The unsinkable Lt. Le Quan

A new book by Tran Quan, D.O.’02, reveals that in all that her father was – soldier, prisoner of war, refugee, immigrant and, ultimately, an American – he was fearlessly perseverant.

The 1968 Tet Offensive triggered a tsunami of events that rippled through countless lives, Le Quan’s among them. Born into an affluent family in Vietnam, he was just out of high school when North Vietnam reneged on its pledge to observe a seven-day ceasefire in its civil war with South Vietnam. Although his father secured travel papers and offered to finance his life abroad, Le Quan chose to stay and fight with the South’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 9th Infantry Division, known for its heavy combat missions and its commander, Tran Ba Di.

That decision seeded the eventual friendship of Lt. Quan and Commander Di, two men who saw much, suffered more and somehow built better lives through sheer grit and unflappable determination. Their journeys are told in the 2021 book by Tran Quan, D.O.’02, Soldier On: My Father, His General, and the Long Road from Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press). A family physician in Rosenberg, TX, she was inspired to write the book after joining the men on a 2014 road trip that reunited them after more than 40 years.

“Their stories had a message that I thought would be inspirational and useful to others,” Quan says. “You don’t hear too much about the South Vietnamese who fought in the Vietnam War with the United States. It’s important for people to know that story.”

The book is meticulously researched and full of historic facts, but it reads like a novel. Her father, a “very descriptive conversationalist,” provided rich details, as did the many Vietnamese and Americans she interviewed who also fought during the war.

Soldier On follows the mischievous, fun-loving Lt. Quan and his highly respected commander through the brutal chaos of war; the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975; and their lives as prisoners of war, during which they were tortured by their captors and had to forage for plants, frogs, lizards and insects to survive.

“The theme of the book is perseverance through adversity, survival and never giving up,” Quan says. “How could they not have been jaded or traumatized by the war? Where are the depression and bitterness? They survived a 20-year war in their homeland that affected their entire life and was part of their daily existence. They had to find ways to cope.”

In 1978, when she was just five years old and her brother, seven, a year after her father’s release from prison, Quan’s family fled Vietnam on a Thai ship built to hold 100 people but that instead smuggled 340 men, women and children out of the country. Terrorized by fierce storms and armed pirates, they finally arrived at the Laem Sing Refugee Camp in Thailand. Accepted for resettlement in America a year later, they began an immigrant’s journey that eventually took them to Houston.

Quan’s parents had two more children and worked in odd jobs, factories and a chicken processing plant until purchasing a rundown seafood market and restaurant in a rough North Houston neighborhood. The restaurant eventually earned its reputation as one of the longest- operating family-owned stores in the neighborhood and the only one that “was never robbed in its sixteen years,” Quan writes in the book.

Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, Commander Di, now General, remained imprisoned; he finally received permission from communist Vietnam to leave the country in April 1993.

Without a military pension or veterans’ benefits, he worked in airline catering, pedaled a pushcart of snacks at Splendid China Amusement Park in Orlando, FL, and bussed tables and washed dishes at an Orlando restaurant. The uneaten food he scraped off diners’ plates painfully reminded him of the 17 years “he ate mostly cassava roots and drank dirty well water in the jungle prisons of Vietnam.” His co-workers had no idea that the quiet, hardworking gentleman once commanded an infantry division with more than 10,000 soldiers.

At age 64, he took a job folding t-shirts and restocking merchandise at Mouse Gear at Disney World’s Epcot Center, where he worked 12 years until his retirement.

A journey of perseverance continues

Quan heard “bits and pieces” of her parents’ stories growing up, but as an adult, she came to marvel at all the hardships her parents endured: “How they must have felt coming to a new country with no family support, no money or language, with young children to support – I never thought about that growing up,” she says.

She had her own struggles, however. Her initial lack of English made teachers think she wasn’t educable, but she eventually found her way through books and even won a teddy bear as a prize for reading the most books in her class. When she lost the bear, her father consoled her: “The true prize was the improvement in your reading and writing skills from all those books you read. That is something you can never lose. And there will be bigger rewards in your future from it.”

His words were prophetic. In her final year of college, she presented three letters to her father: from her undergraduate dean, stating she would graduate magna cum laude; from DMU, offering her acceptance that fall; and from the U.S. Department of Defense, awarding her a military scholarship for all four years of medical school.

“His eyes watered, and a smile crept over his face. He looked at the first two letters and remembered consoling me when I flunked kindergarten and fell behind in school,” Quan writes in Soldier On. “Since his arrival in America, Dad wanted to give back as much as he had gained. Now, through his children, he saw that American dream realized.”

After graduating from DMU, Quan completed a one- year family medicine internship at Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood, TX; she then was made a full-time Army physician and was assigned for three months as the sole doctor and the only woman to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, “where you can hear North Koreans yelling at the Americans.” She fulfilled her military obligations and, for the past 11 years, has served as the medical director at Richmond State Supportive Living Center, a residential facility for approximately 300 individuals with a wide range of intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Quan was initially reluctant to include herself in the book. “But as I thought about it more and more, I know there are children now, including from Afghanistan and Ukraine, who are going through that experience. A lot of them will experience it without knowing the language and having family support or money, and that will affect their future. To reach children like that, to let them know that no matter what circumstances they’re born in, they don’t have to let those circumstances define their lives. That’s the message I want to bring.

“My parents could have wallowed in self-pity, but I never saw them complain or feel embarrassed about scrubbing floors or toilets, for doing honest work,” she adds. “They always soldiered on in the face of adversity.”

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