Reviewed by Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks, U.S. Army (ret.)
By Quang X. Pham
Ballantine Books, New York, 2005
There have been thousands of books about the Vietnam War, but most of them have been written from the American perspective. The missing voice in the history of the war is that of the Vietnamese participants, whose story has been left largely untold. There has also been a gap in the record of the war with regard to what happened after Saigon fell in 1975, both for those who remained in Vietnam and for those who escaped before the Communists took over.
Quang X. Pham set out to remedy both situations in A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey. Pham, his three sisters and their mother escaped Saigon in 1975 and made their way to Guam, then to a refugee camp in Arkansas and ultimately to Oxnard, Calif. His father, Hoa Pham, a career Vietnamese Air Force pilot, chose to remain with his men and was subsequently imprisoned for 12 years in a Communist “re-education” camp by the victorious North Vietnamese.
In the introduction, Pham describes his story as one about “a refugee boy who grew up without his father and became confused about an enduring nostalgia for Vietnam.” It is much more than that; it is a remarkable and heartwarming story about duty, honor and love. Pham tells of coming to America, where he and his family were given a second chance. He describes the trials of growing up in a new land, struggling with what he called his “refugee complex.” Through all the challenges, he persevered, eventually gaining his citizenship and graduating from UCLA. Twelve years after arriving in the United States, Pham joined the U.S. Marine Corps, became a helicopter pilot and fought in the 1991 Gulf War and in Somalia. Throughout this journey, Pham longed to be reunited with his father and contended with the unresolved guilt of leaving him behind.
In Vietnam, Hoa Pham was finally released from the camps in 1987. Five years later, under a special U.S.-Vietnamese program, Quang Pham managed to bring his father to the United States, where they were reunited in Pham’s home in Orange County, Calif. Pham writes lovingly of the efforts he and his father made to reconnect after all the years that had passed. In 2000, prior to his death due to stroke, Hoa not only got his American citizenship, but also watched his son be promoted to the rank of major in the Marines.
After the death of his father, Pham continued to find out more about the man and his service in the long-ago war. What he learned flew in the face of the stereotypical negative depictions of South Vietnamese soldiers in movies and books about the war. Pham was inspired to write the book to honor his father’s memory and set the record straight. The story of his father’s valor and courage in the face of adversity is intertwined with Pham’s own story of pursuing the American dream and his desire to pay back what his adopted country had given him. The result is a moving testament to commitment, sacrifice and the bonds between a father and son. A Sense of Duty is a must read, not just for Vietnam veterans, but for all Americans.