Nicholas Trajano Molnar: This begins the third interview with Tan Nguyen in New Brunswick, New Jersey on February 24th, 2012.
Tan Nguyen: I believe last time I left off was the liberation of Kuwait. Like I said, it took us like days I believe to liberate Kuwait. We went in there; we did what we had to do, and we just moved all the way up to the Kuwait-Iraqi border, and from that point on, we were just pretty much securing our sector and with that comes a lot of down time. So, we were just waiting right now for orders. Obviously, President Bush at that time said that job well done, we did what we had to do, and with the downtime we were in the I would say part of Kuwait where I would say farm lands, it was like irrigated farm land, and we were there for quite some time, I would say a couple of weeks and with was a lot of downtime, there's just nothing to do, let me just go back, that during the whole ordeal of just continuing to push on to move in to liberate Kuwait. The whole unit went without a shower since we left base camp when we landed for about twenty-four days. We had to do what we called field showers where you would just take your sleeping mat, that's the foam mat you sleep on, you lay that out there on the open desert there, and you take two canteens of water, and they told us to bring soap and baby wipes. That was a big item, and you would take the one canteen to soak yourself with, soap up, and you'd take your other canteen to rinse yourself off and that was basically your field shower. As I said, finally when we got into Kuwait, and we were pretty much in our area, the engineers, the Marine engineers, they found a way to get the irrigation system for the field going again, and it's like these long pipes, and they have like wheels on them and what it does is the water would be pumped through those pipes, and the wheels would roll across the field to water the plants, and so, they managed to get that operational, and so, this was our first shower since obviously like I said twenty-four days ago, so they just got the ... motor to pump the water out of the ground, and then they took pallets, and they put them side by side, I would say like a thirty-by-thirty foot area, and our company, like about a hundred fifty Marines, we would go underneath the irrigation pipes, which is about, I would say about maybe like, I don't know ten to twelve feet high above us. So, we would go there like as a platoon or as I say squad size about twelve to fifteen guys at a time underneath the pipes, and they would just start the motor and water would be pumped through. Of course, it was cold water, and that was our first shower since like I said twenty-four days. and it felt like you were civilized again because, like I had mentioned earlier, every time we pushed forward, we'd have to start digging, and we lived in the holes like the sand holes that we dug, and, you know, you're pretty much dirty the whole time, filthy, just like off base here like when I see like footages on TV of overseas of the war or anything like that, you know, most people just see as a footage but it takes, I can actually like, can remember what it smells like in that area, the heat; that's something that I can't describe but it's something that if you experience it you'll know, and then, from that point on, like I said, we were in Kuwait for quite some time, and we were just waiting on the word to rotate back to the States. So, after I believe it was like a few weeks, and we started getting our gear together and everything, we got the word that we were going to be in line to fly back to the States. I couldn't be more happy. It just felt like it was ... coming to an end, and I'm alive, we did a good job, we did what we had to do. It was a big deal, and here I am a year later after boot camp find myself in the war, and, but with the war, like I said before, there's tragedy, and what I'm referring to is there was an accident that cost the lives of a couple of Marines. They had one of the grenades went off in one of the vehicles which took the life of the one Marine and the other couple of Marines that they caught shrapnel, and like I said, this was after we had pushed through and the breakaway, so we thought that, "Hey, the war is over. The fighting is going to cease," but then again we had a tragic accident. I mean, it wasn't in my immediate platoon. It was another platoon, but of course, word echoed that the Marine had lost his life, and it was a sad moment knowing that, "Hey, we made this far and then this happens," and it's something I always remember how, you know, you would think that if you're going to die you would just die in combat etc., but afterwards you think you'd be safe, but in this case, it's not so. You know, my heart went out for that Marine, his family, and then, there was rumor too that when he was going to be discharged from the Marine Corps that he was going to be some type of religious leader. I don't want to say priest or anything like that or a clergyman, maybe a deacon. So, that also added to the sadness of that ordeal, but on the upbeat all our care packages finally arrived. Now these were supplies that your family members, friends at home would send overseas to you, and I finally received a package. Now, of course, you know, if you receive mail in the field, in the desert, it's just not expedient as here, but when I looked at the postmark on the package, it was actually over a month ago that it was mailed out, and it finally caught up to us, and of course, during the whole deal you eat the MREs, Meals Ready to Eat, which is the standard issued meals that you get. If that's all you've got, that's all you've got; I mean, it wasn't the best, but it wasn't the worst either, but finally, the package arrived from my family, and in it were just some creature comforts. ... I believe I had Gatorade mix, I had granola bars, you know, non-perishable items of some sort and letters, and I tell you, it was a welcome sight, I mean just to have a taste of, like I said, of the things that we take for granted. Here you are in the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden, you receive a package, and it's just enlightening. Anytime anyone will tell you, anybody in the service, anytime you get a letter, it is so uplifting to read the words from someone that you love back home, because when you're out there, and it's just you and whoever your unit, in your immediate area, and I guess, a word of advice too, is if anybody is ever reading this, that if you know someone is in the service, please write to them as often as possible. It is a morale booster in itself to hear words from home, so that was, like I said, the uplifting part, and other Marines in the unit also got care packages. and just from that day when we all received it, it was like such a morale booster, like I said, we all just shared in what we have towards each other, like all the goodies and stuff, candy and stuff. ... One thing I've gotten out of that whole experience is that you don't take life for granted. I mean, growing up, when I first came to America, I've never taken life for granted, everything, like I said earlier, was a pleasant surprise. Everything was new to me in a positive way, and then, I get in this predicament, and then of course, I'm older, and you realize that the things you have back home are pretty good, and you're here in the middle of nowhere with, like I said, open desert, and it just takes you to realize like what you have at home is not bad at all, and that you have people waiting home, your family, your loved ones. So, at that point, it was just a matter of a waiting game, and finally, it was our units turn to stage to get on the flight, and it was another uplifting moment because we were flying back by commercial airlines, a 747, I believe, and to get on that plane, and I have a picture of me turning around and just waving goodbye to basically Saudi Arabia and the place that I've been in for so long. I couldn't believe like, "Hey, I'm on my way home," and it was just a great feeling to anticipate what's to become when I get home people that I'm going to meet again, the stories I'm going to tell them, and it was just a good feeling, and we finally boarded the plane, captain came on, congratulated us, we lifted off, everybody applauded, you know, five hundred Marines on that plane, and I don't know if I can put it into words, but inside you just felt like you did something really good. You're there, you fought for your country, you helped the people of Kuwait to liberate their country, to get the country back from a tyrant Saddam Hussein and nothing can be more satisfying. It was like I said, mission accomplished, and another good thing is when I was on the plane, and I said, the captain came on the air, and basically, he said for your gallant efforts, I believe it was Northwest Airlines. ... He said, "For your gallant efforts, we here at ... Northwest Airlines would like to thank you," and they actually said that Northwest Airlines would like to give to each person on board two tickets to fly anywhere they fly including Hawaii. So of course that was great. We applauded, and we cheered, and also I believe, Ford Motor Company extended their gratitude by offering us like a big discount. So, that to me is just right there, it's just like a message from home. That also added to the fact like, hey, you know, there's people that appreciated what we did, and that's a good feeling knowing that you have the support of the people back home, and its definitely an uplifting moment. So then, the flight was long; I believe it was over twenty something hours. We landed in Frankfurt, Germany just to fuel up then we came home to North Carolina, and there it was. I mean, this is the good old USA. I'm back on US soil; I couldn't believe what I just went through, and you get off the plane to a warm welcome, people, banners and signs and welcoming us home and just saying job well done, and you felt like, you felt good inside and to see some of the guys in my unit run back to their loved ones and family and their kids, it was definitely a sight to see. However, no one from my family was there in North Carolina when I arrived home. Of course, I would say majority of the unit, their families and relatives and friends were there, but there was a group of us that were, I don't know say about maybe six to eight of us that didn't have anyone there to welcome us. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but we pretty much stayed off to the side, because there was no one there for us, but I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I got to see everybody else meet their loved ones. Yes, maybe part of me said like, you know, I wish I had someone here to greet me when I got off the plane too, but, you know, no biggie. The bigger picture is that I'm home, and that begins the transition back to the free world as they say, as we say, and of course, we would get leave. I believe it was like ten days, so I made arrangements to fly back to ... Newark, New Jersey, and that's another situation itself, you know, you go to the airport, and I was just wearing regular plain clothes, civilian attire, but there was other servicemen who were wearing uniforms and just being in the airport, not necessarily in North Carolina, but when we had a layover in Atlanta, Georgia, and there were servicemen everywhere because obviously everyone is coming home, the war is over, and the reaction from the public was just overwhelming. I see people just come up, strangers just come up to servicemen in uniform, shaking their hands, thanking them for what they did, you know, to see that was definitely heartfelt, and then I see a serviceman at the airport restaurant or something, and I happen to overhear that, the waiter came by and said that, "Your meal is free. It was paid for by those gentlemen over there." So, this is the country's way of saying thank you, and again, that was pretty amazing. Oh by the way, I forgot to add, that while I was back in Kuwait, and I had mentioned about the care package, I also got a big yellow Manila envelope of letters, and these were school kids. These were school kids in St. James Catholic School in Woodbridge. Apparently one of my mom' friends, their daughter goes to that school, and the school teacher had asked if they knew anybody that was serving overseas during Desert Storm, and it so happens that this girl who I have never met before, I think she was a third grader at the time, she somehow through her mom, my mom found out that I was serving, so her class actually wrote letters to me, and when I received this, again this package with the letters and stuff, it was written I believe like some in crayon and some in pencil, they were very basic thank you, but I mean, it meant the world to me to know, to read twenty some odd letters. They weren't long letters, but they're just short like thank you letters and be safe and you're my hero type of comments on there. That was very touching, and I made a promise to myself that when I get home that I would go visit the school, so I did, came home, and I called up the mother of the little girl, and I made arrangements to go see her at her school. So, I dressed in my dress blue uniform which is our, like I said, our dress blue uniform and went to the school there. I believe it was lunchtime because all the kids were outside playing, and I'm walking up and all the kids just surround me. They just ran over to me, total stranger and everything, they just run over to me and started to like hold my hand and just cheering, and I was a little bit ... taken back by it, and I asked for the teacher who I'm supposed to meet and everything like that, so they, like, again all the kids were like following me and showing me to their class, and sure enough they had a small assembly for all the service members that served, and here I was visiting the school, and I wasn't the only one there; there were a couple of other servicemen. I remember there was a gentleman there from the Navy and another gentleman from the Air Force. So the three of us were basically on the stage and told our story, our experience. Of course, being that they're school kids, you have to bring it down to their level, and the kids just opened up with some questions, and the one question that I always remember is a little girl who had her hand up forever. Finally, I pointed to her, and she said, for some reason she's like, "How was it in the desert?" and I said, "It was very hot, and everyday it would be around ninety to a hundred and ten degrees," and then, it's so funny; she just followed the question, "Did a coconut ever fall on your head?" Of course, I said, "No," because, I guess she sees the coconut trees, and they're growing in the desert I just found that to be enjoyable, and we all laughed, but the kids were great, and they gave us a plaque and the school teacher, and we got such a really warm welcome and an attaboy, and again that just added to all our efforts that we did over there and that brought good vibes and then coming home to see my family, first time, get dropped off, get picked up and, you know, just going back to my old neighborhood driving by there and pull up their house, and they had a banner right there in front of the house says, "Welcome home," and I went in there and first thing I, it was reach for my mom and my dad, and they were in tears, you know, tears of joy, of course, and my brothers and sisters, everybody hugged me, and it was just a great feeling, the fact that, like I said, that I came home alive, that's the thing, because just talking to my parents and everybody, they said they were glued to the TV. They were glued to the TV watching every day to see a picture of me or something, footage, and maybe they could get a glimpse of me of some sort. You know, I never realized how it impacted them, and of course, I'm over there doing my thing and trying to stay alive of course, but they're at home stressed out the fact that their son, their brother, is over there, and of course, the news these days is any worthwhile news is, I hate to say it, but it's bad news. It's like oh, you know, X amount of soldiers got killed, so they said they just keep hearing about the death toll keep climbing, and of course, any parent or brother or sister would be concerned if one of their own is over there. So, I said this was the side that I never realized that they went through. Of course, you reassure them, and you tell the stories, not all of them, just the good stuff to make them more at ease. So, I was home, eating a home cooked meal again, visiting my friends, and it was just a great feeling. It took a while for it to kind of sink in that, "Hey, I'm home. It's over."
NM: When you come back home to New Jersey and in particular Edison, I believe previously you had mentioned that the town had a celebration.
TN: Yes, right I forgot that. While I was home also I got a notice that the Township of Edison wanted to honor all the members that served overseas in Desert Storm, so it was being held at Edison High School in the field, the football field. Of course, I gladly accepted, dressed in my dress blues again and went there as an honoree along with other veterans that served, and to my surprise, there was a teacher there, Mr. Cooper, and I'll never forget it, because he was in the army reserves as I believe a colonel. He was a teacher also, because I had him as a teacher and the way he ran his class, it was sort of like paramilitary, like if you were talking or something like that, he would give you like a demerit, and if you accumulate a certain amount of demerits, then you would face like in house suspension or something like that, but, you know, his class, like I said, the way he ran it, he was firm, but he was fair. I saw him there as one of the servicemen being honored because obviously, he was activated too, and he saw me, and again, I was just like that average student, nothing out of the ordinary, but he saw me, and to my surprise, he was just so happy to see one of his students was enlisted and served, and of course, he was a colonel in uniform, so you had to respect that and render a salute, but I said more so is, like I said, that he just gave me that look like, you know, a good job and I'm proud of you, type of thing. So, myself along with the other service members, we were honored that night, a lot of guest speakers. We received a plaque from the township, and it was a great feeling to see your hometown. I mean Edison is a pretty big town with a lot of people there, like I said a lot of applause, and it just added to the whole fulfillment of a job well done. I'm only speaking for myself, what I did over there I did, because, you know, you enlist, and you're subject to whatever comes along, and you kind of don't think you're a hero or anything like that. You're just glad you made it out of there alive, but then you come home, and then, you get this welcome and you get the people's support and everything, that's when it makes you realize like wow, I believe I did do something. It was more than what I thought it would be. To me, it was just like something I had to do, but they made me look at it in a different way, a good way, of course.
NM: So, your leave to go home is ten days.
TN: I believe it was ten days, give or take, I'm not quite sure. I think it's how many days you have on the books, as they say. You could take whatever you have accumulated.
NM: So after your leave, you returned back to base?
TN: Yes. After my leave at home, I said my goodbyes, and so, again I was just a year and a half into my enlistment. So, I still had another like two and a half years of my enlistment, and that was kind of weird too. Like I said, you say goodbye to friends and family, and you go back to base, and you find yourself training again back in the field in North Carolina in the woods, just walking, doing patrols, and it was just a weird feeling. It almost I would say like you went to war, you came home, you believe it's over, and you almost feel like, "Hey, okay, it's over. I can go home now." Shortly after, you're back in to training mode again, and it was weird, that whole five months of living in the desert, that whole ordeal, and now, you're back walking through the woods, and wondering like, "Man, I can't believe I just went through all that, and here we go back to training again," and I just thought, "No, this should be over. I should be home," but now I know why you continue to train, because obviously I go into, I was deployed again. So, you're back in the base, as I said, training, and next thing you know, we had to keep what they called a contingency force, and it's made up of, well, it's called the MEU, the Marine Expeditionary Unit. So, you're back to the States, and then, you get the word that you're going to be deploying by ship to that region as a peacekeeping force. We always have ships around the world anyway just in case anything occurs, but my four months rotation, that's very short. I was back, and four months later, you're going to get ready to deploy overseas, and this time on a ship for six months, which will be a little bit longer than when I was in Kuwait. Like I said before, Fleet Marine that's what you do, you're being deployed, and so, we were training and prepping and gearing up for that deployment, and we're heading back to the Persian Gulf, as I said, that's a peace keeping mission. So, now I'm on the deploy, like I said before, each company within the battalion is assigned to a specific unit like helicopters, amphibious vehicles, boats, so my company, we were assigned to the USS Saipan, which is like an aircraft carrier, but they only helicopters, and Harrier jets. It's not the type that a jet can land on; it's not that long. I believe it's like six, seven hundred feet long, maybe eight, I can't recall, but it's big. So, this is my first time on a ship, and of course, we deployed and got on the ship there. It gives me a little bit of flashback of the time when I was a little kid leaving Vietnam getting on this big great ship that doesn't move in the water, and that definitely remind me of that moment just for a little while, and I just couldn't help but think, but here I was, a little kid, six years old, getting on the ship, and here I am in my early twenties getting on a ship again. Who would thought that I'd be back in that predicament, but obviously in a different way. Ship life, it's tough at times, because you're pretty cramped in there, so you get on this ship, and everything is compact, corridors, the rooms, no privacy whatsoever, so you've got like a hundred fifty Marines plus the Navy staff on the ship already, so your basic stay on this ship was six months and just to give you an idea, the berthing areas, that's your sleeping quarters, in the room like, I don't know, like twenty-by-twenty, there'd be like four, six bunk beds in there, so you have like no room to move around just a place to lay your head to sleep, and again, you don't have privacy. The bunk beds I believe are three high, so you've got one laying on the floor, one in the middle, and one up top there were two other ships that were with us, I believe the El Paso and the Nashville, and I said before, one ship, the Nashville carried the boats, the El Paso carried the amphibious vehicles, but our ship, the Saipan was a larger ship. It was an aircraft carrier style, so you go on the flight deck, you could exercise there, jog. It's pretty impressive. You do whatever you can as far as training and eat, I mean, just wait for meal times, writing letters home and view the ocean. I remember just getting on that ship and just setting off and as you go further out to sea you don't see land anymore, and you don't see land for another twenty some odd days, because now you're crossing the Atlantic. So, every day you'd wake up, go out and get some fresh air, there's nothing, but just clear blue waters as far as you can see. You're thinking, "Does anybody know we're here," ... It's an experience, but you have your friends and everybody and your unit there, and you train; you do what you can to kill time, and sure enough, it's like one morning you just know that you're close, crossing the Atlantic, you wake up, and then, you see land from afar, and, "Wow, my goodness, there's land," and we went through the Strait of Gibraltar, so that was our first entry point when we crossed the Atlantic, being on a ship it's obviously pretty tough conditions. Now you see land, and you see another country and first port that we stopped in was Spain, I think it was (Rota?), Spain, and I couldn't believe it. I am in another country, in their backyard, in their port, and you're given the opportunity to get off the ship and go sightseeing and be in that country. I mean, this is definitely one of the perks of being in the military, or being a Marine, a Fleet Marine, and it was definitely an experience that will be with me a long time. They said, "Wake up," one day, and then, you're in Spain, you're touring the country, and you just seeing people, how they live, and a lot of history, a lot of old castles, and people are very nice. I would always say to myself, "Who else would get an opportunity like this back home?" So it was great, first thing obviously like everybody in my unit, we hit the bars, just go out there for a drink, celebrate, and I said, but the purpose was to be in that region of the world in case anything happens. So, I believe we were in Spain for about a week. It's a beautiful place, and then, we went up to do the Suez Canal. Now, the Suez Canal, obviously I have heard about it, never seen it, but here we are, and it's about a hundred miles long. It's a man-made canal. It's a hundred miles long, so the ship had to go through that canal to get to the other side of the where we wanted to be in the Persian Gulf and just going through the canal was an experience. We were going at very low speed. I believe one of the captains from that country help navigate the ship through. They have policies, I guess, but when we were going through the canal, we have what they call a steel beach picnic. Since there was nothing to do and again it was a hundred miles long, there was going to be a lot of downtime, so to boost morale, they have what they call a steel beach picnic, and that's actually what it is, so you're on the flight deck; it was made out of steel, and you have the picnic. So, everybody is in shorts, in comfortable clothes, and they have a big barbecue out there. Some of the guys in the navy, they play instruments, so they have a little band up there, again, whatever you can do to like I said boost morale, because it's very important; you always want to keep morale up. I thought that was pretty cool, and we finally got through the canal and made our way to the Persian Gulf, and when we were there, we stopped at other countries, but it wasn't like Spain, and we were in a lot of the Arab countries like Dubai, I can't recall which ones we stopped fist, but I remember Dubai, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and these countries were obviously they're different. They were more strict, what I mean is if you want to have a drink or so, you'd have to go to the American owned hotels, like they have the Hilton over there, ... that's the one I recall, but, you know, it was different. It wasn't like Spain. It's an Arab nation, obviously you stand out, you and your group of guys, and they look at you, but you've got to respect them. You're in their country and we have to wear proper attire. We're visitors to the country, and we get briefed on how to conduct ourselves, and then, we went to Kuwait. Now here I am four, five months later in the country that we helped liberate, and if you recall, I described how Kuwait was in ruins. When Iraqis were there they just pillaged everything, looted the country; it was in, like I said, in shambles. Here I am four, five months later in the Port of Kuwait, and to my surprise, it is totally rebuilt and like nothing ever happened there. It was amazing to actually, we got a tour actually on the bus, one of the tour busses, took us back to the areas of where the fighting was heaviest, and on that long, it was a few hours, that tour bus ride, and I did recall a couple of the areas that we went through. To see it in a pristine condition now is almost like mind boggling; wow I can't believe it; they rebuilt it that fast. There was really not much to do in those countries because of the restrictions, and we just pretty much kept our presence in the Gulf region, and then, yes, there was another time where we were in Kuwait, and we helped train the Kuwait army, I believe it was, because our efforts there and everything, they wanted to be more prepared, obviously, so we were engaged in a training cycle to help the Kuwaiti army. So now, you're face to face with the Kuwaiti soldier, and they don't speak English, obviously that's an obstacle right there, so you do your best, and then, you show them your weaponry, you show them tactics, and it was a pretty good experience, and they rewarded us with this big dinner, and it was pretty unique. Here we are in the middle of the desert again, no man's land, and after the training session, I think it was like a couple of weeks, we were out in the desert with the Kuwait army, and like I said, they honored us with a dinner, and there was this convoy of trucks coming in the middle of the night, and I was very impressed, to say the least. They set up these big flood lights. Now, keep in mind, we're in the middle of the desert, just plain desert, nothing around, and they setup these big floodlights and these trucks, I'm going to say, there must have been about eighteen to twenty trucks, and they were bringing out the rolls of the carpet, they would lay out in the middle of the desert, and these carpets as I say they were like maybe twenty-twenty-by twenty feet, and they had the food brought, and we would sit Indian style, and they have tradition, and you don't use like utensils when you eat. You only use your right hand only to eat, and the food was just outstanding, like I said, especially because you've been out in the desert for two weeks, and you're eating just the military rations, very, very impressive. They had cold drinks, fruit, I believe we had like lamb and dessert, but like I said, what was more surprising was that here we are in the middle of the dessert, we're sitting down having this great meal, and that was very unique, and we got to meet the commandant of the Kuwait Marines, very nice guy, he thanked us for our efforts, for helping his country out, and it was a good feeling. Here we are back in that region again, four, five months later, and for them to show their appreciation, it definitely made it more worthwhile because now you're getting the thank you from the country that you helped. That's something you don't often experience. So, then, we made our way back to the ship and shortly after that tour of duty was over, and we got relieved by another Marine Expeditionary Unit, and then, we made our way back to the States, but this time it wasn't like coming back from the war. This is just like a contingency plan where you're coming back, you're offloading, and as I said, it's no big deal. It's not like people are waiting for you, a big welcome home, nothing like that, just part of your duties as Fleet Marine.
NM: How long were you actually in Kuwait? What were the living conditions? Were you living on a base or in tents or what have you?
TN: Okay, well we're on the ship, as I said we, I believe we're in each country I said those mentioned countries for about a week's time, and our ship is at port, and again, you go out, go sightseeing, whatever you do, and then, it depends on your rank. Whatever your rank was, you'd have to be back on the ship at a certain time. So at that time, I was lance corporal E3, so I believe I had to be back on the ship by eleven o'clock PM, and of course, there's all kinds of security measures, because we are in a foreign country, and so that's the hours; if you are obviously high ranking you could stay out a little longer, but that was the policy that we had to be back at a certain time. So, we live on the ship; we didn't stay in hotels or anything like that, you had to report back to the ship just for accountability too.
NM: The training period with the Kuwaiti Army was it, you were actually living in the field while you were training?
TN: Yes, yes, I believe it was like a couple of weeks, and yes, we lived in the dessert life again. You're living in, this time it wasn't a hole actually, this time we brought shelter halves, meaning you carry half of the tent, and your buddy carries the other half, and you put the two halves together you guys have like a triangle tent, and you prop it up sticks, you tie them down. Like I said, the nickname for them is shelter halves, because you carry half, and so, you buddy up, you're not in a war time, the danger level is not there, so for two weeks, that's what we stayed in the tents like that.
NM: When you were living on the ship and sightseeing in Kuwait, did you notice that the civilians have returned in Kuwait?
TN: Oh yes. It wasn't like we interjected into their business, but yes, business was booming, traffic was gridlock, and it was, like I said, four, five months later, and it just seemed like nothing happened, and everything was rebuilt. We even saw a Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's restaurant, and it was life back to the way it was for them, and by the way, like I said, it's like a very rich country, I would imagine, because it seemed like the cars that they drive over there were like Mercedes and BMWs, very nice cars.
NM: A lot of people comment on the food on the ship. Was there like a significant difference in the quality of the food on the ship versus I guess on the base?
TN: Well definitely the food is better on the base because the facilities are better, but I wouldn't take anything away from the food on the ship, because, like I said, a lot of times you have a lot of down time. There's nothing to do; you can only do so much, and one of the morale boosters is the food, and I got to commend the Navy, the cooks, or whoever was responsible, they did a heck of a job because every Friday was surf and turf, so you either ate like steak and lobster or shrimp or crab legs, and again, it was a morale booster, because you know Friday is surf and turf, but not to say other days too, the food was good. It was definitely better than the MREs, the meals ready to eat, the military rations, the field food that we have, but I have to say that food was pretty good on the ship.
NM: Okay so when that tour is done, you returned to the States, so could you tell us about that? Did you resume training?
TN: Yes, so we came back from our six month deployment and came back to Morehead City, North Carolina, offloaded and resumed. So I was with the same unit First Battalion Eighth Marines, Charlie Company, and I can't recall how long later, but a few months later, I get orders that I'm being transferred to another unit. So me and of course a bunch of other guys, got these orders that we're being transferred to another unit, and now we're thinking why are we getting transferred, why us etc., so they explained it that this unit is getting ready to deploy overseas, and they were short of personnel, so of course in their numbers crunch game, they took Marines that still had over say a year left, and they would be eligible for deployment again. Of course, I was one of the lucky ones, so here I am getting transferred to another unit, and it was the First Battalion, Second Marines now, and I was in Alpha Company. So, I couldn't believe it; here I am back on deployment, and again, I don't know how many months later, I believe six to eight months, I can't recall, and I'm going to another unit that's getting ready to deploy overseas again. I just came through the whole ordeal of living the ship life, and now I'm going over again. It's not something everybody looks forward to, but again, you're enlisted, you do what you got to do right. So, there I was with this new unit and training. This time our company was going to be on USS Nashville, and that particular boat houses the Zodiac, the black floatation boats or the attack boats they're called, the (Ridge Raiders), so that was our primary mission was to be working with boats. So, the training cycle continues with them. Prior to any deployment, you have to be what they call special operations capable. You're given numerous tasks that you have to complete, and they have advisers or civilian referee, I would say, and they watched to see that you carry out the mission properly etc., and again, you have to pass certain tasks to make your unit special operations capable, so you can be eligible for deployment. It's not like you're going over there; there are things you've got to do, but we did pass, and so now, we're deployed again for me, not a happy camper, but also, our mission I guess this time was to be contingency force in another part of the world, and this was Somalia. I can't recall if I knew that we were going to Somalia before I deployed or I found out about it while we were deployed, like I said, if we're deployed for six months, and something happens in our area of the world, we're obviously called upon to assist. I'm with the First Battalion, Second Marines, Alpha Company, and I found myself deployed to Somalia. ... Somalia had occurred, and we were prepping to go to Somalia because I believe when Operation Restore Hope, that was the name given for that operation, they had Marines from West Coast land in Somalia first, and the whole purpose of Operation Restore Hope was because during that timeframe I believe there was the government overthrow, people were dying of starvation, there was no order in that country, and all those organizations to help to bring aid and food to that country, well apparently, they were having a difficult time, because it was, like I said, it was a war torn country, and they had these gunmen running all over the place, and of course, they were attacking the food convoys at the distribution centers. We had civilians over there, whether it be doctor, nurse or an aid worker, and you're getting ambushed and held at gunpoint by these armed factions, of course, you're not going to resist that, so that's what prompted this, I believe, this whole further action of Operation Restore Hope was to go there and help provide security for these distribution centers, the food distribution centers, but ... the Marines in the West Coast, they were deployed there first, and now, it was our turn to go there and relieve them for our six months deployment. So prepping, gearing up, as I said, going across the Atlantic again. This time, this ship was smaller than the last ship, like I said the Saipan was an aircraft carrier. This was, the Nashville, it is a lot smaller conditions, a little bit more cramped, but now I find myself in Somalia. Of course, like I said, our mission was to restore hope. The country was going through rough times. They experienced drought; for the longest time nothing was growing there. They didn't have an up and running government, there was just warlords and fascist guns running rampant, no water whatsoever. So, I had to like prepare myself to say we're getting into a different kind of situation. This is not like Operation Desert Storm where it's like force on force where you can actually see the enemy. This is a whole different type of mission because you're not fighting say like an organized army. These are just sporadic groups, gunmen I should say, which is, I found out later on, I actually shot at more in Somalia than I was in Desert Storm, and I'll get into that. So, we landed in Somalia, and we were given our mission statement, our area of responsibility, you know. We hit the beaches, show of force, and again, I believe our first area of responsibility was to secure or guard the Red Cross building. This is where they housed the doctors and nurses. It was like a three story high compound and it had walls around it and everything, but we wanted to make sure they were safe, because they're out there taking care of all the civilians Somalians that were in need of help.
NM: Could I just follow through quickly and where in Somalia is there?
TN: There are common places. I believe the first place we went to is Mogadishu. I can remember a couple of other places, (Kismayo?) that was another town or another region, and I'll get to that later as far as what we did in (Kismayo?). I think we landed in Mogadishu, and we assist there ...
NM: I just wanted to ask as well, when you found that you were going to be deployed again overseas, and you find you were going to Somalia, was your family's reaction the same as when you were being deployed to Kuwait?
TN: Right, first time in the Desert Storm, coming home I found out how upset and how stressed the family was. So, when Somalia erupted, and again, it was all over the news and everything about the conditions over there, yes, I got to go home for a little while to my family before I deployed, and this time, I kind of didn't want to do anything like put them on edge again. I just pretty much painted a picture to tell them because obviously I told them I was going over there, and of course, they watched the news, they see what's happening over there. Of course, the news shows a lot of the violence going on there, and they're concerned, but I told my mom and dad, my brothers and sisters, we're going over there to help out and make sure that these people are being fed. They were dying of starvation, and I put it in a way to make them feel a little bit more at ease as not to say like we're going to combat, but we're going there as a peace keeping mission to restore hope to get that country back up and running because people need our help. So, when I explained it to them that way, I believe it made them feel a little better, and it wasn't as intense as it was the first time when I went to deploy to Desert Storm, but of course, they were concerned. I don't know how concerned. Of course, they said, "Be careful, good luck," when you deploy.
NM: Okay so you are in Mogadishu and you are guarding the Red Cross building.
TN: So, yes, our main responsibility was to guard the Red Cross building. It was a compound surrounded by like an eight foot cement wall, and here I am right off the ship on a convoy vehicle and dropped off in another part of the world, and believe me, I've got to say, these were bad conditions. You drive through the streets, and you see the Somalians staring at you. It takes me back to when I was a child growing up in the fishing village in Vietnam. There I was with a convoy of soldiers driving through my town. Now, I'm a convoy going through thire town, and there's a bunch of smiling kids, we were entertainment for them. This is something big for them, and now, I was up there looking down, and I'm watching the little kids, and it reminded me "that was me," and of course, this is the country that needed our help, and they welcomed us; the majority of the people were appreciative of our presence, and like I said, getting to our objective, the Red Cross building, we quickly established the perimeter, provided 24/7 security, man the gates and just made sure that the compound was secured and safe for the doctors and nurses and staff that were aiding the Somalians. Day to day basis, anybody coming in and out of the place they had to be checked out, I guess IDed, etc., and right up front of the gate a group of children, again I don't know how old they were, because you've got to understand they were like malnourished, but there's lots of kids every day just waiting for a hand out. So, then we go through the first day thinking of the worst, like hey, you know, where are these warlords, the gangs, the factions etc., the dangerous men, and like I said, the first night there, no big deal, no incidents, and sure enough, the second night, I believe, keep in mind that the area that we're in, there is no electricity unless you have a generator, of course, there's no like running water, very poor living conditions. The best way to describe it, it's a lot of these huts, and they were like made out of, I'm going to say paper mache, and well, I'll describe it to you what they do is they take sticks, and they arch them, sort of like a dome ten, equivalent to like a four man dome tent or maybe bigger, and they just weave it back and forth with sticks, and they take actual newspaper, and they soak it in mud, and they lay the newspaper drenched in mud over the frame and that dries and that hardens up, and that's their shelter, majority of them in the area that I was in, that was their home, it's maybe ten foot in diameter, and that's majority of them, in the area, that's how they lived. I was just thinking, "Oh, my God; it's just horrible." Then there's other structures like stucco homes, again it wasn't lavish with any furniture or anything; it was just bare homes. I can't even describe it. Like I said, it's poor living conditions. The country was in ruins. So, back to our area of responsibility, and again, the second night we were just manning our positions etc. All of a sudden, we get shot at in the middle of the night. It just like came out of nowhere, you don't know where it's coming from, you just get down, then you call it in, and they have units out there that are on Humvees, the mobile units, they're called reaction force. You call them and they'll go and engage the area that you believe the shots came from. Again this type of conflict was definitely a lot more difficult because they were civilians or I might say like dressed as civilians shooting at you in the middle of night, and you can't see who or where they're at, and they can just as easily hide their weapons once they shoot at you. By the time you get there, you'll never know who did it; you don't speak their language. It's very difficult, so you're subject to this nightly. I won't say every night, but the few weeks that we were there, in that location, we got shot at a few times again night time. No one got killed or hurt and after that area that we were securing, another group came and relieved us, and we pressed on with different missions. So, now our objective at this point is to work with the Pakistanis, the United Nations unit that was there. So, we were guarding a food distribution center, this big warehouses, and this is where they house the food, and I've got to say, the line of people waiting for food, and I don't recall what kind of food, but I just know it was a lot of rice, a lot of like flour, and a lot of like cartons of milk, and I said I've never seen anything like this before, the line of the people waiting for food was farther than you could see. It had to be miles, and they're just waiting there patiently. As I said, it dawned on me like these people are starving, and they're dying of starvation. You and I can sit here and say, "Can you imagine anybody here dying of starvation in the United States?" and you would say, "No, that's almost impossible," because there is always someone to turn to, friends, family, food distribution centers, soup kitchens, something. I'm pretty sure we can always say that there's no way you can die of starvation here like I say my immediate surroundings of where I grew up here, but here they're dying of starvation and that to me is just overwhelming. Can you imagine just like wilting away because there's no food? You can die in like car accidents, violence etc., but they're dying from the one thing that I can't comprehend, but sure enough, like I said, they're waiting for food, and I felt so bad, and at the same time I feel grateful that we're there to provide security so these other war factions wouldn't attack the food distribution centers like they did before, because before we interjected, if you had a gun, if you had a group of people with guns, you have taken over, you've taken all the food for yourself, and you pretty much say screw everybody else, the strong survive type of mentality, and that's not right, so that's why we were there, and like I said, to see them in line for food is just horrific when they get there, they would just get like a certain portion of the food. I don't know how long it's going to last them, but it's better than nothing, and water was a big issue too. Now keep in mind, this country hadn't gotten a lot of rain for a long time, and it was like a very barren place, and so, we proceeded to our next location or objective and that was in the town of (Kismayo?). It's a very small town, but we got word that there's a lot of these warlords are there, there were members with guns etc. were hiding in that area, and so, part of our mission is obviously to neutralize them basically. So, I recall it was around four in the morning when we launched this operation where the whole battalion, over a thousand marines were on line, still dark, and we were, like I said, maybe ten, fifteen feet apart in one long line, and we swept through this town, so we did a no knock entrance, and we basically searched, they got everybody out of the house, made sure they weren't armed, and then, we searched their house to find weapons, because like I said, we intel that a lot of the warlords and the factions were harboring in this area. Again, we just continued to do that, house after house. It was very impressive, like I said, to see a thousand marines on line just sweeping through this town and searching. Again, at the end of the day I believe, around like noontime, it was really hot, and we completed our mission, we recovered over a hundred and fifty weapons of all sorts, AK-47s, so we helped take a lot of guns off the street or the hands of the bad guys as they say. So, it was worthwhile. I found a weapon that was stashed in one of the houses, and of course, when you find something like that, you have to detain the members of that household. Of course they didn't speak English, so protocol was to call it in, and a vehicle would come and pick them up take them for, like I said, interrogation of some sort and, like I said, that's with the higher (echelon?), but I was glad I helped with the efforts, and I took an AK-47 with three full magazines. Of course the intent of that weapon was obviously to do harm to us. So, it was quite an accomplishment, like I said. So, not only do you have to deal with like helping out the people who are starving but you have to deal with the opposition; people shooting at you, and I couldn't comprehend. I'm like they must know that we're there not to fight them, but to assist them by bringing food to this country to help feed their countrymen. Well, we didn't show any violence; it wasn't our intent. The whole mission was Operation Restore Hope, and that's exactly what it was. So, I just couldn't understand like again, why they would do that, why they would harm us when our sole intent was to help them and showed no sign of aggression. Of course, if they did, we would retaliate, but that's just part of the rules of engagement, but we still got a mission to do. After that whole search of the town (Kismayo?), we moved out to another area, and this was, I forgot the name of the river, but it was the river that bordered Kenya and Somalia, and we got word that they may be shipping weapons across the river, so our objective was to provide security on the Somalian side of the river and of course, dig in, as they say, and form a defensive perimeter and watch for any activities that could come across the river and of course, take action. So now, I'm on the river, the vegetation is overwhelming. You've got coconut trees, you've got mango trees, papayas, you've got banana trees. It's a very lush vegetation area along the river, because of the water obviously, we just pretty much staggered ourselves along the river. I'll be here and another Marine would be like twenty-five yards away and another one after that, and every morning, like I said, when we got to our area, there was always a group of Somalian kids that were curious just like I was back in Vietnam, and they would just stand there and watch you. Of course, I had my little entourage; there was like seven kids, and this incident pretty much sums it all about the conditions of that area. I'm just sitting there on my cot there on the edge of the river, of course nothing is going on, so you've got all this downtime, and you have your little entourage of kids that are curious and just staring at you, and I'm a very friendly guy, so I asked them their names, and out of like seven kids, four of them were named (Muhammad?). I don't recall the rest of the names of the kids, but of course, they always make this gesture by putting their hands in their mouth like to give them food, to feed me, and you do what you can. Of course, you have the military food ration, MRE, but we also bring some extra stuff, like when, keep in mind, I was on the Nashville, and we deployed to Somalia; we're on land now, and on the ship, they sell like other food, one of them being like Ramen Noodles. I'm sure everybody know what that is, very light and very filling, so it's great food for the infantry guys, like I said, and it's one of our food of choice, because it was light and plentiful, and cheap too. So, I'm with the seven smiling kids that were just there every day staring at me, waiting for a handout, so I decide, I said, "I'll make them some noodles for them." So the best I could to try to explain to them because again they didn't speak English. I asked the one kid; I said, "Go home. Can you bring me a cooking pot?" and I made the shape of a cooking pot with my hands because I showed him the pack of noodles. He said, "Yes, yes, yes." He understood what I meant. So, he ran home, and he came back, and I thought he was going to be back with a cooking pot it turned out to be like a dome shaped hubcap like a deep dish hubcap. It was all dented up, charred, and I said to myself this is really what they use to cook their food in because you could see that it's been used before; it was like I said, it was truly a hubcap. I said, "Alright, no big deal," started a fire, and they're all squatting around me, and I pour my canteen of water in the hubcap there, makeshift pot I guess, and water is boiling I put in the noodles, stir it up with the stick, and again, they're all hovered around like really tight looking at it, watching the food cook, and as I was cooking--it was boiling--one of the kids actually went in there and grabbed the noodles, I guess, at the bottom; I'm like, "Hey, hey it's hot, no touch, no touch, hot." Now, I realize they were that hungry; they weren't even willing to wait, but all of a sudden out of nowhere, one of the bigger kids, again I don't know how old they were, because they were malnourished, but this kid, he was, I'd say equivalent to like a teenager; the other kids were smaller like seven to nine year olds, but the tallest kid there, out of nowhere, he just grabs the whole pot of noodles, while it was still boiling on the fire, keep in mind, and started running away with it and all in a split second before I can say, "Hey wait, you know, stop." He was already running and not only that, but he's grabbing the noodles and shoving it in his mouth as he's running; it's hot boiling noodles. This is like pretty intense, and I'm screaming to him, "Stop," and all the little kids, they were yelling whatever they're yelling in their language, started chasing after him. Again, I couldn't leave my position, so I pretty much observed at that point. So, as he was running away and looking back and shoving the noodles in his mouth, there was this old man who was herding some goats, I guess with a stick. He apparently saw what was happening, so as the culprit, as I say, was running away, he didn't see the old man in front of him, so the old man he just took that switch stick that he was using to herd the goats, and he struck the kid right below the knees, in the shin, and the kid just fell down onto his face, the pot of noodles was just scattered everywhere, and it was like I said, dirt and dry grass terrain, and this why I'm telling this. Now the kid is laying down, he's crying, he's yelling, and the old man is saying whatever he's saying to him, because he saw what happened, that he stole and ran. Now, all the little kids that was chasing him finally catches up to where the kid fell with the noodles, and there it was; it was the saddest thing I've seen. They were all squatting on the ground picking the pieces of noodles from the ground and eating it, finding a little piece here, a little piece there, dirt, grass mixing with it and just eating it, and I just said to myself like that is, you know, so sad and so bad that they live in this condition, and like I said right there pretty much sums up the condition that they're in and how our efforts there to help them out was just that story and that whole experience will always be in my mind, and as I said, when you're over in other countries, and you've seen the conditions, when you come back home, you don't take life for granted. From that experience, coming home, like I said, I can tell the story to other people, but whatever, in one ear, out the other, but to me, every time I see a pack of Ramen Noodles, it brings me back to that incident, but again, we still had to do what we had to do, do the best we can to help them out, and another ordeal, we're patrolling the river at the river's edge, so just like I said, walking from one village to another etc., we came upon, well again, we stopped in this one area, and I just observed this old man fishing from the river, and he's using like a bamboo pole sort of like the Huckleberry Finn pole I call it, and he's trying to catch fish. Now, I'm a big fisherman myself; fishing is one of my favorite hobbies, so I'm watching him, because it's very interesting, and he keeps tugging on the line like he's trying to pull a fish, but he's missing, so, you know, maybe the fish is too small, they're taking the hook, so I come up to him to watch closer, and I noticed he's using a safety pin as a hook, and everybody knows that that will not hold the fish; if the fish bites it, it's just going to bend it, and it will not hook the fish. Now, it just so happens my gear is a little pack with a survival gear in it, and one of the items is two fish hooks, eight feet of fishing line, and some sinkers, split shots as they're called. So, I take my knife, cut down the bamboo pole, made myself a fishing pole with the hook and everything, and I asked the old man for a piece of bait of what he was using. I believe it was a crushed snail that he had smashed, and he was using pieces of that snail. Sure enough, I baited my hook, put it in the water, it instantly got a bite, pulled it out, catfish. It was like a one pounder and again, caught a fish, and my little entourage, that was still with me by the way--they followed you wherever you go--they were screaming with joy and very happy, and they even took the fish off the hook for me, and I took one of my piece of rope I had with me, it's like parachute cord, it was like an all purpose type, and we kind like strung the fish as I was catching one after another after another. I must have caught over a dozen catfish, and the little kids were ecstatic, because that's food for them. It wasn't the fact that you're catching fish, but they have something to eat now, and to show my appreciation, I gave the old man one of my extra hooks, and, you know, he bowed in gratitude, and he started catching fish. So, I had this whole group of people around me, watching me catch fish, and like I said, a bunch of the kids there, and they're helping, so we had to move on, so I gave the fishing pole I had to one of the kids, you always have one of your favorites, and, you know, this kid, he was like a little kid. He was very obedient, and he always had a smile, so I gave him the fishing pole, and I said goodbye to the kids, and again, we moved on. Then further down the river, we stopped at another area, and it just so happens that we went through what they call a flea market; it's like their version of flea market, outdoor they're selling stuff like that, and again, you can't eat any of the foods there, just because you're in a different part of the country you don't want to be sick or anything like that or drink the water there. We drank bottled water; that was our main source of water supply or the ship produced fresh water, and it was trucked into us, but we went to the little flea market there, and again, it's nothing like ours. It's just whatever you had to sell; it wasn't much, me and my buddy, we happened to come upon on this fruit stand, and there are two little girls, and I'd say they would be the equivalent of like twelve or thirteen year old girls here, and they were just manning the fruit stand. Again, we couldn't eat the food there, but fruit obviously it couldn't be contaminated of course; it's natural, and we were in country so long we didn't have fruit or anything like that. We were, just like as I said, eating MREs, so this was a treat. So, I took my hat off, my boonie cover, and I just started selecting bananas, mangoes, I think papaya, I think a couple other fruits; I can't recall totally, but I piled up basically, and my buddy did the same. So, I go to pay for it, and again, all I had was American money, and apparently the Somalian money wasn't, I don't know it was any good anymore because of the condition of the country, but they definitely accept American money, and one thing I know anywhere in the world, they accept American money. So, I take out a five dollar bill, and so, did my buddy, and I showed it to the girls. I said, "Is this okay?" Of course they didn't speak English; I'm said, "Okay, alright?" and they took it, and I made sure that they're okay with that. I mean, trust me when I tell you, I got more than five dollars of fruit in American stores for sure, they took it, and again I just made sure that it was okay, and they gave me the nod of approval as we walked away, I just heard some laughter of joy. We turned around, and the two girls were holding hands jumping up and down together and with laughter and excitement, and I realized that the money we had just given them ten dollars, five dollars each was a lot for them. It made them that happy that they actually like grabbed hands and jumped for joy. So, I guess to say that we pretty much helped them out quite a bit, but the whole moral of that story is like five dollars over there compared to five dollars over here, they're jumping for joy over it. So, just pressing on through Somalia, I don't know how to describe; the environment was just so bad. ... People dying of starvation, and this is another image that probably won't leave me. On a convoy moving to another location, and the convoy stopped because whatever obstruction up ahead, and then, when we got close to it, I realized what it was, that they had the bulldozers just dig like a trench off the side of the road, and the reason was it was a mass grave. Like I said, people were dying like hundreds a day, from what I heard, from starvation. That is just crazy, and they were, like I said, burying groups of people at a time. ... They actually had to use a bulldozer to make the mass graves, I guess. That was sad to see, and again, you just can't help it. Everybody is different as far as their way of feeling, their way of dealing with issues. You know, you may all wear the same uniform when you're over there, but everybody still has a unique character about themselves, and to me, I took is as like, to say how great do we have it back here. I'm not saying better you than me; no way, I'm just saying that it makes you realizes that you really have it good over here, and they're suffering, and it makes you take like a reality check, I say, and of course, that's for the good, because like I said before, numerous times I don't take life for granted. I've been to all parts of the world where they're suffering and the conditions are the worst, and for anybody to ever say about this country that it is bad or it's unfair etc., trust me when I tell you, no one can honestly make comparison of any sort unless they have experienced others. Do you get what I'm trying to say? Like you can't say this is the best etc. when you hadn't seen other parts of the world etc. Well I have, and I can honestly say that this country is the best. I mean, people don't realize what they have here, and I hope, like I said, my stories will open their eyes to that to say this is what you have, and this what they have, or I should say what they don't have, but Somali to me was definitely something that will stick in my mind forever, because of the condition that people of that country were going through. So, we just continued our presence there trying to rid of the factions of the warlords, bringing order back to the country and just providing, like I said, our presence. So, then at one point, we had to move up north to train with, I believe, with the Kuwaiti soldiers from the last deployment. Well, it was like a joint exercise. So, when we left our area of responsibility, which was the food distribution center, the Pakistani soldiers, they occupied that area first. They took over, and then, we moved on. Apparently, while we were in training, we got word that their position was ambushed or attacked by Somalians, and the Pakistani unit that was there took casualties. I believe it was like maybe twenty-five killed and seventy-five injured like during this whole ambush by the Somalians, so we had to cease what we're doing and stead back to that area and help out. So, now we're back there, and our objective now is to help train the Pakistani soldiers to, like I guess, to repel fire in an urban area, you know, house to house fighting as they call it. That's the toughest kind of warfare you're going to have is when fighting house to house, because the opposition enemy could be anywhere hiding. It's not like an open field etc. where shots come from any direction, and you're the target. Ninety percent of the time they're watching you, and you don't have the advantage of finding out where they are till the shots rang out. Anyway, now our objective was to train the Pakistani soldiers. So, that's what my squad was tasked with. Now, I'm a corporal and a squad leader, so they gave us a squad of Pakistani soldiers, and we would match up Marine to soldier, and we would run drill scenarios. Again, the language barrier was difficult, but I was able to like get through to their squad leader, I guess, and he would then translate to the rest of his squad, but overall, we taught them the basics of urban combat etc., and we left it at that. So, hopefully what we did to help save more lives in case they get ambushed again. So, it's a good feeling to know you helped somebody out to better protect themselves etc. or know how to handle situations. After that, I continued day to day operations just being in country, and every so often, your unit would get relieved to go back to the ship. I think it's like every two weeks, so you can go there and shower off on the ship, spend the night, so now that bed on the ship isn't so bad. At first I was saying, the cramped conditions, but now, like I said, after being two weeks in that dust filled country, dry, you know, aromatic country, I don't know even what you want to call it, the stench from the different things, it's horrible, hot, a hundred and fifteen degrees in the shade is crazy, and you're wearing all these gear, and that takes its toll on you. You can only brave the elements so long, but again we were relieved every couple of weeks to go back to the ship and shower up, shave and clean up, and then, you're brought back to shore and continue on. Those to me were the most memorable moments in Somalia, but in closing, I'd just like to say my tour in Somalia was probably the most memorable, because of the conditions that the country had to go through, and the people there, and it almost like reflected to what I went through when I was growing up, but not so bad as say the Somalians, but it was different condition; we were like fleeing the country to avoid enemy capture or attack, but in Somali, they're facing a different type of issue, and that's starvation, but still our presence there as the troops and seeing the kids there, it just kind of took me back to when I was growing up. That's the comparison I make in Somalia, that here's a country that in need of aid, and United States again to lend a hand to put lives at risk, to save others. That, like I said, in itself, anybody can talk bad about this country, I tell you this though, but anytime another country needs help, we're there. We're there to provide whatever assistance they need, whether it be natural disasters or war torn countries, and I guess later on, like I said, during my years of enlistment we've been labeled the 911 of the world force; it's definitely taken a different route as far as our mission objective, more, it started to become a more humanitarian operations versus, like I said, like Desert Storm, but still over all, our purpose is to help others, but going back to Somalia, we finally left the country, and we were relieved by the army rangers, so they occupied our positions etc., and then, we got back to the ship and made our way home. Our tour was over; we didn't have any casualties. I mean, no one was injured. I believe our mission and our presence there was a success to do what we can to help them out. So, then we were relieved by the army rangers, and like I said, three days out to sea, on our way home, we get word that the army rangers had launched a major offensive attack to find General Aidid. He was like the main ... warlord in charge of the region, and he was "the guy," and if you recall the movie Black Hawk Down, ... it depicted that raid, that the army rangers had launched to find General Aidid, and like I said, when they did that, we were three days out to sea, and of course, we got word that the rangers, you know, took casualties etc. We had word to turn around and come back to Somalia to help out with the efforts, and we were on our way back, so now the tension on the ship is we were on our way home, and the next thing you know, we're getting orders to turn around and come back. Well, I'm sure now we're going on faster rate of speed to get back, so it would be a day or two to get back, and now it's for a different purpose, and this is to engage in a combat environment, because of what the rangers are going through. Then, a day later, we get word that they're pulling the plug on the whole operation, meaning like everyone is ordered to vacate Somalia. I'm assuming rumor had that it was President Clinton at the time who issued that order, as commanding chief. So, now we turn around, and now we're heading back home, and again, the order was to vacate the whole country of Somalia. So, ... the next thing I know is that hey we're on our way home and everybody's out of the country, and I couldn't help, but to think like, "What now? What about all those food distribution centers? What about all the shooting that's taking place by the factions?" They're in the same predicament without our presence there. It's right back to what it was when we first got there, and what a lot of people don't realize is that when we left there it wasn't like the country was restored, order was put back in place. They were still without a government, they were still starving, but yet no one, like I said, I know that, not everybody knows that. It may have been projected on the news to say we were out of the area for whatever reason, but to this day I'm sure Somalia is probably in the same condition as far as it was when we were there, and I'm talking about the starvation issue, and the country being ruined, and the living conditions etc. I don't think we helped rebuild that type of structure for them. Of course, then there's this other issues with the Somalian pirates that we've been hearing about attacking ships for ransom etc. That's just a few, but the majority of the people there are still hurting, but you follow orders, and you move on, so we made our way back home, and that's pretty much my experience in Somalia. So it's different this time coming home from this particular part of the world, I guess, because when I was in Desert Storm, you know, we're liberating a country under a tyrant's rule, so it was like we were the victor, we were the heroes, you know, we pushed out the bad guys, but in Somalia it was different. We're there to provide aid and to provide assistance etc., food, and then part of me it just feels like we left that country, and we didn't really help them recover and I feel bad that we left the country so promptly and like I said, pulled the plug on the whole issue, and I don't know. It just seemed like all I could take from that is there are people in other parts of the world that are probably in the same predicament, and it's just the way life is, I guess, and you have to accept it. So, live life the best you can and learn from your experience; hopefully that will make you a better person, I believe it for me.
NM: So how much time in your enlistment did you have when you returned to the States?
TN: I believe we deployed in February of '93, and returned, I think it was in August, after six months, and then, we come back to the States, so '93 I was scheduled for end of active service December 10th, '93 of that year. So, we're back in the States, and we're just back to training again, and at one point, it's a rotation that while I'm based there's always a company, which is about a hundred and fifty marines in the company, that have to be on standby status, and that's like in case there's emergency that you always have a unit ready to deploy, and when you're on say on standby status, what they call an air alert company, meaning you cannot leave the base, you have to have all your gear and everything ready to go in a moment's notice, and it just so happens that our company, First Battalion, Second Marines, Alpha Company was, it was our turn for the standby, and I think it's like a week long, and again, you're prohibited from leaving the base, and you have to tell your supervisor your whereabouts etc., and you had to be able to reached. At the time beepers, were in technology, I remember that, but it just so happens, I can't recall the month exactly, Haiti, apparently back in '93, was going through some difficult times, and I believe the military was attempting to overthrow the government, so they were obviously in a bad situation, and we were deployed to that region to help out and mainly to take out or help the American embassy personnel to get them out of there, because they started protesting around that American embassy, and they fear that they may be overrun and possibly killed. So, we deployed, got on a C130 transport, landed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and prepared for the extraction of the American embassy personnel in Haiti, because of the uproar. So, we were like I said, just prepping in Guantanamo Bay just to have some type of mission plan because from what I gathered, the compound that the American embassy was in, wasn't that big, and there was no room to land a helicopter for them to board, and you cannot land on the building because the roof is too weak. It would not sustain the weight of the helicopter so our mission was basically to go in there, provide security and hover one of the helicopters above the compound, drop a bag full of these harnesses where the civilian employees could get into the harness, and they'd be teetered to the rope, and they would be extracted in that manner. ... I was actually, at the time, I went through this special training; it's called the HRST, (Helo?) Rope Suspension Training, so basically, I was qualified in rappelling out of a helicopters, fast roping is where they deploy a larger rope out the back of the helicopter while it's hovering, and you just grab onto the rope, and you slide down it like a fireman's pole to the ground and to go complete your objective and another one was called SPIE, which stands for Special Insertion Extraction. So, basically the way I describe it is like there's this hundred and fifty foot rope, and every ten feet, there is a metal ring, that's embedded in the rope, so you would wear this harness, step into the harness, strap it all tight, and in the back of you, there is a rope with another carabineer, they call it, it's like a snap ring, and what would you do, is you would hook that to the main rope that's connected to the helicopter, and again depending on the helicopter, it can lift off a certain amount of personnel. So, you would again hook yourself to that rope that has the carabineer in it, and the helicopter will take off, pulling you and whoever else in the air to extract you. So, you'd be hanging underneath the helicopter a hundred fifty feet while it's hovering in the sky just taking you to a safe location. That was the primary objective of how we were going to go in and extract the American embassy personnel. So, we were all ready to go in a moment's notice, just waiting for word, because as I said, the protestors are at the gate, they were getting ready to storm the place as they say, but apparently Jesse Jackson and former President Carter, Jimmy Carter they went over to Haiti, and I guess diplomatically resolved the issues that the government and the military were having, so they kept the peace, and we stand down from our operations. We didn't have to go there and do what we're going to do, which is a good thing, because it could have gotten ugly.
NM: I am just thinking, the reason why I am smiling a little bit is because it sounds like they really got you, the Marines really got their money's worth out of you.
TN: Yes that's quite interesting to say, because if you recall, in the beginning of this interview, I told my parents, I was like, "Don't worry Mom, Dad, there's nothing going on," and this is 1989, and there was nothing going on. Now that I almost at the conclusion of this interview yes, I can say, you know, what I really did a lot, I mean for an average four year enlistment, and again, I didn't really notice this until I saw my discharge papers, of the different places I went to, the different areas of operations, and yes, you could say what you said that definitely I was very active during the time frame that I was in.
NM: How did your experience in the Marines affect your life because you had these amazing experiences? After you're discharge from the Marines, what did you think you would do in civilian life, would you go to college, would you go to work, etc.? Could you elaborate on that?
TN: Well, to answer the first part of your question is about how it's affected me, sitting here now, I can say the best thing I did was to join the Marine Corps. Like I said earlier, also I said my parents didn't have any money for us kids to go to college, so I knew that wasn't an option, and also, one of the reasons I joined the Marine Corps, like I said, earlier was to give something back to the country that helped my family and so many other Vietnamese refugees to be part of like I said a helping nation as I see it. So, that was definitely a fulfillment that I definitely satisfied my objective and then going in the Marine Corps and going through what I described, it made me a better person, not to say I was any worse, but like I said, it opened my eyes and just made me realize everything is good over here in the United States, and I know, because I've been there; I've been to the other parts of the world. So, definitely you kind of treat people different when you're going through such tough times, life threatening, you know, situations, etc., and you don't take life for granted. So, that right there, as far as the Marine Corps experiences, is very, like I said, is a positive thing that I did in my life, and to this day, I'm so dedicated to the saying they have, "Once a Marine, always a Marine," and again, I'm not putting down any other branch of service. It's just that like anything when you're in different organization they have this camaraderie, the esprit de corps just like sports team, how you taunt the other teams etc. The same almost goes to the other branch of service, but I can say that the Marines, we are very tight group. The camaraderie is unmatched, and what I mean is, if I'm wearing my hat and it says Marine Corps or a shirt, and I see another person in civilian world wearing some type of Marine insignia of some sort, you just naturally go up to that person, and extend your greetings and the one motto that we have is called Semper Fi, short for Semper Fidelis, which means always faithful to yourself, your corps, and your comrade, your country and your God, and that's like, when we greet another person that we know is a Marine, it's just like Semper Fi, and he returns the same, that is like he's your brother. What I mean in a sense is like this complete stranger you don't know anything about, but because, you know, that he's a Marine, you have that instant bond, and that carries to this day whether it be anybody in the street, you see another Marine, whether it be bumper sticker, it's just a very tight group, and I'm really proud of that. Like I said I'm grateful that I was able to be part of something with so much tradition and so much honor. So, that was, like I said, my Marine Corps experience and the positive way that it affected me. Now going to the second part of your question about when I was at the end of my active service, you know, that day is vivid too. Here I am getting closer to my EAS, they call it, end of active service. At first, the few months before that, I can't wait, I'm going to be back in the civilian world, and I'm going to be chilling, relaxing, not taking orders, doing what I want. Then, as the days creep closer, then you start to reflect. You start to say like, "Man, I can't believe what I did here," and, "What's going to happen now?" and of course, when you get out, you've got to find employment. Again, if you recall, my main objective is to go into the Marine Corps and be what do you call, in the engineer corps, a heavy equipment operator, so I can get certified, come out and work jobs working heavy equipment, somehow I went to the infantry field. Of course, when you get out into the world, what kind of qualifications would that be equivalent to in the civilian world. So, I decided to go into the law enforcement field, and so, one of the things that they did on base prior to you leaving is to help you with your resume, career choices etc., so they helped me print out a resume of the things I did in the Marine Corps, the accomplishments, etc., and when I got out again, it was, I can still remember that day pretty clearly, leaving that base, jogging out of there for the last time, packing everything in my vehicle and got my orders, honorable discharge, and like I said, it was weird feeling knowing like I can't believe I just accomplished that, four years ago, and here I am, but like I said, you still feel like a Marine to this day, you just have that, I don't know how to explain it, but anyway, officially I'm out of there, and I go back home, and I'm working on finding employment, so I submit my resume to local law enforcement, Edison PD. They responded that they were hiring off a list at a time, so I also applied for civil service exam, which I took the test and unbeknownst to me that I had under civil service guidelines, I have what they call veterans' preference, and what that means is, because I was from the service and I was in different theaters of combat, etc., that civil service of New Jersey recognized that you served the country, State, etc., that you have veterans' preference, so you, when you take the test, you had like an advantage. Your service is taken into account, and what that means is when I took the civil service exam, I scored like a ninety-four, I believe. Apparently, if I didn't have veterans' preference, and I scored a ninety-four, you really wouldn't get hired. Keep in mind, when I applied for civil service exam for the sheriff's department. Let me just back up. When I got out of the Marine Corps, I applied for a different law enforcement agency etc. It wasn't that easy, you know. It was very competitive, and so, after I got out, I went back into the construction field. As I said, I just went back, did what I had to do, and again, my objective was go into law enforcement career field, but it took like I said, a few years, so it wasn't until '95 is when I was told about the civil service exam, and I took that, and again, I found out that I had a veterans' preference status, so I got a phone call, I got a letter stating my score and my rank, and apparently, keep in mind, when I took the test, there were five positions available, and I believe over eight hundred applicants took the tests for five positions, so it was very competitive, and like I said before, a year before, I probably wouldn't have made it, because there were other people that had hundred or ninety-nines, etc., so you wouldn't even be considered, but because I had veterans' preference, I was put into the veterans' preference group, so all other guys that have veterans' preference, we were considered first, and it so happens that out of how many veterans preference that took the test, I came out number four on the test, out of five positions, so that's how I was able to be interviewed and of course, went to the Middlesex County Sheriff's Department where I took the test in order to interview with them, and from there, everything looked good, I went to have a physical before training at the police academy just because my enlistment in the Marine Corps. Just for clarification, veterans' preference, a lot of people misunderstands that. It's, like I said, because I was engaged in a combat theater etc., I served overseas etc., because let's just say if someone were just in the military, and for the whole term of enlistment they were say stationed here stateside, and they never were overseas, or never were engaged in any type of combat action, they would not get veterans' preference. A lot of people misunderstand that term; they think that anybody who joins the military gets the veterans' preference. No, it's only the ones that actually engaged in combat action or did operation of some sort like Iraqi, Afghanistan, those guys are deployed over there they would have their veteran's preference, and you have to serve in that certain region of that country, which is considered like a combat zone, a red zone, for I believe ninety days, I could be wrong, but I think you have to be there ninety days or more in order to qualify for the veterans' preference status, because like I said, if you just join the military, and you don't go anywhere, and you're just stationed here in the States, you're not going to have that. It's just so happens that my neighbor when I got out, he was in the Navy, he tried to apply for veterans' preference, and he wasn't qualified, whereas I was, but that gave me the edge, and I was interviewed by the Middlesex Sheriff's Department. I accepted the position, and you go through the police academy, and it was just like boot camp all over again, but again, I have an advantage because I went through boot camp, and I know what the experience is like, and that's going to make it easier, because I know the purpose of any like boot camp, the police academy is to weed out the weak, to weed out the non-hackers, because if you can't handle the stress, then they wouldn't want you out there in the field, because you won't be able to handle it there, and you would just be a danger to yourself and to others. That's the purpose besides the learning the laws, the physical exercises, firearms etc., but yes, here I am in the police academy, the screaming and the yelling again all over, but this time I knew that I was in that say scare factor mode again. I knew it was just something that I had to get through, and as I said, it was a lot easier for me than other recruits at the police academy, and also in the police academy, the instructors, one of the first questions they ask when we got there orientation day, is they ask you to raise your hand if you were in the military, so of course, I raised my hand, and they went to each person that raised their hand, and they asked what branch of service, so one guy said Army, another one Army, Navy, Marines etc. He came to me, and I told him; I said, "Marine Corps." Apparently, they were looking for that, because we all wound up as squad leaders in the police academy. I guess it's because our military bearing, the marching etc. just obeying orders etc. they just found that to be an asset to have someone in that position already. So, that was an advantage also. After the academy, I believe it was about six months, and I went to the John H. Standler Police Academy in Union County, and I got out and graduated, and my family were there this time, and it was another proud moment because now another chapter in my life, and I'm the first one, like I said, in my family to go into the law enforcement field, and this time it was different. I am in uniform again. I have a gun, carry a gun still; the danger factor is there, but like I said my parents and family, ... they were proud. I'm not going to say prouder than I was when I came home from Desert Storm, but as I say it's a different kind of accomplishment that they know will carry me the rest of my life and to see that your son, like I said, serve his country. My parents don't speak English that well, so I speak Vietnamese to them, but I remember my mom when I got home saying and, you know, like I said, it's different with my family; we don't show too much affection, but she said something to me; she said, "I've always been proud of you." That to me, is something my mom never says to me, and I was actually stunned for a little bit, because I don't know how to react, because this is something that parents just don't say that often. She said, "I was always proud of you," and I think what she meant was go back to the time when I enlisted to the present that everything I've done has made them proud, and all I can say is, growing up, three older brothers and three sisters, and I'm not only doing a thing for myself, the whole family was proud of me too. So, it was all for them too, and then, you get a moment of reflection to say, you did kind of go a long way. We came to this country with nothing, you started from scratch, and this is truly a country of opportunity, but it's not given to you. You've really got to get it, and you have to succeed in it, but it's there. So, again, as another proud moment, getting this job with the sheriff's department, and I've been a sheriff's officer since 1996 to present, and it's been a very fruitful career. ... I tell others, I'm still serving, as they say, but now I'm serving my community here in the States. ...
NM: When you are transitioning from active service to civilian life, were there any times it was difficult or was it generally a seamless transition.
TN: Well, for me, it wasn't difficult. Like I said, you've been through the worst of it, being in the military. Now, the rest is pretty much smooth sailing. If you got through that, I mean, you're going to be alright, so this transition back to civilian life, as I said, priorities were just to get employment, and like I said earlier, because of my involvement with the Marine Corps and the theaters of operation, that helped me out with getting the job that I currently have, so speaking for myself, it was pretty easy.
NM: You mentioned that due to your background, you were quite unique in the state. Can you elaborate on that?
TN: Sure, I guess being in the department and, like I said, having the ability to speak Vietnamese, there were a couple times where other departments needed my assistance because of my bilingual background skills, where they had defendants and victims of some sort that were Vietnamese, and they didn't speak English, so they would call me in to help assist with interviews or statements. ... I found out that, at the time, when I got the job, that there were maybe two or three Vietnamese officers in the whole state of New Jersey, but I found out that they didn't speak Vietnamese, they were born here, etc. I'm one of the very few that came to this country that became a police officer or in the law enforcement field, but, yes, that played a great part of helping others. I've been involved in homicide investigations. Actually, it was a Rutgers student back in 2004 who was killed, and he was Vietnamese, and I got called into the case, because the suspects were Vietnamese, and they didn't speak English, and I helped and assisted with that investigation, and we did resolve the issue and got the defendant, and he's serving time for his crimes. I was also involved in a lot of undercover operations with the state police down in Atlantic City, because there were Vietnamese suspects, like wiretaps, etc. They didn't understand the language, so they called me in, so I assisted with that, and again, that led to multiple arrests. Also, I said, drug trafficking cases, even human trafficking cases, there's one that I'm going to be involved in where the people in Vietnam, they're being smuggled into the country, and I'm called in to help assist with that interview. Even some of the smaller cases, like whether it be domestic violence, where the people are Vietnamese. Of course, they don't speak English, so I'm called into assist the local PD. I've been, like I said, pretty much all over the state, as far south as Atlantic City, as far north as Morris County on a shaking baby case, where we had to interview the suspect which led to a conviction, and then, currently, I'm assigned to the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office Task Force guns and gangs unit. Then, also, not too long ago, I assisted ... the New Jersey State Police with one of their largest drug busts involving marijuana that stemmed out of Monroe Township. Apparently, it was like a grow house; there was were multiple grow houses; I believe it was five, and the culprits were Vietnamese and I got called in to help with the interview, which led to a statement, which is actually, which currently it's on for trial, but so, that was pretty significant, because, like I said, it's one of the largest in the state of New Jersey involving marijuana, so I got to be part of that, and also, even like in undercover capacity, where I was all wired up, the target that was involved in criminal activity, so that was pretty nerve wracking. I don't tell my mom and dad exactly all this, because there's always worry about me, but yes, so I guess what I'm trying to say is also that being that I still have the ability to speak Vietnamese and being in the field that I'm in, it's an asset to the law enforcement community, and every time I get involved in any cases where my bilingual background is needed, it is another great accomplishment that you're serving your community, serving the local enforcement, other agencies, so just still feels like I'm still rolling, as they would say, but it's been pretty good for me, no regrets.
NM: Before we close the session is there anything that you would like to share?
TN: Sure, definitely, and I've thought about this a couple of days, like how I would end this interview, and I can't help but to say that, and this goes back to when I came to this country back in 1975 that month in April when I said that none of us will ever forget, and I just like to say thank you to all the men and women that served this country, this great country of ours, and especially the veterans that served in Vietnam. I'd like to extend a personal thank you, because like I said early in the interview, if it wasn't for your efforts, and I'm directing this towards any veterans that read or watch, are listening, first I want to say thank you because like I said your efforts did not go unnoticed. It was a very tough time for everybody including my family, as I've said, but you helped us get to where we're at today, and I just can't say thank you enough, and by me doing what I did to give back to this country, I just want to say that now I know what it's like to be part of something great, to actually grow up knowing that you helped out with this country that's helped you out. My experience has always been an uplifting, positive one, and I just can't thank you enough for all you've done, and I understand as I said before it was a very unpopular war, but this whole interview started, because I had the privilege to meet the Vietnam Veterans Association out of Metuchen, and I couldn't help, but that day back in November of last year when I took that bus trip with them down to Washington, DC the nation's capital, and it was my first trip there, but what's more important that I was sitting in front of the bus and behind me were over thirty Vietnam veterans, and I couldn't help but to feel this sense of gratitude, so without hesitation I just asked the gentleman in charge of the charter if I could say a few words, and he gladly gave me the mike, and I introduced myself, and I told them a brief story of who I am, and how I got to this country, and ... then, I expressed my gratitude to each and every one of them on that bus, and I saluted all of them, and like I said, to my surprise, I had, not a standing ovation, but they applauded my story and that to me brought a lot of closure. If you recall in this interview how I'm always trying to fit in, how I always viewed myself as an outsider and to try to get acceptance, that moment right there was closure for me to see the veterans which I always wanted to thank and here was this opportunity, and for them to applaud my brief story, it meant everything to me, and again, personally, I want to say thank you on behalf of myself, my family, and the tens of thousands refugees that you helped bring to this country. I salute every one of you.
NM: Thank you.
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Reviewed by Alexandra McKinnon 12/31/13
Reviewed by Nicholas Trajano Molnar 1/27/14
Reviewed by Tan Nguyen 2/18/2014