know you’re an American, and it stands out with your accent, the way you look, and the way you hold yourself,” he said.
One memory has stayed fresh in Luong’s mind that highlights just how little he understood his Vietnamese heritage as a child.
“My grandfather served in the South Vietnamese Army, and he has this huge yellow flag with three red stripes, which represented the allied side of the Vietnam,” he said. “I stuck it out the window and waved it back and forth,” he continued. “I didn’t know any better. All the adults were down stairs and I’m stuck up here, so I’m going to play with this flag.”
His family quickly rushed to pull the flag back in and explained that many of the mental wounds from the war are still fresh in Vietnam and that waving that flag could be dangerous for his family.
Returning home from Vietnam brought new understanding for Luong of the challenges his family faced to become Americans.
He remembers watching his parents struggle with English and overcome obstacles that so many immigrant families face.
“Coming over here for Vietnam for them, they really had to adapt and overcome through a lot of different trials and tribulations,” said Luong. “They didn’t know much English and they had to fit into a whole different society.”
Luong’s family spent his elementary and middle school years in downtown Atlanta, where he was surrounded by a vibrant Vietnamese community. This all changed as he prepared to enter high school when his family moved to Adairsville, Georgia.
“When I moved to a high school, I went to a place where I was the only Vietnamese person in the school,” said Luong. “It was a culture change moving away from my childhood friends who were all Vietnamese and moving to a more Southern and isolated school. I kind of just adapted to the whole Southern hospitality thing and tried to fit in.”
Although the community was different, Luong said his parents helped him keep in touch with his Vietnamese ancestry.
“They always told me not to forget where I came from,” he said. “They told me not to forget my roots.”
As Luong prepared to graduate high school, his mind was set on serving in the Marine Corps. His parents had other ideas.
“They wanted me to go to college,” he said. “They pushed for me to be a lawyer or to be a doctor. I just didn’t see any interest in it.”
Since he was only 17 years old, Luong had to meet his parents halfway.
“My parents made me go Reserve,” explained Luong, who said his parents refused to sign consent for anything more than the Marine Corps Reserve, where he served in aviation ordinance.
Since he was only serving part time, Luong decided to try out school and enrolled in Chattahoochee Technical College. It didn’t take him long to realize that college wasn’t the right choice at that point in his life.
“It just wasn’t my thing,” he said.
Unfortunately, Luong’s time in the Reserve would soon come to a close as the Marine Corps made the decision to shutter his unit. He was offered another position in Louisiana, but it was further away than he wanted to travel.
Fortunately, there was another option.
After speaking with a Marine recruiter about his goals, the recruiter advised that he go and speak with the Army recruiters across the hall. He was signing enlistment paperwork soon after.
“I went over there and I talked to the Army,” said Luong. “I have goals and aspirations; if there is any place I can chase it, it is the Army. They are going be the branch that is going to give me the most opportunities, the most avenues of approach to chase my goals.”
For Luong, it wasn’t just changing military branches. The job he selected in the Army was quite different than his job in the Marine Corps Reserve.
“If I’m going do anything, it’s going to be infantry,” he said. “If I’m joining the Army, I want to be kicking down doors.”
Luong had another motivation for choosing infantry. Throughout his time in the military, he admired one individual in particular.
“I always looked up to Maj. Gen. Viet Luong,” he said referring to the now-retired Army infantry officer who most recently commanded U.S. Army Japan.
“We are in no way related,” he joked. “He was the first Vietnamese-born person to become a general. It was amazing to see a Vietnamese individual achieve that rank.”
Luong says he aspires to follow in the retired officer’s footsteps and achieve similarly great things during his time in the service.
Now serving as infantryman, Luong has already started his journey toward excellence. He’s also taken to heart the lessons on overcoming challenges that he learned his parents.
During a recent iteration of Expert Infantry Badge testing hosted by his unit, Luong faced maybe his greatest personal struggle so far.
Following the completion of a train-up week, Luong began testing for his EIB. Although he made mistakes during testing, he was still in the running by the end when it came time to complete the final event: a 12-mile forced march.
“I was hydrating the entire week and I was doing good and feeling confident,” Luong said. “We weighed bags in morning and my bag was 10 pounds overweight.”
His first sergeant advised he shed some weight and then re-weigh his bags, but Luong was confident he could finish with the extra.
“I didn’t want to sit here and just pull stuff out and be underweight,” he said. “I would rather be a little overweight and pass rather than go through a whole week of testing and be underweight and fail.”
The event began and Luong partnered up with a team leader. They ran and walked intermittently to keep up a quick pace.
“I’m drinking water,” he said. “About halfway in, my [water pack] was empty. I had a bottle of water and finished that. My first sergeant gave me a drink and I finished that, too.”
“About mile nine, I started to feel really fatigued,” he continued. “It was hurting really bad. My feet were hurting, my legs were hurting, and I stopped sweating. By mile 11, I had one mile left, and I started to feel tremendous pain in my legs and my back. About 500 yards from the finish line, I fell. Everyone was surrounding me. I tried to get back up and I was wobbling the last yards. I don’t remember much of it except what they told me.”
“I passed the finish line at 2 hours and 59 minutes,” Luong said. EIB participants are allowed three hours to finish the march. “I don’t remember taking off my rucksack. I was cramping so bad. My whole entire body was cramping.”
He was rushed back to his unit area to be monitored. An ambulance was called soon after.
“They pushed liquids and IVs immediately,” he said. “I was in the hospital the entire weekend. Everyone came and saw me.”