Everyone calls him “Uncle”, yet neither he nor anyone else knows why. While he doesn’t particularly care for the name, he’s become accustomed to it. Even many of the prison staff know him as Uncle. But it’s a good fit for his caring nature. He has that vibe of a family friend you might have grown up around. If you know him, he’s very much a lovable man. He works hard, he’s proud of his family, and he’s inspiringly humble. He represents an older generation. He stands a mere five foot, but at his age, it’s certain gravity has robbed him of a few inches along the way. He has a brilliant smile and looks at you intently when you speak to him, perhaps to be engaging or perhaps to listen in closer to catch what you’re saying. 

 
Van is an immigrant from Vietnam and English can sometimes be a struggle for him. Without a doubt, only a man his age, who grew up where he did, can know the gravity of the circumstances that brought him to America. This gentleman has a powerful history. As a young man in Vietnam, he was thrust into the position of a warrior, forced to pick a side in a war that ripped his nation apart. He moved up the ranks as a soldier to become a leader, a sergeant, for what was then South Vietnam. However, he’s had to do what no American soldier has ever had to do. He’s had to watch the country he came from and fought for, become swallowed up in a conflict it wasn’t going to win. It was a conflict that killed more than a million civilians and displaced over 6.5 million more of his countrymen. It was a loss that would cost Van twelve excruciating years in “reeducation”, a term meant as atonement for his opposition to a communist regime, for fighting on the wrong side.

Van was born and raised in Nha Trang, a coastal city about 200 miles northeast of what is now Ho Chi Minh City. He entered his service in 1972, a year before the never-implemented cease fire agreement was signed by the US, the Vietcong, North and South Vietnam in Paris. He served until 1975 when the south surrendered to the communist north. Van fought in the South Vietnam army, or Binh Linh as he called it, alongside UN forces made up of Korean and Filipino soldiers. Ultimately, when the south surrendered, those fighting were rounded up in a measure to enforce the new government. When his unit was captured along with the multinational forces, the other nations’ soldiers were executed. He was then moved to Dong Gang, a brutal prison where he would experience the worst atrocities offered to a human being. By the time he arrived in his new hell, he was just 24 years old.

Dong Gang was a 45 minute drive from Nha Trang and he could feel the ghosts of his home. More devastatingly, he watched his peers, his friends, become those ghosts. The images of his confinement there are difficult for him to articulate. Not because of his language proficiency, but he stops to reflect in retelling me the story. It’s as if his soul has a razor just beneath its surface and he doesn’t want to touch it. He recalled several accounts of the abuse and death he witnessed. Images he says he feels angry about, the trauma cracking through the stoicism of his face as he tells me what he experienced. In one instance, he was forced to watch 27 friends, fellow soldiers, die in one day from disease. He described in great detail how they bled from their ears, noses and rectums all while starving. Disease was just as brutal to the prisoners as the North Vietnamese guards. They were offered only one type of medicine for their ailments, one called Sien tam lien, one many Vietnamese will recognize because it was prescribed for everything from a cold, to heart disease, to cancer. But he said when they had it, they felt lucky.

Van had to witness hundreds of executions. As he recalled them, he remained matter of fact, composed. For him, in the moment of it, fearing it was a way of life and the source of death. Some of those executed included those who were trying to escape. Van describes how prisoners ran in an attempt to free themselves and were relentlessly gunned down. Some were executed for failing to work harder in the rice fields, sometimes for just stretching after countless hours of being bent over to pick rice. A boot to the back of the knees was their first warning before being shot in the back of the skull. An AK-47 was effective at regulating the other workers. Still, others were executed just to show the masses that no one was safe, so do your part and always obey, or suffer the consequence.

 

When it came to his daily routine, he and his fellow prisoners worked shifts from six in the morning to six at night, everyday. Along the way, they got a fifteen minute break around noon and an opportunity to eat one small potato, the size of a plum. How hard you worked dictated how much you were allowed to eat for the month. For the hardest workers, they were allowed 18 kilograms of rice per month, or roughly 40 pounds. The second hardest workers received 9 kilos and the bottom rung received only 6 kilos, although no one received the actual amount awarded because even the cooks who prepared the rice were hungry and would steal it. Often, the top producers would get only half of what they should have. Famine was a constant struggle in his prison.

The living conditions he described were atrocious as well. They slept 225 inmates in a single open bay. There were no beds, so they slept in line on the dirty floor, often shackled to one another. The building they were in had one additional room set at the end of it to use the toilet. They were awakened every day by their oppressive guards. Van described one morning, in 1979, when he was getting up to go to the rice fields and the person who slept next to him, a friend whom he had been with since his capture, didn’t get up with him. Concerned for his safety, he shook him and his friend felt cold and stiff. When Van rolled him over, his dear friend had been dead long enough that the maggots fell from under his eyelids. It was another bit of proof of his stark and dangerous reality and another friend who died senselessly. He had to fight his surroundings to stay alive. Worse yet, he had to fight himself to hide the humanity within. He couldn’t grieve, he couldn’t mourn, so he simply moved with those still standing to the fields to pick rice. He said he held himself back in the moment, but gave me just a little emotion in my interview with him about this memory. It’s difficult to hear this man’s story without feeling what he was presenting to me, his emotion so rigidly packaged for the purpose of self preservation. He’s carried this baggage nearly as long as I’ve been alive, though he would add to it in time, as he would tell me.

I had asked him what happened to his family while he was serving this time in prison in Vietnam. His family is extremely important to him and he beams when we talked about them. He explained that his family, six sisters, four brothers, his father and mother, had escaped to the Philippines where they stayed for a month and then found asylum in the United States along with many other refugees of the Vietnam conflict. He described his goal was to join them in the US, but struggled with how to get there. After he spent his last year of prison in Vietnam, in a softer place known as A-40, Van was released and he immediately fled to the Philippines around 1987. He then had to wait an additional five years before he could join his family.
 
When he finally arrived in America in the early 1990’s, he started to establish himself. He found a job as a painter, but because of his limited English and lack of professional license, he couldn’t get into a labor union or progress to more than $18 an hour. His industry counterparts were making $35 an hour doing the same work, after the same time invested in their careers. As an immigrant, it’s often difficult to realize the fullest potential of the American Dream when you encounter certain barriers. But, Van is a humble soul and enjoyed the freedom to work without tyranny. I asked what could have possibly lead him to be in an American prison, so he told me.

He was a heavy drinker and spent time among the local Seattle bars. He had the traumas that haunt many old soldiers, and he handled them the way many soldiers still do… he self medicated. One night in 2007, he was drinking with a friend and an argument ensued. His friend drew a knife and tried to rob him in the heat of it. Van’s response came through the barrel of a loaded gun. He shot his friend dead. A shot that would take his meager success and send him back to prison again. Another act to add to a lifetime of traumas and baggage.

Fearing the idea of incarceration with what he had previously experienced, Van went on the run and he stayed on the run for nearly two months. His story had been top billing on local news stations for over two weeks. He finally gave up and was arrested. Two of the victim’s children came forward at his trial to ask the court to give Van mercy and the lowest possible sentence for the charge. Van received 15 years for 2nd Degree Murder. Had he not feared and ran, he could have had it mitigated to five years for manslaughter. More over, he expressed frustration that it happened to a friend, though he has trouble defining the exact feelings of it. It seemed to make him uncomfortable when I pressed him on it. To me, those are the edges of what those traumas look like. In his travels, other people hurt his friends, so it was difficult to him to know he was capable of doing the same.

With humility, he speaks about how lucky American prisoners have it. One morning a few years ago, he showed me a pouch of peanut butter and a piece of fruit and explained how many people in Vietnamese prisons wished for things like that. It’s so simple for us, and such a treasure for him. During his incarceration, he’s been blessed with the support of his family and his sisters look out for his best interests as a routine. Van is scheduled for release in July of 2022, back to the loving arms of these precious people that he’s been separated from for so much of his life. His mother is still alive and waiting for him to come home. He has a daughter who still resides in Vietnam and he always speaks of her like a proud father. He says she’s doing well. When I thanked him for allowing me to document his story, he ever so kindly smiled, gave me his hand and said, “Andy, any time!” I guess it’s fair, my name’s not Andy and his isn’t Uncle… His name is Van…

by Rory Andes

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