Van Choat is a lovely woman with a very gentle disposition that I had the pleasure of meeting at the Love International Film Festival (LIFF). I had received a nomination for my work in Strangers in A Book, but I was much more taken with Van and her incredible journey. I rarely cover memoirs, but Van’s story really captured my heart. Van’s beloved grandmother Mau Vu lived to be a 106 years old much like my dear father.
Van is the Chief of Specialized Contracts for the Los Angeles Air Force Base. There is much more to Van than her expertise working for the Air Force. All of her experiences were chronicled in her moving memoir, Undaunted. Although her birth records were lost in the flames of war, Van, whose birth name was Van Bich Choat, was born Nguyen Thi Hien in the village of Rach Gia on the Gulf of Thailand southwest of Saigon.
Her maternal grandparents—once wealthy landowners in North Vietnam—fled south after the French defeat in 1954 and establishment of Ho Chi Minh’s communist regime. Starting life afresh as peasant-farmers, their family established ties in the rural suburbs around Saigon. Van’s father and uncle, veterans of the struggle against the French, joined the army of the new Republic to fight the invading North Vietnamese (NVA) and local insurgents, the Viet Cong (VC). Like her older brother Quang and younger sister Thuy, Van saw her father only a handful of times before he disappeared in the battle that also took their mother’s life.
Now orphaned by war, Van and her siblings were shuttled among a variety of custodians whose guardianship ranged from her grandmother’s stoic love to open abuse by other relatives. Moving from one leaf & bamboo or cinder-block hut to another, Van narrowly escaped death during the VC’s 1968 Tet Offensive. Later, her Aunt Thu married an older American who adopted the orphaned children: beginning a decade-long flight from the war and a narrow escape from a gangland-style massacre during a brief stay in the Philippines. Back in Vietnam, Van’s hopes for a new life were crushed by a near-fatal collision with lumber truck on the eve of Saigon’s collapse.
Relocating with her adoptive parents to a small Texas town, Van helped the family eke out a living in a rural America still reeling from the war. Working two part-time jobs, she graduated high school with honors and won a scholarship to Oklahoma State University, eventually marrying her high-school sweetheart, Ronnie Choat—now a U.S. Army paratrooper. Over the next few years, she gave him two sons before Ronnie died of cancer in the VA’s bureaucratic “hospital hell.”
Left alone to raise two boys, Van moved to Atlanta in 1990 and took a job with the VA, completing her undergraduate studies and earning a BA in business. She returned to Oklahoma in 1995 and in 1996 began work for the Air Force Logistics Command at Tinker AFB, entering the Air Force’s Outstanding Scholar Internship Program to obtain an MS in Management and credentials as an Air Force Contracting Officer. In 2000 and 2001, she was named Outstanding Civilian of the Year by the Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Committee. In 2005, she transferred to the USAF Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles to serve as a Deputy Chief of several acquisition divisions, a position she holds today. Both sons graduated from college and now work as USAF civilian employees in Oklahoma. Both married Asian brides, giving Van four grandchildren to date.Since 1991, Van has returned to Vietnam many times, maintaining close ties with friends and family and working tirelessly with her brother to solve the mystery of “Baby Sister’s” disappearance. By revealing the harrowing true story of her life, Van renews her vow to help young Vietnamese find more secure lives and better educational opportunities while promoting improved relations between her native and adopted homelands. More info about the remarkable Van and her memoir at http://www.vanchoat.com/