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Living the American Dream

A decorated South Vietnamese war hero, former POW and father of four college graduates cleans up with a smile at South Lakes.

For seven years, Canh Nguyen, mop in hand, has roamed the halls of South Lakes High School. Nguyen, who some call "Candy," has probably gone unnoticed by much of the Seahawk student body. That is just fine with him.

Jeff Davis noticed Nguyen. Davis is a social studies teacher at South Lakes who can frequently be found, long after the final bell has rung, up in his second floor room grading papers or putting together his lesson plan. Nguyen often cleans Davis' room and, after awhile, the teacher soon found himself to be the pupil. "I love to listen to Candy, he has so much to offer," he said recently. "I mean, here is this war hero cleaning floors at night. I bet most of the students haven't even said hello to him, and yet he has so much to offer and teach."

Though he doesn't advertise his past, Nguyen is a Vietnam War hero who was awarded more than 50 different medals during his nearly 16-year-long tour of duty fighting the spread of Communism in his native Vietnam.

These days, his workdays are actually nights. Typically, he doesn't come to work until after most of the students have gone home for the day. Posted on the third watch, Nguyen arrives at the South Lakes campus shortly before 3 p.m.; he returns to his Fairfax home before midnight.

"It's an easy job," Nguyen said. "My boss, Jose, offered to get me a cot."

Cleaning up classrooms, locker rooms and bathrooms after nearly 1,500 students each day might sound like a difficult job.

"That is not difficult," he said.

It isn't difficult for a man who was held in a North Vietnamese "re-education camp" for 10 years. It isn't difficult for a man who, as an officer and Squadron Wing Commander in the South Vietnamese Air Force, was awarded the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross by the U.S. Government for his heroic actions during the legendary Tet Offensive in 1968 in the bullet-strewn skies of Southeast Asia. It isn't difficult for a man who came to this country in 1990 with his wife, Luan, and their three daughters with little more than the clothes on their backs.

<b>"WE HAD NOTHING </b>in hand before we came here to United States," said Nguyen. "After I got out of the camps and I found my family, I told my children that I would take them to America if they promised to go back to school because a good education is the only way to improve yourself."

They all agreed. Five years later, they arrived in the United States. Today, all six Nguyens are American citizens.

Tuan, Nguyen's son, came over "on the boat" one year before the rest of the family in 1989. When the rest of the family arrived in Virginia, the American economy was suffering under the weight of a recession. "I looked around," Nguyen said. "And I knew my children had to go to college. They worked part-time after class and my wife entered cosmetology school. "The life was tough, we didn't speak English," said Tuan. "We learned to read and write. We knew we didn't have good speaking skills and that was a big problem. We had to overcome that hurdle."

The Nguyen's purchased an expensive television because it came with caption technology, still a relative novelty at the time. "When we came home, we would watch and read the television shows to help learn English."

All four siblings graduated from George Mason University after emigrating from Vietnam in 1990. Last month, Tuong-Van Nguyen and her sister Quynh-Trang Nguyen opened their own dental office in Alexandria. The third Nguyen daughter is a government analyst. Their brother, Tuan, 32, also holds a master's degree from GMU. Photographs from each of his children's graduations grace a wall in his family's Fairfax home. "Graduation days are some of my proudest days," said Nguyen, pointing to the picture of his two daughters graduating from the medical college at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond on the same day.

<b>AT 64, HE DOES ADMIT</b> he is looking forward to retirement. "One more year. One more year," he said, in mantra-like fashion. For Nguyen, a former prisoner-of-war, one year is nothing. Shortly after Saigon fell to North Vietnam in 1975, Nguyen, along with tens of thousands of other South Vietnamese, was rounded up and sent to a Communist "re-education camp." He was supposed to be held for only 30 days. But then one month became one year, one year became five and five years became 10.

During his encampment, Nguyen was shuffled from camp to camp. At one point, he was imprisoned in a site along the mountainous border of China and Vietnam. "They didn't give us enough food or medicine," he said. "Many died there building roads, houses, dams," he said, revealing the four-inch long scar on his right shoulder from surgery necessitated by his 10 years of forced hard labor.

"I am very proud of my dad," said Tuan Nguyen. "He is an example to follow about how to become a good person."

Even before his internment, Nguyen knew the value of sacrifice and the definition of bravery. As a distinguished officer in the Air Force, he and his planes, or helicopters, were shot at more times than he could count. "If they needed food or supplies, we had to get them no matter what," he said. Once he returned a plane safely to a base, it's steel shell littered with 36 bullet holes.

Nguyen said that, as a leader, he had to work harder than everybody else. "We are the head of our units. We had to work harder. My wing men, they work for me," he said. "If one of my people was shot down, I would take over."

Nguyen said all soldiers understand the value of sacrifice, but he doesn't think most of today's generation understands what that word really means. "More than 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam. That is difficult to comprehend," he said. "Very few people today, understand or recognize the sacrifice that soldiers undertake. We cannot let them forget."

<b>MARRIED IN 1965</b>, Candy and Luan were forced to live apart for 10 of their 37 years of marriage. "She was still waiting for me. I am so proud of her," he said. "She raised our kids by herself."

There were days and months that Nguyen thought he would never see his wife, again. "I never think we'd have the day," he said referring to the day he was finally released from the camp and reunited with his family.

Looking around his neatly-appointed two story colonial home in Fairfax, Nguyen seems content. "Look what we have today, I think we are OK," he said. "We are not rich and we are not poor. We are happy."

The family ā€” the entire family ā€” bought the home together in 1995. "For five years, we saved together and put together 20 percent down."

The home is decorated with touches of East and West. Next to his living room sofa, Nguyen has the U.S. and Vietnamese flags on display. From portly ceramic Buddhas to portly dancing Santa's, and from bamboo shoots to poinsettia plants, the Nguyen family home pays homage to its native and adopted homelands.

Nguyen said he thanks the United States, nearly everyday, for giving them this opportunity. "We are living the American Dream," he said, pointing to the American flag pillows on his family room sofa.

"We're not Christians, but we like to celebrate the happiness of this season," he said, pointing to the plethora of Christmas decorations found throughout the house. "Thanks America and thanks to the American people."