Airman Escapes Communist Oppression and Serves the Country that Saved his Family

  • Published
  • By Alanna Sakamoto

Imagine giving up your way of life, home, and possessions and moving to a different country to escape oppression. United States Air Force, Maj. Khiem Nguyen’s uncle did just that. Risking his life and braving the unknown to provide better opportunities than he had in Vietnam for the Nguyen family. 

Nguyen, Dental Flight Commander and Chief of Dental Services for Space Base Delta 3’s 61st Medical Squadron, reflects upon the gallant actions of his family and finds the most important principles in his life are to have gratitude, be open to opportunities, and nurture others.

Fleeing Communist Vietnam was an act punishable by law in 1980, when Mr. Paul Christian Nguyen, uncle of Maj. Nguyen, attempted to escape by boat for the eighth time. After days on the ocean and depleted of resources, the refugee was losing hope until the U.S. Navy ship USS Kilauea came to the rescue. Eventually, Mr. Nguyen made his way to California with only ten dollars and a backpack to his name.

After working hard for years to earn his engineering degree and buy a house, he sponsored Maj. Nguyen’s family to come to America. The experience is still vivid in his mind.  “Even at eleven years old, I remember the day clearly,” Maj. Nguyen reminisces, “getting off the plane … it was eye opening, a new opportunity.”

“I assimilated well to living in America, I think since I was still so young,” he shared. “I remember being surprised by the highways and how fast the cars were going and also liked how clean and organized everything was,” he continued.

Starting school in Montecito, among the other students in his class, Nguyen stood out. As a boy from impoverished Vietnam, he was amazed by the affluent lifestyle of his friends with their lavish homes and possessions. He understood the sacrifice his parents made leaving Vietnam to provide a better life for him and his brother, vowing to never take it for granted.

Continuously working to improve his communication skills, Nguyen took English as a Second Language courses. By eighth grade he was excelling in academics, enjoying science and mathematics the most. After two years at community college, he transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara earning a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry. Discovering his love of working with his hands, Nguyen then pursued dentistry, the perfect combination of science and dexterity.

After entering the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) in 2011 he was placed in reserve status while attending New York University, College of Dentistry, then transitioning to active duty upon graduation in 2014.

As the current Dental Flight Commander, he attributes his leadership style to his upbringing, encouraging his Airmen to take advantage of opportunities given to them. He works to understand what motivates and inspires them as well as helping them grow in their military careers. Doing all these things in the name of paying it forward for the next generation.

“I want to support them in getting to where they want to be…that really underpins how I like to lead the clinic,” he expressed.

Nguyen has dedicated himself to the Air Force for nearly ten years and plans to continue serving until retirement. “I've actually always considered the military route because, again, as my uncle was rescued by the Navy and brought us here, it comes full circle…to serve our country for the opportunities America gave our family,” he shared with pride.

When sharing his plans after retirement, he stated, “I think of myself as a public servant. I look forward to helping people and I would love to go back to the community clinic I volunteered for in college to give back to the community that I grew up in.”