Getting a job with the U.S. Department of Defense was far easier for three men than when they were dodging bullets, outrunning patrol boats and avoiding border patrols.
Jimmy Truong and Vien Do escaped from Vietnam and Klaus Baesu swam away from Romania. Their freedom would eventually take them to positions at the American Forces Network (AFN) Broadcast Center at March Air Reserve Base, California.
Truong was 11 when his mother, father, four siblings and a cousin made their plan to escape from Vietnam in 1985. “My mom and dad wanted freedom and the chance for a better education for all of us,” said Truong, an Information Technology specialist.
Truong’s family of nine anxiously gathered with 40 others on a moonless night near a small village along a river in the southern part of Vietnam. Then they silently slipped into a relative’s fishing boat to begin a secretive three-day, three-night journey to Indonesia. “We signaled to each other with flashlights. Then we got into the boat, covered ourselves with coconut leaves and kept quiet.” said Truong. Truong’s group knew the most perilous part of the trip would be where the river entered the ocean. It was there that the Vietnamese Navy had a checkpoint and patrol boat. After hours of traveling in darkness, they neared the checkpoint and the boat’s captain turned off the motor. They hoped to drift by undetected. It didn’t work.
“Our boat drifted toward the checkpoint, instead of the far side of the river,” Truong said. “Someone called out, ‘who’s there?’ several times. We didn’t answer. Then they fired shots into the sky. When we still didn’t answer, we heard them go to their boat to start it up. One of the guys on our boat got up and ran to the back to start up our engine and we got lucky. Our motor started, but theirs didn’t. We heard more shots, but their engine never kicked in.” The refugee captain zig-zagged his boat around fishing nets to get to the open sea.
Hours later, they still weren’t safe. As the sun came out, someone on the boat saw a Vietnamese patrol boat on the horizon behind them. That’s when they put a second engine in the water and gunned both to maximum to try and outrun their pursuers. Exhaust pipes from the motors were so hot they started burning the ship. But the wooden boat and its straining motors held out, and, it entered international waters and the patrol boat stopped its pursuit.
Many hours later, in the hot sun, the refugees were almost out of drinking water when they came across an off-shore American oil platform. The oil workers gave them much needed water, food and directions. Finally the exhausted refugees had made it to Indonesia.
A Vietnamese Church in San Diego sponsored Truong’s family, and they quickly assimilated into their new country. Truong went on to attend San Diego State University, where he graduated with a degree in Information Systems, and then worked at different IT jobs within the local police department and the U.S. military. It was at Camp Pendleton, California, where Truong met another Vietnamese refugee who was also an IT specialist, Vien Do. Do said he was going to work at a place called “the AFN Broadcast Center” at March Air Reserve Base, and suggested Truong do the same.
Do’s father was a South Vietnamese policeman who was jailed by the communist regime in 1975 for eight years. While his Dad was imprisoned, Do worked at his uncle’s tire factory in Ho Chi Minh City, trying to help support his mother and nine siblings. It was during this time in his life that the 24-year-old Do, with his mother’s support, decided to leave Vietnam.
After two unsuccessful attempts, try number three in 1988 worked. “I took a bus close to the border of Cambodia, then a motorbike to Phnom Penh,” said Do. “After that I took a boat to Thailand. They had us jump off the boat and swim to shore.” The swim was twice as challenging for Do, as it was for the others on the boat. “I made a promise to a girl on the boat that I would help her 12-year-old sister, who couldn’t swim,” Do recalled. “When I got into the water, the girl panicked and wrapped her arms around my neck until I gave her a big empty 40-gallon gas can from the boat to hold on to.” While it slowed Do down, he still managed to get himself and the girl safely ashore.
Do spent two years in a Thai refugee camp learning English before he was sent to the Philippines to serve as an assistant English teacher at a refugee camp for Amerasian children. After seven months, Do received sponsorship from his brother, who had escaped earlier from Vietnam.
A future colleague of Do’s, Klaus Baesu, was 21 when he escaped from Communist Romania. He had spent two years in the Romanian Special Security Forces before he went to his nation’s military academy. “They asked me if I would freely defend my nation against all enemies, and I said yes,” Baesu said. “But when they asked if I would freely defend the communist party, I said no. That’s when they expelled me.”
Baesu’s once bright future had dimmed, so one night in 1986, he and two friends plunged into a 3,000 foot-wide part of the Danube River to try and reach freedom on the opposite riverbank in Yugoslavia. Border guards spotted them and began peppering the river with semi-automatic weapons fire, luckily, all the rounds hit was water.
It took Baesu almost 24 hours to get across that river. “Our plan was to swim to an island in the middle of the River,” he said. “I waited, but they didn’t show up. The sun came up and I waited on the island until it got dark again, then I finished the swim.” Baesu’s companions had come ashore on the island, didn’t see him, then swam the rest of the way across the river. Baesu was sent to a U.N. refugee camp. He joined the U.S. Army as a television production specialist, served 20 years, retired, and got a job at the AFN Broadcast Center as a civil service employee.
When Baesu, Do and Truong fled their countries, they faced imprisonment, confiscation of family property, or worse. Now, as three of the more than 200 people working at the AFN Broadcast Center, they share a unique common bond. And, not so surprisingly, no matter what computer glitch or programming change comes their way, it never seems to stress them out. They’ve overcome far worse.