Retired Navy captain Paul Jacobs summed up the 14th annual Asian Heritage Awards and morning conference on Saturday, April 23, when he called Vietnamese-Americans “a great asset to America.”
Talking to a television reporter outside the Asian Heritage Society evening gala at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, Jacobs said this about the group that was a focus of both events: “I am very impressed with the talent they have…and the awardees. I am just blown away by their talent. It’s about time you called yourselves American Vietnamese instead of Vietnamese Americans because what you have done in 41 years is incredible.”
Jacobs was the keynote speaker at the dinner preceding the awards ceremony in the institute’s Joan Kroc Theater, where eight men and women of Vietnamese descent, along with two others, were singled out for their individual achievements. The honorees included world-famous writer Nha Ca, world-renowned scientist Xuong Nguyen-Huu, linguist Quyen Di Chuc Bui, Dr. Doan Dao, Dr. Danh Truong, community leader Abraham To, educator Truong Nong and businesswoman Christina Cao. Also honored were San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn and UCSD’s David Adler, for their work within the Vietnamese American community. Horn, a Vietnam veteran, personally oversaw the relocation of hundreds of Vietnamese refugees after the war and Adler helped found a program insuring the futures of hundreds of Vietnamese pharmacists.
The reception and ceremony, attended by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, was the culmination of activities that began in the morning with a series of panel discussions and displays of memorabilia from Vietnam, including photos, video and news clippings, by community leader Nam Nguyen and Del Lucero, who served aboard the USS Kirk, Jacobs’s ship. The Kirk led a flotilla of 250 South Vietnamese boats and craft to safe harbor in the Philippines after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
The defeat of the South Vietnamese again was commemorated in the Vietnamese community over the weekend, but, as Rosalynn Carmen, president of the Asian Heritage Society, said, “We chose to focus on 41 years and beyond – to be on the future side of history, so to speak. It was, indeed, a challenge to bring Vietnamese Americans, Vietnam veterans and others together for two distinctive events. But we did it because we truly believe there has never been a more successful generation of immigrants than the Vietnamese people who have made their stamp on every way of life in America. We did it for them and our own Vietnam veterans who gave so much.”
Asian Heritage Society secretary Leonard Novarro, who emceed the morning panel discussions, at one point asked this rhetorical question of Vietnam veterans: “Who won the war?”
There was a pause, then Vietnam veteran Ron Lansdel replied: “No one.” The question followed a dissertation by philanthropist Le Ly Hayslip on the lessons of war. The subject of Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth,” third in his cycle of Vietnam War films, Hayslip was part of a panel discussing the effects of America’s longest war on Vietnamese and Vietnam veterans.
In addition to the effect on those who served in Vietnam, including the devastating effects of the defoliant Agent Orange on veterans and Vietnamese alike, those attending, from 60 to more than 130 at different times, heard from Vietnamese Americans who described what they and their families went through as their country fell to the communists and the years afterwards.
The first panel discussion in the morning was led by Jacobs, now in his 80s, who improvised the rescue of some 30,000 Vietnamese on May 1, the day after the South Vietnamese capital fell. Jacobs told how he and his crew organized a flotilla of boats, including anything that floated, to safe harbor in the Philippines. An emotional point in the discussion came from San Diegan Sac Nguyen, who was aboard Jacobs’ ship, the USS Kirk, on that day, as he recounted seeing his country for the last time and the flag of South Vietnam lowered. The Philippine government demanded the flag be lowered because South Vietnam was no longer recognized.
However, the most stirring part of the morning came from the second panel comprised of Jenny Do, Autumn Nguyen, Christina Cao, and Drs. Huynh Vu and Suzie Dong-Matsuda. As each discussed the effects of the war and aftermath on them and their families, they broke down as did many in the audience listening to them. Other panelists Saturday morning included Orange County Clerk Hugh Nguyen, Nam Nguyen, Simone Whitsell, Truong Nong, David Adler, Binh Tran, Dr. Robert Gish, Dr. Daon Dao, journalist Jamie Reno and Vietnam veterans John Meyer and Jim Brown and San Diego activist Lan Jefferson, the daughter of an American G.I. and Vietnamese mother. Navy Capt. Cynthia Macri also delivered an account on the importance of diversity in the military.
Just how much the military and society in general has changed since those days and the arrival of Vietnamese as part of America’s fabric was outlined later that evening during the dinner portion of the 14th annual Asian Heritage Awards, also at the Institute, by emcee and TV personality Roxanne Chow: “Today we have a Brigadier General in the United States Army, Luong Xuan Viet; we have a Judge in the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Judge Jacqueline Nguyen; an award-winning creator of the Thermobaric weapon and many more."
Chow attributed that success to the resilience of the Vietnamese, and, indeed, that was exhibited during an uplifting ceremony in the Joan B. Kroc Theater, honoring the ten Asian Heritage Award winners. The gala honorary chairman for the evening’s event was San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts, who told the dinner audience earlier: “We have a large Asian and Pacific Islander community in San Diego -- in fact, the fastest growing of all ethnicities. And the fastest growing community in that API community are Vietnamese.
They came here under the most appalling of circumstances, fleeing from a war and the takeover of their society by an enemy that was not kind, to say the least. Yet, they persevered not only here in San Diego, but throughout the country.”
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, himself a veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, spent a considerable amount of time meeting and posing with guests and other officials. “Thank you for having me at this great event and for having me be part of this community,” he said.
Dr. Bruce Johnson, one of the founders of San Diego’s Americans Helping Asian Children (AHAC), who attended both the morning conference and evening gala dinner and ceremony, said: “With all the political talk about ‘immigrants’ and ‘immigration’ today, it’s a shame that every elected public official, congressman, senator, presidential candidate and the President himself were not here to experience this entire event.”
Video captures the message behind the Asian Heritage Awards 2016
More by photographer Tom Kurtz
More photos on the dinner and awards by Brian Calilung