Commentary - Welcoming Afghan evacuees: What it means to me

  • Published
  • By Mark “Radio” Godwin
  • 23rd Wing Historian

August 2020 will be forever etched into the minds of military individuals who have deployed to Afghanistan over the last 20 years in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. With the close of operations in Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, several people have asked me, “What do you think about Afghan evacuees coming to America?”

I then returned a question back to them, “Can you tell me the quote on the Statue of Liberty monument?” Most people fumble through the quote, while others have no clue. The monument plaque reads, “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In the last six months, I have been working with Lt. Col. Brian Desautels, 71st Rescue Squadron commander, to repaint the hideous Smurf-blue HC-130P in President George W. Bush Airpark here at Moody Air Force Base. I reached out to Jeffrey Pryor, 19th Airlift Wing Historian at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, to ask him about the cost of painting the C-130 on display at Little Rock AFB’s main gate. In turn, Pryor gave me a history lesson about Little Rock AFB’s C-130 tail number 56-0518.

On April 29, 1975, the Viet Cong were marching into Saigon and Tan Son Nhut Air Base would soon fall into the hands of the Viet Cong. Col. Doan Van De and Maj. Phuong flew the last C-130 Hercules out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base with 452 people onboard, including 32 people on the flight deck. That C-130 now sits at the Little Rock AFB main gate. Among the passengers were children and dependents of Airmen, helicopter pilots and refugees. One of those refugees was 24-year-old Tim Nguyen. Nguyen served in the Vietnam People’s Air Force and thought that the military would regroup and go back to fight the Viet Cong and take back their country. However, the South Vietnam president surrendered that night and the Communists took over. Nguyen could not go back now. He sat in a refugee camp in Guam and decided he had to go to America and start a new life. He also wanted to work for the company that built the C-130 that saved his life.

Nguyen moved to a relocation camp at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, where he learned to speak English and life skills. A local family took him into their home and helped him get on his feet. He worked at a newspaper during the day and took English classes at night at a Florida junior college. He transferred to the University of Alabama and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1981, and applied for a job at Lockheed after college, but the company rejected his application. Undeterred and feeling insulted, Nguyen went to work for Gulfstream Aerospace in Savannah, Georgia. In 1983, he applied again at Lockheed and they hired him to work in the Marietta facility in Georgia.

Nguyen’s first job at Lockheed saw him involved with the development of a prototype defense system for transport aircraft. The system was called the Survivability Augmentation for Transport Installation—Now (SATIN). He had seen transport aircraft shot down in Vietnam because of the lack of a defensive system. Now, he had the chance to design a system that would help protect transport planes. Every large aircraft that the military flies today has a defensive system that is based on the work of his staff. Nguyen’s group at Lockheed were asked by the U.S. Air Force to develop a defensive system for the C-5 Galaxy in 1990 at the start of Operation Desert Shield. Within six months, Nguyen and his team flew alongside the C-5 crews and developed an operational defensive system for the large strategic transport plane. Lockheed named Nguyen as Hercules program employee of the year in 1992.

Nguyen installed the defensive system hardware into the first C-130J delivered to the Italian air force, and in August of 2000, the Italian C-130J landed at Pisa Air Base and began flying relief missions to Eritrea, Balkans, Kosovo, Pristina, Albania and Sarajevo. In April of 2002, the Italian C-130Js flew Afghanistan’s ex-king Mohammad Zahir Shah, Hamid Karzai and Deputy Defense Minister General Abdul Rashid Dostum in Kabul, Afghanistan, for their triumphant return.

Nguyen visited Vietnam in 2000 and he said everything looked the same, only the names of buildings and places had changed. He got to see his father, brother and sister. Nguyen enjoyed his week-long visit in Vietnam, but he was happy to return to the United States. He stated, “I am an American now. I missed being in America after a week in Vietnam. I felt like an outsider.”

Tim Nguyen is considered one of the world’s experts on self-defense systems for large aircraft. There is another amazing history fact that ties Nguyen to the C-130. On August 23, 1954, the YC-130 flew its first flight. That same day, young Tim Nguyen celebrated his third birthday.

Tim Nguyen is one of several stories of 452 refugees onboard the last C-130 flight out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base on April 29, 1975. Another refugee on that flight was seven year old Tammy Ha. Tammy Ha is the mother of Senior Airman Brandon Ong, 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron guidance and control apprentice, who works on C-130J Super Hercules aircraft at Little Rock AFB.

What do I think of all the Afghan evacuees coming to the United States? I think it’s amazing and exciting. They are tired, poor and yearning for freedom. Maybe the next Tim Nguyen or Tammy Ha is one of those evacuees. Or maybe the next Malala Yousafzai, the girl that stood up for women’s education in Afghanistan and shot by the Taliban, is one of those evacuees. Like the Statue of Liberty, I welcome them with open arms.