Disney Was Right

During my two tours in Viet Nam as an Air Force English teacher from 1970 to 1972, I had the good luck to meet and get to know a lot of great students.  Hundreds of students – generally ten or six at a time – went through my classrooms, two weeks at a time.  Those two weeks were the time it took to study one book in the American Language Course (ALC) developed by the Defense Language Institute English Language Center (DLIELC) in San Antonio, Texas.

The Center created the ALC for use worldwide to prepare military personnel for training in the United States to operate and maintain US equipment their countries bought from America.  A few took the ALC to prepare to enter professional military education or graduate schools in the US.  Though the ALC was used around the world, the program in Viet Nam was its largest application.  I was part of the effort.

Many – most? — of those students were in our classes and wanted to continue on for the same reason I joined the US Air Force.  They wanted to avoid the War in Viet Nam.  The difference, I guess, is that I wanted to avoid it forever and they just wanted a break from it.  They faced a lot of challenges in and out of their classrooms.  I had only a handful of students not try to learn.  The glass was far more than half full.

For most of my first year I photographed all my classes and kept notes on the students as they moved forward through the ALC curriculum.  During my second year I didn’t do that at all.  Nevertheless, I kept track of most of my students while they attended the Tan Son Nhut School where I taught.  Once in a while during that second year, an old student of mine would swing back through the school after returning from training or education in the US.  It was always a treat for me and the current students to learn of their success.  It saddened me, though, to know that their success still brought them back to the war zone.  It was their fate to have been born there and it was my fate only to pass through.

One time it worked the other way.

Ho Van Nen was my student three times, meaning he was in three classes studying three different books.  The first time was near the end of my initial tour of duty, probably in March or April 1971.  When I returned for a second tour in August that same year, I had him as a student in two more classes.  He then graduated from the ALC and went on to some kind of technical training for enlisted personnel in the US.  He was well educated in Viet Nam; had gone to college and was then drafted just like had occurred with many American GIs serving in his country.  I expected him to do well in the US and back in Viet Nam, if he could stay alive.

In May 1972, I left Viet Nam before my second year was complete as part of Vietnamization, the turning over of US roles in the war to the Vietnamese.  Most of us on second tours did not stay the full year of our assignments.  The demand for English teachers was down, and most of those remaining positions were being filled by Vietnamese teachers.

After an all too short leave at home in Spokane, Washington, I went on to my next duty assignment at Castle Air Force Base in central California.  After just a year and a quarter there, I was accepted for Officer Training School (OTS) so I went back to Lackland AFB, to its annex there where OTS was conducted.  As with my Viet Nam tours, that OTS experience was full of people surprises.

The biggest surprise of all occurred close to the end of my ninety days of training.  I recall it was near the end because I was leading a small group of us trainees as we marched across an open concrete area from one class to another.  Only near the end of the training were trainees allowed to march themselves without a senior classman in charge.

As we passed the flagpole in the center of that area, another group of people was marching in the opposite direction.  By that time, the Air Force had pretty much switched over to the use of light blue shirts and dark blue pants as a daily uniform.  These folks, though, were in a kind of dark khaki different even from that tan service uniform we’d worn in Viet Nam.  This then, was a fairly easy group to spot.  Especially since our small formations were marching in opposite directions right by each other.  Further, these folks were officers so it was sort of polite for us to move out of their way.

It’s always good for the formation leader to move the formation so it doesn’t hit something, like another formation.  That may seem like a “duh” statement, but one may be surprised how often stuff like that happens.  Anyway, we did a right flank then left flank to dodge the oncoming group.  That meant the two formation leaders passed one another within a couple of feet of each other.  Also, because we were enlisted people while OTs, we had to salute any officers.  In a formation, it’s the formation leader with that saluting responsibility.

Up pops my ol’ right arm, up pops that formation leader’s right arm and we looked right at each other.  Yup:  First Lieutenant Ho Van Nen!  Both of us dropped our salutes, stopped moving, shouted “teacher” and “Nen”, and then gave each other a big hug.  Oh, yeah, our two small formations sort of stumbled forward for a few steps then stopped to see what in the world was going on.  It was totally cool!

The two of us then appointed someone else to take over our formations and the two of us stood there for maybe ten minutes just blabbering.  I told him what had been going on with me over the last couple of years and I learned he’d been selected for pilot training in the US.  That’s what he and the other Vietnamese were at Lackland preparing to do.  They were in the specialized pilot English language program at the DLIELC.  They were finishing up that week and moving on to their undergraduate pilot training at another USAF base over the weekend.

We traded mailing addresses.  Then, as GIs have done since time immemorial, we never sent a card or letter to each other.

Now, four decades later, I’ve done a bit of searching on the Internet for him.  A Ho Van Nen lives in the San Jose, California area.  It’s a small world:  I wonder if he is my Nen.  I really should give that phone number a jingle, but ….

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: