Have you ever been involved in some event that, at the time, seemed of little significance but, with the passage of years, was revealed to be a true watershed period of your life?
Talk about being in the right place at the right time. In the summer of 1979, I reported aboard the U.S.S. Wabash, AOR-5 in Subic Bay, Republic of the Phillipines, as the new ship’s doctor. I was a 27 year old lieutenant, just out of my internship year at Oakland Naval Hospital. It had not been a good year and my request for a shipboard assignment was to get away from a bad marriage and sort out my life which had taken turns I never intended or anticipated. I was, to put it bluntly, a mess.
Being on a Western Pacific (“WestPac” in Navy-ese) cruise on a U.S. Navy ship was a novel experience, interesting but, professionally, I was spinning my wheels, just marking time as I tried to get my head and life together. 500 healthy young men don’t need much medical care. My “practice” was treating V.D., overseeing my corpsmen in treating minor scrapes and colds, inspecting the ship’s galley, and doing heat checks in the ship’s engine room. That all changed with a message sent to the Captain of the Wabash and all the ships in our task group.
South Vietnamese were taking to the sea in boats by the thousands to escape their country as it became officially communist. Adult men who had worked with the Americans and/or served in the S. Vietnamese Army were being rounded up and sent to “re-education” camps. Most were never seen again. One of those targeted was Thanh Ha, a 25 year old former fisherman who had served in the army. After three failed attempts to escape the country, he finally succeeded in heading out into the S. China Sea with his two sons, daughter, and pregnant wife. The eldest son was 5 year old Doan. 23 other family members and people from his coastal village joined them on the leaky fishing boat.
In addition to all of the perils of being at sea in an overcrowded, unseaworthy boat, there was the greater danger of encountering Thai pirates, who knew that these refugees often took with them all of their worldly wealth. Stories of boats plundered and its occupants killed, or worse, began to circulate.
Then-President Carter sent word that to the Captains of all Navy ships in the region that we were to search for and assist all such refugee boats. If the boat was deemed seaworthy, we were to provide for any needs- food, water, navigation equipment, etc.- to help them reach a safe shore. Otherwise, we were to take them aboard. Those picked up would be offered asylum in the U.S.
On August 5, we came across Thanh Ha’s boat containing those 28 souls. It was taking on water in the heavy seas. They had been at sea for 3 days and were out of food. A storm was approaching. We brought them aboard. Over the next few weeks we hosted a total of 115 Vietnamese refugees, most picked up by other ships. We had our brief moment of fame as news agencies from the U.S. and other countries descended on the Wabash to report on the “boat people”.
My job as ship’s doctor was to examine our Vietnamese guests to verify their health. That period provided a nice interlude in an otherwise uneventful cruise. Once they disembarked in Subic Bay, we returned to our routine. I did not give that period much thought although, over the years, I did wonder what became of those refugees.
On April 7, 2014, my patient co-ordinator, Amy, came to me and said, “I just received a message on our Facebook page that gave me goose bumps. You have to see this.” It was from Doan Ha, now a 40 year old cardiac sonographer in Murrieta, CA. The message included a photograph of me looking into the mouth of the now successful, married man who was once the tearful 5 year old boy on the Wabash.
On his 40th birthday, he felt the need to reach out and thank those who were instrumental in bringing his family to the U.S. I happened to be the first Wabash sailor he tracked down, because of that photo.
Over the years, Doan had observed the success of his family. His parents had raised 7 children, all of whom were college graduates. His extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins had all experienced similar success. Doan had traveled twice back to his father’s village in Vietnam and seen what their life would have been like had they stayed (assuming his father survived the purge). More than most he appreciated the opportunities afforded them in the U.S. and felt grateful to this country, to the men of the U.S.S. Wabash, and, by extension, to me.
I felt uneasy about the effusive praise and thanks he heaped on me. It was decidedly undeserved. I did nothing more than my job and the fact that I was there, as the ship’s doctor, was simply one of those twists of fate that mark much of our lives. Whether my presence was an accident or divine design (I choose to believe the latter), I had nothing to do with it. I messaged Doan back and, eventually, we talked on the phone. He said he and his wife, Lien, were coming to Florida on business in February 2015 and we committed to getting together then.
That day came on Tuesday, February 10 when Doan and Lien drove up to our Leesburg home from Venice, FL where they had visited with Lien’s foster parents after their business meeting in Miami. As the date approached, I found myself getting more and more excited. I took off the day from my practice to be available to them for the entire day. I had countless questions I wanted to ask him, basically everything that had happened after they left the Wabash 35 years earlier. When the day arrived and I opened the door and saw the two of them standing there, hugs rapidly replaced handshakes and it was more like a reunion of old friends than a first meeting of relative strangers.
The afternoon and evening passed quickly with a string of almost continual conversation in the middle of which Doan, Lien, and I went for a run. He was runner! He and his wife have run numerous half marathons and mud runs and she is in training for the Los Angeles Marathon this March as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Team in Training. What were the odds that the 5 year old Vietnamese boy would turn out to be a runner? I learned about his family, both immediate and extended. I learned about the courage of his father in taking the chance of leaving his country on that small boat. What I learned most was what it meant to this one family to be picked up that day in the South China Sea and then to be brought to the U.S. Unwittingly, I had become a small but permanent part of monumental moment that changed all their lives and, according to Doan, whose effect was still being felt even to the third generation.
It was a day 35 years in the making at the end of which I had made two wonderful new friends and gained an entirely new perspective on a period of my life that seemed devoid of significance. Who would have guessed?