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PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Second Lieutenant Duc Tien Luu fled Vietnam when he was 11 years old. He is assigned to the 21st Space Communications Squadron here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jeff Adcox)

Photo by Jeff Adcox

Airman finds freedom in United States

30 Jun 2005 | Jeff Adcox

Most 12-year-olds are trading baseball cards and feeling hesitant about entering middle school. By the time young Duc Tien Luu was 12, he had been a Vietnamese refugee, attempted to smuggle himself into Thailand more than 10 times, was tortured in prison and sent back to his home country on strict probation.

Today, 2nd Lieutenant Luu is assigned to the 21st Space Communications Squadron here.

The event that propelled Lieutenant Luu’s life into motion occurred when he was 11 years old. His parents received a letter from Vietnamese officials asking them to come down to a local prison for an interview.

If the Vietnamese government blacklisted a family, they were under constant scrutiny, Lieutenant Luu said. His parents feared the government was trying to increase their attention on their family, and they were concerned for the well-being of their children.

“I had seen a lot of my parents’ friends who would go down for an interview, and they would keep them for I don’t know how long,” Lieutenant Luu said. “My parents had three kids; what was to happen to us if they were kept in prison?”

So at midnight on the day the letter was delivered, the Luu family left their home in an attempt to reach another country that would serve as a launching pad to freedom.

“It took us three days to get to Tay Ninh, a province of Vietnam,” Lieutenant Luu said. “We stayed there for a little while to try and find a way, either by boat or land, into Thailand.”

Originally, the family had hopes the entire family could escape at one time, but that notion disappeared when Lieutenant Luu’s mother decided the risk was too great for herself and her two younger children. So the family put themselves in the lieutenant’s hands. They gave him the money they were holding and let him attempt to escape again and again.

“We made several attempts by boat, but we would get halfway and have to turn back because of storms,” Lieutenant Luu said.

On one such attempt, the Luu family had some measure of success. Lieutenant Luu’s aunt and cousin made it on a boat heading for freedom. Lieutenant Luu missed the boat by a matter of minutes and waited for a second boat that never arrived.

Left with nothing but the desire for a better life than what he was accustomed to, Lieutenant Luu continually tried to escape until the day he was captured.

Now, in a Cambodian prison camp controlled by the Vietnamese, Lieutenant Luu was separated from his family, placed in solitary confinement and tortured. For his escape attempts, he said he was whipped with 2-inch-thick bamboo rods that left bruises for six months.

After almost two months in the prison camp, the entire Luu family was sent back to Vietnam in 1988, and placed under the same restrictions Lieutenant Luu had fought so hard to escape. He was not allowed to attend high school and had no opportunities to better his situation. The family lived off aid sent to them by another aunt living in California.

Lieutenant Luu said that in Vietnam, unless someone was a child of a person in authority, people are not given opportunity to succeed, no matter how smart they are.

“Children of an officer may have bad grade-point averages, but they have an umbrella to cover them,” Lieutenant Luu said. “They can get into any type of school they want -- law school, medical school. But for me there was nothing. I was unable to pursue any type of freedom.”

Lieutenant Luu spent four years living under conditions that were meant to break his spirit. But for that spirit to break, Lieutenant Luu would have had to quit trying, which was something he was not prepared to do, especially after his time in the prison camp.

“I was beaten, I was isolated, and I didn’t care,” Lieutenant Luu said. “I hadn’t reached my ultimate goal yet.

“It was better to give my life trying to escape than to be living in Vietnam and have no freedom and no education,” he said.

One day, all that came to an end. The aunt who had been sending the family money sponsored them, and they came to America. The Luus moved to Pennsylvania where Lieutenant Luu began high school barely able to speak English. After four years, he graduated fifth in his class.

Following a two-year stint as an enlisted Sailor, Lieutenant Luu joined the Air Force with plans to become an officer. He succeeded.

Recently, Lieutenant Luu bought his first home, which he refers to as “land,” and he said he plans to make the Air Force his career.

For Lieutenant Luu, today is a great day, and tomorrow promises to be even brighter as he thrives in a life with opportunity and freedom to grow. (Courtesy of Air Force Space Command News Service)