Tragedy shatters an American dream

January 25, 1992|By Ken McLaughlin | Ken McLaughlin,Knight-Ridder News Service

MILPITAS, Calif. -- Trung Van Nguyen survived almost two decades of war in his native Vietnam. He survived a decade of mental and physical torment in Communist forced-labor camps.

But one day last week, the decorated South Vietnamese army lieutenant colonel was hit by a truck and killed while walking across a busy Milpitas intersection. The newly arrived refugee left behind a destitute wife and four children who had hoped they had finally put tragedy and economic misery behind them.

Details of the accident are sketchy, but witnesses told Milpitas police that Mr. Nguyen was crossing Hillview Drive at Calaveras Boulevard at 9:45 a.m. Jan. 16 when he was clipped by a white tractor-trailer. The driver, apparently unaware that he had hit anyone, kept going.

"This is just so dreadful," said Jane Hills of Catholic Charities, the family's sponsoring agency. "They're just such lovely children, such a lovely family."

To siblings Trang, 30, Chau, 27, Tam, 25, and Duc, 23, their father was also the way they were coping with the mysteries of the English language. A patient man who spoke English with ease, he talked to them in their new language every chance he got.

"I lost my father, and I lost my teacher. We were just beginning a new life in the United States," Trang said.

Social workers say the family's federal refugee aid will run out in several weeks because of cutbacks that limit federal welfare grants to eight months. The refugee grants once lasted three years.

The Nguyen family's struggle began almost 17 years ago after Communist troops took over South Vietnam. Mr. Nguyen, who had been awarded a medal for bravery by the U.S. military, was sent to a "re-education camp" in northern Vietnam.

Mr. Nguyen was fed a starvation diet "meant for horses and pigs" and was often beaten by guards who claimed he wasn't working hard enough, said his brother, Hai, 45.

Mr. Nguyen's wife, Dung Hong Doan, was allowed to visit him only once in the first five years. She traveled three days by train and two by oxen each way to meet with her husband for 20 minutes. When he was released in 1985, she said, her husband had lost 60 pounds and was so emaciated that he could barely walk.

Mr. Nguyen, who had attended language school in South Vietnam and been sent to Texas in 1970 for military training, made money tutoring English.

The rest of the family sold rice cakes on the street. Because they were the offspring of a father who worked for the Saigon regime, the children were blocked from education beyond high school.

Finally, a year ago, the family learned it would be coming to the United States under a humanitarian program for re-education camp survivors.

After the family arrived in the United States on July 29, Mr. Nguyen helped other Vietnamese refugees by translating job applications and government forms.

Family members say that he was worried about the welfare grant running out but that he didn't let it get him down. He got a driver's license and bought a 1982 Toyota Corolla so he and his family could look for work. He passed a test to become a teacher's aide.

"Everybody was so happy about their new freedom in America," said Mr. Nguyen's brother, Tien, a 39-year-old electrical engineer who escaped Vietnam in 1975. "It was a warm family. Nothing was wrong."

The Vietnamese-American community helped raise most of the money for Mr. Nguyen's funeral Wednesday in San Jose.

The family's dreams haven't died with the father. Trang wants to be a nurse, Duc a civil engineer, Tam a computer scientist or electrical engineer, Chau a doctor.

"But now they will take any job, anything," Tien said. "They don't want welfare."

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