As the United States military arrived in Vietnam, and the chaos arose around them, those who fell victim to the war sought refuge in neighboring countries. Some looked so far that they ended up on the other side of the Pacific Ocean – in the United States.
Members of the Le family were among those to flee the hazards of Vietnam, though in the mania of the moment they were forced to leave some family members in behind. They then immediately started what would be a decades-long process of reuniting the family in America.
In 2006, after living in his homeland for the first eight years of his life, a young boy, who, along with members of his family, had been left behind all those years ago, finally arrived in the United States to join his grandparents – but not for a visit, they were here to stay.
At the age of 18, that same Vietnamese boy enlisted into the United States Marine Corps. Now approaching the end of his first contract, and wearing the rank of corporal, Song Le is a tank crewman with Charlie Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, who spends his days covered in grease as he maintains his machinery.
At first meeting, Song pokes his head out from the open hatch of his tank greeting you with wide-eyes filled with curiosity, straight jet-black hair, and a friendly smile; however, there is more to him than meets the eye. A fascinating story is revealed as he begins to speak – from the boy who didn’t know English to the U.S. Marine.
“Growing up in Vietnam was very different than growing up in the U.S,” Le said.
In Vietnam, he explained, people and motorcyclists fill the streets with controlled chaos and clutter, as opposed to the United States where order can be found nearly everywhere you look; this new society baffled him and his family.
“Total culture shock,” Song emphasized. “We didn’t understand what was going on around us, along with the fact that we didn’t know what people were saying.”
The language barrier left Song and his family frustrated and confused. In spite of their lack of English, Song’s family immediately enrolled him in elementary school.
Song shook his head at the seemingly endless frustration he experienced early on. “All I had were my brother and cousin to communicate with in trying to figure things out,” he said.
Fortunately, Song wasn’t completely left to fend for himself. His grandfather was able to teach him and his family a handful of English phrases.
“It was mainly for situations when someone would ask questions that I didn’t understand,” Song said. “We would respond with phrases like, ‘I don’t speak English.’”
Over time, Song’s English developed because he was immersed in it, from the constant repetition of the few phrases he knew to sitting behind a desk and listening to his teachers and his peers.
In the years that followed, Song learned about the Marine Corps from his cousin and took a serious interest in it – so much so that he eventually contacted a Marine recruiter.
“I had a Visa, and the recruiter said I was qualified to join,” Song said, and so he did.
Not long thereafter, he shipped out to Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego to commence Marine Corps boot camp. And while Song admits he joined the Marine Corps out of pure patriotism, he also says he had no idea he could earn his U.S. citizenship through the military.
“I just wanted to go to serve,” he said, passionately. “But nobody told me that the Marine Corps (could) give me citizenship.”
So, while he was busy learning about honor, courage, and commitment in boot camp, he was also learning about gaining his citizenship through his drill instructors.
“I didn’t know it was an option (beforehand), so I took the test and then passed.” Song said.
Thirteen weeks later, a new man, he marched his way down the parade deck for graduation and the title, “Marine.” Shortly after the graduation, Song and his family made their way to the MCRD post theatre for the naturalization ceremony that would provide him his U.S. citizenship. He was to learn then that he was not the only one.
“I was one of six Marines who gained their citizenship in my company,” Song said, with pride. “It felt really good. I was proud of myself.”
Now, three years later, a U.S. Marine and U.S. citizen, as Song approaches the final stretch of his first enlistment, he finds himself facing that million dollar question: “Now what?”
Song says he hopes to continue his career and apply for Marine Security Guard duty; he also says he doesn’t foresee his Marine Corps career ending any time too soon.
“I just want to take in the Marine Corps one contract at a time,” Song said.
From not understanding English, to moving to the U.S., to enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps, Song’s journey exemplifies the definition of Carpe Diem – Seize the Day.
Song says the U.S. provides hope for those seeking refuge and wanting nothing more than an opportunity to succeed.
“I joined the Marine Corps to make something of myself,” Song said, “and I think I’ve accomplished that.”