Alexandria McCombs whose life was saved by unsung heroes.The tension in the midnight Saigon air 47 years ago was palpable. My dad, a commander in the Navy of the Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam) and uncle paced our house within the naval compound for any signs of evacuation. Amidst the haze of gun smoke over the sea, the languid humidity was almost coquettish, reminding us of French niceties like laughing cow cheese and chocolat. My dad loved the water. He believed that the ocean would deliver us to safety and freedom.
Within the next few hours, my dad threw the ultimate Hail Mary pass of his entire naval career. We boarded a ship designed to accommodate less than 300 passengers and destined to rescue over 3,000 refugees. Ultimately, we survived this sinking ship and converged at the secret rendezvous point, Con Son Island, thanks to former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage—then a formidable 30-year-old Naval Academy grad, powerlifter, and attaché from the Department of Defense serving several tours of combat duty in Vietnam—Captain Kiem Do, Captain Paul Jacobs of the USS Kirk, and the many unsung heroes of Operation Frequent Wind. As U.S. naval historian Jan Hermann aptly wrote, we were part of “[t]he lucky few” in the desperate final hours of Saigon.
By now, Saigon has surrendered, and the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist. Images of military uniforms abandoned in the streets of Saigon and pandemonium haunted my mom. The news broadcast over the ship’s PA system shattered everyone’s hearts. Not a single dry eye on the ship. In that moment, hope plunged into the depths of the South China Sea along with our sinking vessel until this symbolic act. The flag of the Republic was lowered, and the flag of the United States of America was raised on our subsequent ship. There was no turning back. With a few salvaged photographs and articles of clothing in our possession, we survived through hard work, hope, and help from friends and strangers alike. No country is perfect, but America is our dream home.
A few months after my father's death in 2017, I had the honor of speaking to Captain Jacobs and meeting The Honorable Armitage in Washington, D.C. Captain Jacobs played an instrumental role in rescuing and ensuring the safe passage of over 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees. We would have all been killed or tortured in the infamous re-education camps. We know of the atrocities and human triumphs chronicled by the late Senator John McCain's experience as a POW. With an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and humility, I asked the humanitarian Captain how former Vietnamese refugees turned first-generation Americans could repay the heroism of our veterans. With absolute resolve, the Captain ordered, "You can start by not calling yourselves Vietnamese-Americans anymore. You're all Americans. 100%. No doubt about it. The contributions that you have made to the community are enormous. We're a better and stronger country because of you." Yes, sir.
Having dodged literal bullets to be where I am today, my “why” is to be a servant leader who inspires others to see potential in themselves and in situations even before they do. My accolades including being elected as the first Asian American president of the American Bar Association Health Law Section in its 25-year history and winning both the 2021 Champion of Diversity and Inclusion awards from both DCEO Magazine in Dallas and the ABA Health Law Section. As a senior executive and health law attorney, I motivate my business partners and teams to advance health outcomes for all and to build relationships solidified with trust, diversity, and inclusion. My gratitude to these unsung heroes during the Vietnam war propels me to pay it forward.