When a customer walked into his store and pulled out a gun, Chau Minh Nguyen was playing with his children.
That was the first time Discount Liquor #5 was robbed, and Nguyen lost $800. But two weeks later, he was laughing as he told about it -- as though having survived so much, he knew he would recover.
"America is a land of opportunity for all human beings," said Chau Nguyen. "As long as I'm here, I believe there's opportunity for me and my family."
In north Houston, just off Cavalcade, Nguyen and his friend, Thuong Van Nguyen, were speaking through an interpreter of their American dream. Small, taciturn men with wrinkles and scars, they are especially grateful to be American these days for their opportunity to sue the American government. Nguyen and Nguyen are two of 281 plaintiffs in an $11.2 million lawsuit stemming from the Vietnam War. Expected to go to trial early this year, the suit alleges that the American government hired hundreds of South Vietnamese men to fight undercover in North Vietnam and then abandoned them once they were captured.
"I was used and thrown away," said Thuong Van Nguyen.
"The U.S. throws away the memories and forgets," added Chau.
The existence of the commandos was largely unknown until 1992, when a Senate subcommittee convened to investigate whether American prisoners of war were still in Vietnam. John Mattes, a Miami lawyer appointed as an investigator, was among those who discovered the answer was yes, "but it was a secret army of Vietnamese," he said. "I found them, and then no one wanted to hear about them."
Another man working for the subcommittee, Sedgwick Tourison, wound up writing a book about his discoveries, Secret Army, Secret War, and with his help and recently declassified government documents, Mattes was able to build his case: Between 1961 and 1970, the CIA and the military collaborated with the South Vietnamese government to run Operation 34A. As soldiers and spies, roughly 450 South Vietnamese men were eventually sent into North Vietnam, and eventually, every one of them was killed or captured.
Each of the soldiers, according to Mattes, had an agreement that their pay -- $2,000 a year -- would be sent to their families in the event of their capture. This was never done, and neither, when the war was over, did any U.S. negotiator attempt to secure their release. The commandos were left behind in prison camps, Mattes believes, because their role in the war may have been quite significant.
In August 1964, the North Vietnamese attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, an apparently unprovoked incident that President Johnson used to justify accelerating the conflict into a full-scale war. Now, evidence suggests that Johnson and many others knew commandos from Operation 34A had raided islands in the Gulf of Tonkin only days before.
"The decision was made to hide the existence of these men just because the American government could not tell the truth about our war in Vietnam," Mattes said.
Years later, when a stranger walked into his store on Enid Street, Chau Nguyen would not admit to being Chau Nguyen until an interpreter explained the nature of the visit. He was eager to speak then, and he called his fellow commando friend to join him. Through the liquor store door was the living room, and there behind bars, as the children climbed boxes of Jim Beam, the two old soldiers tried to explain how their view of America became complicated.
"We are doing this because we believe it is the right thing to do," Chau Nguyen said of the lawsuit. "I want the U.S. government to think about how we gave 19 years of our lives to the United States and to do something about that."
They said that after they finished school, they signed an American contract to fight communism and then spent three years studying politics, weapons and espionage. On April 18, 1964, they and several others parachuted into the area around Hanoi, where they were to find and train disgruntled North Vietnamese into small bands of soldiers and saboteurs.
Chau lasted less than a month. His camp in the jungle was spotted by helicopter, and soldiers came with guns and dogs for him and his recruits. "I thought this was it for my life," he said. "I had death in the palm of my hand."
As for Thuong, he thought he had found six able men, but they were discovered on their first mission -- planting bombs on ships and trains. His best war story is the tale of their retreat -- seven men against 1,800, running and fighting through the jungle for seven days. Three of them were killed before the last four were surrounded.
Chau was cuffed hand and foot for three months, and Thuong for six. Each day, they were beaten with rifle butts, which left Chau with chronic aches and a great scar upon his chest, and Thuong with fingernails that no longer grow. In the end, they watched as one man in each group was executed. The rest were sent to the labor camps.
They cleared fields and dug wells and farmed. They received two small bowls of rice each day. Once a year, on Communist Independence Day, they were given meat. Perhaps because of his run through the jungle, Thuong Nguyen was isolated for 13 years -- never heard a child cry, he said, never saw a woman. Eventually, his captors sent him alone into the fields, and after that day, he never returned.
It was 1983 by then. Thuong discovered that his wife had long ago married another man. Chau, who had escaped a year earlier, found the same thing. Fearing recapture, the men fled separately to Malaysia, where they were able to qualify for an American immigration program for former political prisoners.
In his early forties, Chau Nguyen then began his life, prospering in accord with the American fable. He found a job as a tailor in Philadelphia, saved his money and sent to Vietnam for a wife. In 1990, a cousin lured him to Houston, and here he bought a car and a house, and since American free enterprise is even more free in Houston, he was able to open a liquor store in half of that house. He doesn't drink, but liquor seemed to be a business his new family could work in, and at any rate, by the tidy look of things and that big television that he doesn't know how to operate, Discount Liquor #5 appears to be thriving now in a poor neighborhood.
Thuong wasn't so fortunate in America. When he landed in Phoenix, he worked as a laborer, and then he moved here to work as a bouncer in his niece's nightclub. But the club went under, and he became a fisherman, and then he installed flooring, and at last word, he was a cashier in a Vietnamese grocery store. Yes, he said, this is the land of opportunity, "but it only goes so far."
The surviving commandos of Operation 34A feel bound to keep in contact and, when possible, to ease one another's lives with food or money. This made it easier for Mattes to round them up.
He found 281 plaintiffs in all -- former commandos and family members of the dead. There are about 100 more still in Vietnam; they couldn't prove they had spent years in prison, and only recently has the U.S Immigration and Naturalization Service begun believing their commando tales.
The Department of Defense never acknowledged the commandos, either, until declassified documents forced a sudden recall. As a Department of Justice public information officer now says, "It is a matter of public record that there were South Vietnamese who did conduct covert operations managed by the Republic of South Vietnam and the United States. Whether the U.S. is obligated to pay them is the matter of litigation."
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Lost Army Commandos v. United States seeks $11.2 million from the government -- 25 years of back pay, without interest. Mattes is working on a contingency-fee basis, but he wouldn't divulge his share should he win. It depends on his labor.
"We will fight this to the end," says the lawyer. "This is the last battle for these men."
Chau Nguyen admits that even if the U.S. hadn't recruited him, he would still have fought the communists in North Vietnam, "for I strongly believe in freedom for all." But he doesn't understand what that has to do with the lawsuit. His share, if he wins, will be about $50,000.
"I believe we will get what we deserve," he said through the interpreter. "I will go out and buy myself a nice car. The rest, I will give to my children.