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Wing’s first Vietnamese-American commander says he lives American dream every day

Wing’s first Vietnamese-American commander says he lives American dream every day

GRISSOM AIR RESERVE BASE, Ind. (WISH) — A tanker wing’s new commanding officer on Monday said he hopes to pave the way for other Asian Americans seeking a career in the armed forces.

Col. Van Thai was born in Saigon a year after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. When he was five years old, his family fled Vietnam’s communist regime, first moving to Toronto before settling in Oklahoma City.

“(My father and uncle) landed in Toronto, Canada, in the middle of winter. They’d never seen snow. So when they got off the airplane, and it was snowing, my uncle actually turned to my dad and said, ‘Hey, brother, we’re gonna die,'” Thai said, laughing.

Thai was initially interested in biology and wanted to be a veterinarian. While studying at the Air Force Academy, he said he caught the flying bug. He began taking flying lessons and even learned how to parachute out of airplanes. When he graduated, he began flying KC-135 tanker aircraft.

“All the opportunities given to me there gave me a sense of air power,” he said. “For me, though, it was more a sense of, I love to travel. It was more means than ends.”

Thai is now in his 26th year in the Air Force. He told News 8 he has spent most of it deployed overseas, including at air bases in Japan and Qatar. In February, Thai became the new commanding officer of the 434th Air Refueling Wing. Based at Grissom Air Reserve Base near Kokomo, the Air Force says the 434th is the largest KC-135 wing in the Air Force Reserve.

“I tell my team I went from international to Indiana,” he said.

Thai’s appointment was historic in two respects. First, he said he is the first active-duty officer to command the unit since Grissom transitioned from an active-duty base to a reserve base in 1994. Second, he is the first Vietnamese American to hold the job. According to the Department of Defense’s most recent demographics report, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders account for roughly six percent of all military personnel.

Thai said he hasn’t personally faced any challenges due to his ethnicity but recognizes not everyone can say the same thing. He said the Air Force needs more Asian Americans to join and bring their perspectives to the service.

“As one of the few, rare, Asian-American wing commanders or leaders in our Air Force and our military,” he said, “I kind of try to pave that way for and push it forward or give back, however, you want to say, for other folks that are Asian American, Pacific Islanders, that want to lead.”

Thai said one of the military’s biggest sources of strength is how it brings together Americans from a variety of ethnicities and upbringings to work toward a common goal. He said for him, the bottom line is the “American” portion of the phrases “Asian American” or “Vietnamese American.”

“Each of us kind of brings our piece of the puzzle to form that red, white, and blue that is America, and so we learn from each other,” he said. “And the military has always been the leading point of integration. We’re not perfect, but we’ve always been the leading point of integration.”

Thai said his parents still live in Oklahoma City. He said he and his wife plan to put down roots in Indiana, likely in or around Carmel. He said the youngest of his three children, who is still in high school, is looking for a school with a good soccer program.

“We are totally living the American Dream,” he said. “Just the opportunities for an immigrant kid from Southeast Asia to come to America where the family’s working hard and a little luck, we’ve been able to kind of spread our wings and take flight in this Air Force adventure.”