English Feature #7-36720 Broadcast September 16, 2002
Among the nearly 3,000 people who perished on September 11th a year ago as a result of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, one was a Vietnamese American. Khang Nguyen, a computer systems specialist, was working as a contractor for the U.S. Navy in the section of the Pentagon hit by the terrorists’ plane. Today on New American Voices, his widow, Tu An Ho Nguyen, talks about the experiences and emotions of the past year.
“I couldn’t believe that one year is past. It’s just like it happened yesterday, for me. I still have nightmares. But even though I feel that it’s a short time, a lot of things have happened. We – I don’t know when we come back to a normal life. I don’t know.”
Tu An Ho Nguyen’s husband Khang Nguyen was 41 when he died. Tu An, a computer scientist, was 38 at the time, and their son, An, had celebrated his fourth birthday just two days before, on September 9th. Mrs. Nguyen says their son was too little to understand what had happened to his father.
“He just kept asking, ‘Where’s daddy?’ I couldn’t tell him anything, I was numb at that time, you know – so my mom told him that ‘daddy go to heaven.’ So later, every time he missed his daddy, he would just stand by the window and look up at the sky, and he looked so sad.”
Khang Nguyen immigrated to the United States in 1981, when he was 20. Along with his mother and eight siblings, he came to join his father, who had left Vietnam for America after the fall of Saigon in 1975. All the Nguyen children eventually graduated from college, going to school full time and working part time to earn money to support their studies. Khang Nguyen studied electrical engineering, and worked in a Roy Rogers fast-food restaurant.
“My husband he didn’t know how to cook, but some things he did like a professional. He made a very good fried egg sandwich, because he had experience in Roy Rogers.”
Tu An Ho Nguyen came to the United States later, in 1987. Her parents, both teachers, remained in Vietnam after the end of the war, and her father spent three years in a concentration camp for serving in the military police.
“We tried to escape by boat, but it costs a lot of money and we don’t have enough money, so we failed several times. So we waited until my uncle, who came here in 1975, became a U.S. citizen and he sent paperwork to sponsor our family.”
Mrs. Nguyen says the experience of growing up in post-war Vietnam left an indelible mark on both her and her husband, and also increased their appreciation of life in the United States.
“Both my husband and I, we both witnessed the devastation of war in Vietnam. We both grew up in war. We stayed in Vietnam in very poor conditions, we have an unsafe life, we don’t know, like, what will happen tomorrow. So we greatly appreciate the freedom and the peace in the United States.”
Mrs. Nguyen says her feeling for this country intensified after the terrorist attacks and her husband’s death.
“Before September 11 we appreciate that we’re here, and the U.S. government allow us to come here, and give us U.S. citizenship. But after September 11 whenever I look at the American flag, it has, like, more meaning to me, like I love America more, and after September 11 I’m so proud that I’m here in America, and my son, he was born here, and he’s growing up here.”
Mrs. Nguyen says that she herself is a different person from the one she was before the events of September 11, 2001.
“Yeah, I changed a lot. Stronger. Before, like, when I wanted to make a decision I asked my parents, I asked my friends, I asked many people, I asked my husband. But now I have to decide everything by myself. Because a lot of things happened, many things happened in my family, too, so I must be stronger, and what I think is right –I just do it. And I don’t let people influence me.”
Initially what helped her to survive the shock and sorrow of her husband’s death, Mrs. Nguyen says, was the support she received from her family, her friends, her husband’s company and colleagues, the Vietnamese community, and the U.S. government. She says that in the weeks after the tragedy she received almost a hundred phone calls a day from people offering condolences.
“I just know that everyone around me support me a lot. I can stand up and face life without my husband, I got the strength from the support of the American people, and from my family. My father, my mother, who sacrificed a lot for their children and grandchildren – I cannot survive after September 11 without their help.”
The Defense Department set up a Pentagon Victim Family Assistance Center immediately after the tragedy to provide the families of the victims with any assistance and counseling they might need.
“At the very beginning, four people came to our house, and they say they try to help me. If I request anything, they will do it, to help me. Like if I need someone to cut the grass, or baby-sit, they help me. The Pentagon Victim Assistance Center in the Pentagon, they’re always there for us. If we need anything, just call them. But I try to be independent, so I just call them if I need help for the paper work, like for the Victim Compensation Fund, or I ask them to take the ashes of my husband – because he was cremated – take them from the temple and bury them in Arlington Cemetery.”
Some of the victims of the Pentagon terrorist attack were reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, where many of America’s soldiers and heroes are buried, in a ceremony that took place September 12, the day after the one-year anniversary of the attack. Mrs. Nguyen attended the ceremony along with little An. She says it gave her some sense of closure after the intense events and emotions of the past year.
“I was saddened, and sometimes I was angry because of what happened, and my son, he is growing up without his father. But I’m also proud that my husband already give back something to this country. We will always be grateful to America and the American people. I try to do my best to serve this country. It’s not like our second country. Now it became our native country.”
Tu An Ho Nguyen, the widow of a Vietnamese-American who was killed last year during the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.