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New commander at Grissom proud of Vietnamese roots

Grissom Air Reserve Base (434th Air Refueling Wing/Facebook)

Author Ralph Waldo Emerson once said America is just another name for opportunity.

This nation of over 330 million people truly is a melting pot, a place where the American Dream is alive for those who seek it.

For United States Air Force Col. Van Thai — who was recently named commander of the 434th Air Refueling Wing at Grissom Air Reserve Base — that search for the American Dream began when he was just 5 years old living in Saigon, Vietnam (now Ho Chi Minh City).

Thai detailed that time in his life for a 2022 article with Karen Abeyasekere of the 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs office at Royal Air Force Mildenhall (England), where Thai was stationed at the time.

It was 1981 when Thai’s parents made the decision to leave Vietnam for Toronto, Canada, in search of a better life for their sons.

The family didn’t speak English when they arrived in Toronto, and life as an immigrant was tough in the beginning, Thai stated in the article.

“My family didn’t want to be communists — they wanted a new life with opportunities for my younger brother and I,” he told Abeyasekere. “My dad and uncle went off on a boat as refugees, then later on he did the paperwork in Canada to bring us over to start our new life that was not inhibited by a communist government.”

Canada was where Thai started kindergarten and began to learn English, all while getting accustomed to his new surroundings.

“My parents were always pushing for us to speak English,” Thai said in his interview with Abeyasekere. “A lot of immigrant or refugee kids are a-cultural, or lost between two worlds. What I mean by that is they’re trying to fit in to the new ‘world’ they’re coming to, while also trying to retain where they came from — that was definitely a bit of a challenge growing up. So I tried to capture and cherish some of the heritage where I came from.”

From Toronto, the family eventually moved to Oklahoma, where Thai spent the rest of his childhood and ultimately was accepted into the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Flash forward 30 years and several military assignments later — including stops in places like South Korea, Germany, Qatar and Japan — and Thai notes he’s still that wide-eyed little boy with a vision of the American Dream in his head.

But now he feels like he’s actually been able to live it too, he added.

The Tribune recently had an opportunity to speak with Thai and ask about that lengthy military service, as well as his newly appointed role with Grissom and what he looks forward to most during his time in Central Indiana.

During the interview, Thai also took a few moments to explain why he chose the military in the first place and why the U.S. Air Force was the perfect fit for him.

Thai noted his parents probably thought he’d grow up to be a doctor or an engineer, and he confessed he actually did consider medical school at one point in his childhood.

But then plans changed.

“You know it sounds cheesy,” Thai told the Tribune, “but as an immigrant family, being Vietnamese-American, I wanted to serve and give back to the United States. The United States has given myself and my family a lot, and I wanted to serve and contribute to this country in any way I could.”

And the U.S. Air Force, Thai explained, is naturally “above all.”

“The world is 75% covered by water, but it’s 100% covered by air,” he said laughing. “… It’s just the culture and environment of the Air Force, that curiosity to float above the clouds and that sense of freedom. That’s what drew me to it.”

And it’s that curiosity and sense of duty to America that Thai said he also hopes will help him in his new role at Grissom.

“First and foremost, I am humbled and honored that I am entrusted in this role because it’s about taking care of our airmen,” he said. “It’s the military, civilians, families and the communities around here that support us. It’s all of it. I’m entrusted as a leadership team to ensure that they’re ready when our nation calls upon us.

“So I’m deeply humbled because of that trust,” Thai added. “The biggest thing is that we’re a big organization. So the biggest part is just being human. That’s what I’ve learned is it’s important to just relate, help motivate and help support our airmen because they’re the ones that roll up their sleeves to get the job done day in and day out. It’s all about supporting these warriors and their families.”

And it also means installing the “three B’s,” Thai explained.

“I believe that you bridge, you boost and you build,” he said.

Creating a proverbial bridge of knowledge between the airmen at Grissom and his own experiences and responsibilities in the military while overseas will only help both sides in the end, Thai noted.

But a bridge is only as strong as how it’s built, he added.

“I think last year’s numbers were down something like 10% in overall recruiting numbers (for Air Force Reserves). So I want to build up the airmen we currently have, but I am also going to help see what I can do about kind of connecting out with different communities so that we can recruit and continue to build up leaders.”

And then there’s the boost aspect of his new role, which Thai said is important in any military reserve outfit because they can be called into war at a moment’s notice.

“What we’ve been doing here to sharpen our sword and our edges to get ready for the fight is key,” he said. “That means getting to the gym, getting our reps in and keeping ourselves prepared because readiness is a big factor. Nobody wants to go to war, but we have to be ready to go if we’re called.”

Thai has officially been at his post at Grissom for three months now, and he said he’s still learning a little bit more each day.

But he also admitted he already feels at home in Bunker Hill too.

“Indiana has some really good people,” Thai said. “They’re very supportive of the military. They’re supportive of the United States of America. You know, there’s a very patriotic spirit here in Indiana, and I’m humbled to serve here.”

Thai then laughed and called the attitude at the base “Grissom grit,” a term he said he’s proud to now have too.

“We’re going to project from the crossroads of America,” Thai noted. “Indo-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, over the poles, we’ll project because that’s what we do. We are the maneuver that makes it capable of winning, despite the terrain and distance.

“We as airmen today, we’re not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but we’ve got to build on that legacy of valor. So I hope to be here to build it with the team and move forward with it. We don’t rest on our laurels because our enemies don’t. We don’t rest on our past reputation. We got to maintain our sharpness and our agility to get after it and evolve as a team together.”


(c) 2024 the Kokomo Tribune

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