Giving New Meaning to Military ‘Service’

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“Giving New Meaning to Military ‘Service’” Ensign, June 1992, 62–63

Giving New Meaning to Military “Service”

Ly Minh Tran’s reunion with his family at the Salt Lake City International Airport in October of 1991 was another success story for a group of LDS Vietnam War veterans and friends.

The Tran family was able to leave Saigon through the assistance of the Veterans Association for Service Activities Abroad (VASAA), a nonprofit organization originally organized to help Latter-day Saint families who remained in Vietnam after the war ended.

VASAA’s dedication to humanitarian service has involved the group in helping many individuals of other faiths as well. Often, as in the case of the Tran family, the request for help has come from Church members with ties to someone in Vietnam.

Ly Minh Tran had been sent out of Vietnam as a boy in 1978, and his family had not seen him since. In the meantime, he had come to the United States, lived with a Latter-day Saint family, joined the Church, and served a mission. At the airport, he introduced his family to his new bride, Tamara.

VASAA had served as the “facilitating agency” to keep the Tran family’s paperwork moving through the United Nations Orderly Departure program, thus making the reunion possible. Since its beginnings in 1982, VASAA has successfully handled more than eighty such cases. Families like Ly Minh Tran’s have been reunited, or family members have been put in contact with each other for the first time in years. Individuals and families have been relocated in countries where they could worship freely, often after years of longing for the opportunity to meet with the Saints or to visit a temple. (See Giving New Meaning to Military “Service”, June 1989, p. 44.)

At the end of 1991, VASAA was working on more than ninety other cases. About eighty of those involve people in Vietnam; the rest involve people living in Asian refugee camps or in other countries.

VASAA began as the result of a letter which found its way to Salt Lake City in 1982. It was addressed simply to “V. Kovalenko, Mormon Church, Utah (USA).” Virgil Kovalenko had been home teacher to the family of Nguyen Ngoc Thach while serving with the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in the early 1970s. Brother Kovalenko joyfully read the letter from Sister Thach when it was routed to his Salt Lake City home. He had tried for seven years to find the Thach family.

An exchange of letters with Sister Thach in Vietnam took months. Brother Thach had been imprisoned because of his ties to the Church, but when he was released, he wrote that he was still living the gospel faithfully.

It had been assumed that all Vietnamese Latter-day Saints left Vietnam in 1975; transport had been arranged for them just before Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces. But letters from the Thach family furnished tangible proof that many Church members had stayed.

Was there a way to get them out? When inquiry was made of agencies and organizations that might be able to help, the report was that it would be impossible. When Brother Kovalenko reported the results to other Latter-day Saint military personnel who had known the Thachs in Vietnam, their reaction was unanimous: we’ll do it ourselves.

Acting on their own, these Latter-day Saint servicemen and others formed the Bien Hoa LDS Servicemen’s Group Association. It included Latter-day Saint military personnel who had been stationed in Bien Hoa while in Vietnam, as well as Vietnamese refugees who had been members of the Saigon Branch. The organization grew as Latter-day Saint military personnel who had been stationed in other areas of Vietnam joined. The name of the organization has changed through the years, but the VASAA acronym has been a constant since 1983.

VASAA delegations have traveled to Vietnam several times. VASAA officers have worked with U.S. embassies and officials of other governments. Because of its successes, government or other agencies often refer cases to VASAA.

Brother Kovalenko emphasizes that VASAA members do what they do because of their belief in service to others.

Top: Ties between Vietnamese members and LDS servicemen endured after U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Above left: In 1972, a group including Nguyen Ngoc Thach and his children met at the Bien Hoa chapel (identified by the sign, far left). Above right: Brother Thach, his wife, and two sons met again with Virgil Kovalenko, their home teacher from 1972. (Photography by Virgil Kovalenko, Carroll Crittenden, AP/Wide World Photos, Inc., and Allen C. Bjergo.)

VASAA helped relocate Ly Minh Tran’s family (far right) and Cong Ton Nu Tuong-Vy (below, right). Below: During 1989 VASAA visit, medical doctor Lewis Hassell, a missionary in Vietnam in the 1970s, presents portable EKG monitor to staff members at a hospital. Bottom left: LDS veteran’s dogtags; the letter that started VASAA; U.S. military’s Vietnam service medal; and U.S. advisers’ Vietnamese rank insignia. (Photography by Jed Clark, Virgil Kovalenko, Allen C. Bjergo, and Melanie Shumway.)