Now, Amber talks with Tu Lam to learn more about the experiences that shaped him and continue to shape the people he teaches.
Don’t miss this video. What Tu Lam says is sure to stick with you as it’s stuck with me. Here are some highlights, as well as some of the history surrounding a life of “putting the war to peace.”
Rising Out of the Fall of Saigon
Tu Lam was born in Saigon in December 1974, mere months before the South Vietnamese city fell to communist North Vietnam. On the very first day of his life, Tu Lam’s mom sheltered her son from the artillery fire surrounding them in the city.
U.S. Marines evacuate a group of ‘at risk’ Vietnamese people during the Fall of Saigon.
[Photo: U.S. Military]
Historical Context: Three million refugees left Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the 25 years following the end of the Vietnam War. By 1986, 250,000 Vietnamese “boat people” had perished at sea. You can learn more about the war’s origins, stories, and aftermath in Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975. I found it in my public library a few years ago and it’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read.
Into the Waves
Despite the perils of leaving, Tu Lam’s mother knew she wanted to get out. “My mother said there was ‘no way in hell’ that her two sons would ever grow up to be Communists,” he tells Amber.
When Tu Lam was about two, his grandfather assembled enough of his life savings to get Tu Lam, his brother, and his mother onto a wooden fishing boat with hundreds of other refugees. After what Tu Lam describes as their “first adventure,” they drifted in the ocean for several weeks.
A boat carrying Vietnamese refugees in 1984. [Photo: U.S. Navy]
One day, a Russian supply boat that was leaving Vietnam stopped, picked up everyone in the stranded boat, and dropped them off at a refugee camp in Indonesia. Ironically, people from the same Communist regime that had killed his uncle, had imperiled his entire family, were now saving Tu Lam and his fellow refugees.
“It’s a lesson in human nature,” he says. Individual acts of compassion happen even as the nations that good people are part of cause violence and pain”.
The little family’s challenges were far from over. The “refugee camp” was simply a few grass huts on a plot of land in the wilderness. Tu Lam’s mom lived off the land and fended for her family for about a year and a half.
Though he clearly remembers only bits and pieces, Tu Lam believes these earliest experiences forged the paths he would take later. “They say that ages two to four are what shapes a person’s character in life,” he tells Amber.
Surviving North Carolina in the 1980s
Meanwhile, Tu Lam’s aunt had married a “bad ass” Green Beret stationed with other Army Special Forces soldiers at Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville in North Carolina. When Tu Lam was about four, the Green Beret arranged for Tu Lam’s mother to emigrate to America. By the late 1970s, Tu Lam was living in Fayetteville. It’s a town so connected to the Vietnam War and its veterans that North Carolinians call it ‘Fayette-Nam.’
When Tu Lam was eight, his mother remarried. His new stepdad was also a Green Beret—a man who woke everyone in the family at 5 AM to raise the American flag out front and play the National Anthem, Tu Lam recalls.
Prejudice and a poor understanding of history and politics in 1980s North Carolina made it difficult for a Vietnamese boy to find friends his own age. The Green Berets his uncle and stepfather knew became Tu Lam’s best friends. By the time he was 13, he knew that he, too, wanted to become a Green Beret.
“I escaped you from Vietnam,” his mother said, “And you’re doing very well in school.” “Special Forces? Absolutely not.” Sure, Tu Lam could join the military, she said, but he should become a “technical guy” or “work in the medical field.” Just not Special Forces. Please.
“My brother became a doctor, and I became a commando,” he says. As a young man, Tu Lam was just as mystified by his career choice as his mother was. But “now that I’m an adult, I do know,” he tells Amber. “It was that energy around me at two years old—when the Russians looked past race, looked past the war, and looked at us as human beings.” That’s what was driving Tu Lam to do the same.
[Photo: Ronin Tactics]
His first mission took him back to Southeast Asia. His job was to remove land mines that American forces had dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War and that remained buried in the landscape. The mission was to make it possible for the children living there—years later now—to play safely. During his 20s, he was deployed overseas 8-10 months out of every year. In the video, he describes the experiences that sparked the first designs for the gear that Ronin Tactics makes today.
“I was born in war. My whole life was war. And now this stage of my life is about peace,” Tu Lam says. “It’s about giving people the knowledge they need to protect themselves,” he adds. It’s about helping the families of fallen soldiers and supporting veterans as they adjust to civilian life again. “At this evolution of my life, I dedicate it towards the peace.”
Editor’s note: The article this post is based on appeared in the April, 2020 issue of American Survival Guide.