By Leonard Novarro

Guests sing God Bless America to open Asian Heritage Awards. Courtesy photo
Guests sing God Bless America to open Asian Heritage Awards. Courtesy photo

The subject was Vietnam and 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.

The series of discussions took place Saturday morning, April 23, at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice in San Diego. Three other panels comprised the event dubbed “Sowing the Seeds of Peace, Justice and Success,” produced by the Asian Heritage Society.

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, varying from 60 to more than 130 at different times during the day, heard from several Vietnamese Americans who described what they and their families went through as their country fell to the communists on April 30, 1975, known to Vietnamese as “Black Thursday,” and the ensuing 10-15 years afterwards.

Later, that evening, the 14th annual Asian Heritage Awards, in a gala dinner and theater ceremony, paid tribute to eight Vietnamese men and women, who despite some of the worst setbacks one may encounter, achieved success in their individual professions.

Rosalynn Carmen and 7-year-old Rhys Dann present Paul Jacobs a gold pin. Behind is Leonard Navarro. Courtesy photo
Rosalynn Carmen and 7-year-old Rhys Dann present Paul Jacobs a gold pin. Behind is Leonard Navarro. Courtesy photo

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 Marine 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.

Also honored were 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.

The first panel discussion in the morning was led by retired Navy Capt. Paul 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 250 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 composed 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.

Morning panel (from left): Suzie Dong-Matsuda, Dr. Huynh Vu, Christina Cao, Autumn Nguyen and Jenny Do. Courtesy photo
Morning panel (from left): Suzie Dong-Matsuda, Dr. Huynh Vu, Christina Cao, Autumn Nguyen and Jenny Do. Courtesy photo

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, Duong Nguyet Anh, who made significant contributions to the Department of Defense; and there’s U.S. Navy Commander Le Ba Hung, Commander of the USS Lassen, the first Navy Ship commanded by a Vietnamese American… and many, many more.”

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter with Capt. Cynthia Macri and Cmdr. Anthony Tran. Courtesy photo
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter with Capt. Cynthia Macri and Cmdr. Anthony Tran. Courtesy photo

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 10 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.”

I said that while much of the focus last year marked the 40 years since the end of South Vietnam, “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, morning and evening. But I 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.”

North County Supervisor Bill Horn at Asian Heritage Awards. Courtesy photo
North County Supervisor Bill Horn at Asian Heritage Awards. Courtesy photo

Congressman Duncan Hunter, himself a veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, attended the reception before the dinner and spent a considerable amount of time meeting and posing with guests and other officials.

Dr. Bruce Johnson, one of the founders of San Diego’s Americans Helping Asian Children, 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.”

Leonard Novarro co-founded, with Rosalynn Carmen, the Asian Heritage Society and annual Asian Heritage Awards.