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David Nguyen served in Iraq and Afghanistan; now he houses veterans

A former Army paratrooper who was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, today Legion member David Nguyen finds reward in building trust and improving the lives of veterans as the metro housing team leader for the nonprofit Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans in St. Paul. The MACV team strives to fulfill its mission to end veteran homelessness in Minnesota while aiding men and women veterans with legal and employment services.

‘Tip of the Spear’

By Kara Hildreth

ST. PAUL — One time, a couple showed up at the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans office in St. Paul after the husband, a veteran, lost his job.
His wife quietly told MACV staff that her husband was let go because he lacked sleep. He suffered from mental health issues related to his military service.

“He has been staying up all night doing guard duty, watching the window, waiting for anything to happen,” the wife said.

Another time, a young veteran — and his wife with six children — showed up after he lost his job. They were going to be evicted. He had been drinking to cope with surviving combat overseas and possibly suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

These are the struggles facing veterans, and Legionnaire David Nguyen, 40, helps them daily in his job on the front line of ending veteran homelessness in Minnesota.

He is the metro housing team leader for St. Paul-based MACV. The 29-year-old nonprofit agency has a mission of ending homelessness in Minnesota and has forged many partnerships throughout the state to connect veterans to resources.

The American dream

Nguyen is a member St. Paul Post 599, the 3M Post. He was born in St. Louis Park and grew up in Plymouth. He is the son of parents who were first-generation immigrants to the United States.

“My dad came to the United States after 35 years serving in the Air Force for the South Vietnamese after the Tet Offensive,” he said.

The Tet Offensive began in 1968 and was North Vietnam’s push to end the stalemate of the war. By 1975, South Vietnam was falling to northern forces, and many people left by any means possible to avoid living under communism.

That’s when his father, Hein, and mother, Van, left with son, Huy, and daughter, Lynn.

“My Dad’s and Mom’s story is unbelievable after the mass exodus from Vietnam,” he said.

The family photograph shows David as the baby, alongside his mother, Van, and his father, Hein, his older brother, Huy, and his sister, Lynn Lynh.

Due to limited capacity, only women and children were accepted on boats. His mother and young sister left on a boat, and his dad and brother were still in Vietnam.

“My dad gave my brother to an American soldier, who took my brother, who was a year old, and they exchanged addresses and my dad slipped it into his pocket, and Lord knows how many times he wrote the address down, and that was before smartphones or the cloud,” he said.

“It was quite the odyssey because my mom and sister ended up in Thailand and ended up working in a seamstress shop, and my mom said this is not where we are supposed to be,” he recalled.

His mother and daughter ended up taking a boat to Hawaii, where they were considered political refugees. His father managed to reach Guam before reaching the mainland United States as a refugee. The Hopkins American Red Cross and Lutheran Social Services played a part in placing the father with a foster family in Minnesota.

At the time, his father spoke no English, and he made a living cutting grass.

His father founded a Vietnamese-language publication, which served as a pamphlet to help reunite refugees in the United States

“This was a place where people put ads for loved ones they could not find,” he said.

He posted a photo of his mother in the pamphlet, and they connected. Nguyen joked that he is the happy ending after all the heartache, worry and separation.

“We have a newspaper clipping with my dad in his bellbottoms and his mustache,” he said.

His father passed away in 2005, but he did live the American dream of raising a family in the United States, alongside his mother.

His father worked at Honeywell at first. He took his passion for civic engagement, and he applied for a job with Hennepin County in the social services area. His father worked in the food support program for more than 30 years.

Enlisted on Sept. 10, 2001

Little did David Nguyen know that, when he enlisted, it would be the day before the 9/11 attacks, the day the world changed.

He went through basic at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in November 2001, followed by jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia.

From there, he served until 2004 with the 82nd Airborne Division, as a supply specialist for the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The famed division is not just about jumping out of airplanes.

In fall of 2003, he was a young solider in Iraq photographed at the Falluja railway station during a convoy mission alongside his friend and platoon sergeant, Freddy Cruz.

As a rapid-deployment force, the 82nd goes anywhere in the world in a moment’s notice. The saying goes: “Wheels up in 18 hours or less.”

Nguyen was with the 82nd Airborne for 17 days before he deployed to Afghanistan for about eight months. He was among the first to go.

“When we arrived, it was really a barren desert.”

They set up tents by an airstrip near Kandahar.

“It was as authentic to the movies as you can make it, and we slept outside some nights,” he added.

In 2003, he came back and was home for four months before he was then deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, a hot area of combat.

“It was a totally different deployment than Afghanistan, and I spent more time deployed overseas than I spent with my unit stateside,” he said.

Nguyen worked primarily as a supply clerk, helping provide supplies to soldiers going out on missions.

In Fallujah, he was promoted and selected as the commander’s driver.

“My main responsibility was taking care of the commander’s vehicle and driving the commander. It was a completely different deployment for me because I drove conduits and our company drove with the line companies, and so I probably went on just as many missions with our entire battalion,” he said.

Nguyen witnessed violence and rocket-propelled grenades that were fired, as well as firefights and mortars launched into camp that exploded at night.

“We were based close by — west of the actual city,” he said.

Pride of patriot son

“In the Vietnamese culture, the big focus is going to college, and you choose among the profession of becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer,” Nguyen said.

It was a shock and surprise when he told his father how he decided to enlist in the Army. He did so without the permission or blessing of his parents.

The decision to enlist came from a wanderlust place in his heart, Nguyen said, and was somewhat impulsive at 20 years old after he had spent two years at Normandale Community College.

David Nguyen stands in his office at MACV in St. Paul, 1000 University Ave.

“After I joined, I came home and said, ‘Dad, you are going to have to have a seat,’” he said.

Now that he works on behalf of veterans at MACV, his decision makes sense in the rearview mirror and gives him a sense of purpose.

“I have always felt there has been some kind of higher power just coaching me along, and I think about the veterans we serve and sometimes the thing that you need, you are not able to see or recognize that thing, and only until you are able to recognize that, then do certain things happen,” he said.

“For me, I needed to go, and I think because I chose to sign up, I think it set the stage for the deployments.”

A short time after he told his father about the enlistment, his dad said to him: “You have chosen your path and I am proud of you. That was really my passion — to want to get out and to explore the world.”

“I think, for me, I needed to go, but I also think since I chose to sign up, it set the stage for the deployment, and I was like, ‘Let’s do this!’ and I was ready to defend my country and fight as a patriot, and I was proud to be what we called at the time, ‘America’s Tip of the Spear’ in the 82nd Airborne rapid-deployment cycle, and I was in Afghanistan within four months of signing up to be in the Army,” he said.

Military service “was what I needed, and I feel like being as far away as we were in Afghanistan, it felt right for me because I had the energy and the motivation,” he said.

The deployment was hard for his parents.

“My dad would go into my room and turn on the night light every night when I was deployed, every night,” he said.

During his deployment to Iraq, his brother succumbed to an aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was November 2003.

Nguyen left the active-duty Army in October 2004. In January 2005, his father died. It was tough to lose two family members in a short span.

Showing love to his mom was important to him since he understood how she had endured such devastating loss of her older son and husband.

This period of his life was a crossroads, like it can be for many veterans. He faced deep grief and needed to address his own mental health.

“I had to work many challenges, and I was brought to MACV, and in 2005, I had been struggling to integrate back into community, and I was living with my mom and became a student at the University of Minnesota,” he said.

He experienced times where he was looking for areas where a bomb may go off. He was also serving as the man of the house, wanting to take care of his mother with the household grass and winter snowfall.

In 2005, he bumped into folks in military uniforms, and he told them he was a student now. But he eventually began talking with them.

“I felt like I kept getting drawn back to it, and because of the Army, I felt very comfortable talking with officers about the ROTC program that trains officers,” he said.

Nguyen joined the Minnesota Army National Guard and began training to become an officer. He was commissioned as an officer where he would lead a platoon in the 34th Combat Aviation Brigade.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and went on to earn a master’s degree in public and nonprofit administration. He left the National Guard in 2009.

“I was on an odyssey trying to find my real path in life and, at times, I was struggling with life and resources, and I had my own housing crisis after I helped my mom move to Iowa, and just like every person who comes to MACV, they have their own personal journey that has brought them here, and I say that because we are a nonprofit, and nonprofits are driven by their mission,” he said.

Full circle

Before he came to work for MACV, he faced his personal challenges and volunteered to work with veterans who were incarcerated or just out.

“That was the first time I have come into contact with this entire ecosphere of veteran services because I had never reached out ever,” he said.

His volunteer work meant he began receiving letters from veterans coming out of jail or prison, and he needed to gather resources like the networking services that are offered at MACV.

“The stories of our veterans are the most valuable thing that we need to understand and cherish like we do at the MACV, and for me, to have my own personal struggles kind of helped me identify with them,” he added.

David Nguyen’s family relaxes for a family photo. David holds son Oliver, 4, while Elizabeth holds son Leo, 2.

Nguyen began working at MACV in June 2013.

“In many ways, my personal odyssey brought me full circle back to my enlistment paperwork,” Nguyen said, who shared how he works with the man who enlisted him into the military years ago.

Nguyen loves his fulfilling career helping lift veterans via the MACV.

“Our job at MACV is to be the best guides for our veterans, and sometimes for veterans that means we need to walk with them, and sometimes they are not at a place where they can walk with us,” he said.

“Other times, and many times, they are walking with us and we help them get back to stable housing,” he said.

In addition to housing agencies and property owners, MACV works in partnership with the federal VA and the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, which maintains the Minnesota Homeless Veterans Registry.

“We identify each veteran on the list to make sure no veteran falls through the cracks,” he said.

Many agencies provide veteran names and referrals to MACV.

“We are positioned in Minnesota to be the fourth state in the nation to declare a functional zero in regards to veteran homelessness, and we work to effectively end veteran homelessness, and our goal at MACV is to end veteran homelessness in the state of Minnesota.”

“I think a measurement of MACV is all the homeless veterans you do not see on the street because we do so much work on the streets, and because veterans are coming to us, and they go into housing and so no one ever sees them,” he said.

“That is why The American Legion has been so instrumental because they will deliver food to our homes and help veterans,” he said.

Many of the MACV staff are driven by own personal journeys and each staff member embodies their own skill set and personal and professional qualities that make the team work well together, Nguyen said.

The pandemic has meant MACV staff has needed to work even closer to help veterans during the uncertain times and health challenges that may be present during the COVID-19 in the past six months.

“MACV is even more relevant because we can disperse into our remote work environment seamlessly with Zoom meetings, database platforms unlike some other nonprofits that have gone out of business,” he said.

“Our service-based platform has never skipped a beat, and we are still meeting with veterans, and we are utilizing all of our equipment,” he said.

“We have made a big effort to move veterans out of congregate living to keep them safe during the pandemic because we do not want them in shelter living elbow-to-elbow, and we have established partnerships with key hotels,” he said.

MACV has been able to perform its regular outreach and serve as connectors to the VA and county veteran service officers, Nguyen said.

“Hotels have become our indirect pipeline that is now formalized to better serve veterans during this challenging time for the country,” he added.

“Our transitional housing has been a great tool to get our veterans from the streets,” he said.

Monetary donations and gift cards are always welcome by veterans and veteran families.

“You would be amazed at what that can do for veterans, and we are a passionate group of people,” he said.

If you are a veteran in need of housing, employment or legal help, call 612-255-8695, or visit mac-v.org, or contact Nguyen directly at dnguyen@mac-v.org.

That same contact info can be used for anyone wanting to donate or partner with MACV.

Even small gifts, such as handknit children’s scarves knitted by volunteers from Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance company, are appreciated, he said.

“You could tell by the look of their faces that it was comfortable and a stable thing at a time of uncertainty,” he said.

The Tremendous Trio

Today, Nguyen makes a home in Eagan with his wife, Elizabeth, and their three energetic boys, whom he affectionately calls the Tremendous Trio. There is Oliver, 4, Leo, 2, and baby Max, 9 months. His wife works as a yoga teacher and reflexologist.

Each son, he said, exhibits his own personality.

“Oliver is an extrovert, and Leo is so interesting with his mannerisms, and he is so cautious and does not like trees and does not like listening to NPR,” Nguyen said, jokingly.

In his spare time, Nguyen finds way with his wife to air out the boys and spend time as a family together outdoors at parks and hiking. They strive to have fun together while disengaging their children from screens and technology. Personally, he likes to run and work out to maintain good health. Staying active, just like in the military, serves as a way to decompress.

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