'SECRET WAR' PAVED PATH TO THE MARINES
Portland native Sgt. Nou Vang grew up with stories about his elder Hmong relatives helping the U.S. military fight in Vietnam in the 1970s. Hmong people have their own language and culture but not their own homeland. By the 19th century, many had settled in mountainous areas across Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
In what’s now openly called the Secret War, CIA officers recruited Hmong people to spy, to interrupt North Vietnamese supply lines that ran through Laos, and to search for American pilots whose planes crashed in remote areas.
The stories Vang heard as a child didn’t spell out the specific deeds his family members had done. But he knew their service helped them receive refugee status in the United States and, eventually, helped bring other family members to the U.S.
This lore is part of what led Vang, now 37, into a military recruiting office as a teenager.
“Just hearing some of the reasons why we’re here…I felt like doing my part,” he says. “Like that’s part of being an American, serving the country.”
Vang chose the Marines because he wanted a challenge.
“I wanted to push myself and, at the time, I believed that the Marine Corps was the hardest military branch,” he said.
In 2003, a few months after graduating from Roosevelt High School in Portland, Vang got on a plane for boot camp at Camp Pendleton in California. He’d never flown before or left his family. Afterward, he went into motor transport as his MOS (military occupational specialty), training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
The U.S. was two years into fighting in Afghanistan when Vang enlisted, and the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq while he was training. Shortly after, Vang was sent to Okinawa, expecting to be deployed to combat. He soon was.
In late 2004, his unit joined the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit fighting in Fallujah. He remembers long, hot days, in full uniform, always on alert. The experience was different from what he’d imagined when he enlisted as a teenager, based mostly on TV and movies.
“All you see is the fighting part,” Vang said. “You don’t get to see how they get there. Who supplies them with certain stuff? Food, drink, water, you know, how do they survive out there?”
Ferrying supplies to the front line in Fallujah taught him how vital supply lines are. And teamwork.
“I mean, we will all want to fight the front line, but if we all fight the front line, who’s resupplying us?” Vang said. “Who’s helping, you know?”
Three years later, re-enlisted and now based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Vang deployed to Fallujah again – this time to help transfer operations to the Iraqi military. The work was similar, but the danger felt higher at that point. In 2004, the U.S. military had assumed that anyone who had stayed in Fallujah after warnings was an insurgent. In 2007, there was no such exclusion.
“Now you have everybody back, and you don’t have that control of who’s your enemy and who’s not,” Vang remembers. “IEDs are more often. The sniper fire is there.”
Over his eight years of service, Vang also deployed to Pakistan on a post-earthquake humanitarian mission. He used the same skills – but had a completely different experience.
“We weren’t looking for any bad guys. It was all just helping the locals survive the earthquake,” Vang said. “We didn’t carry weapons. We didn’t have any kind of protection like a vest or anything like that. It was like a normal job.”
By the time Vang was ready to return to civilian life, he’d already married his longtime sweetheart and joined a training unit at Camp Pendleton in California. When he and his wife decided it was time to start a family, they moved back home to Oregon. Vang earned a bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral science at George Fox’s adult degree program. He now works as a corrections officer at Oregon State Penitentiary near Salem.
Vang says security was his best career fit after his military service driving trucks.
“Unless I’m getting into the trucking business, then it’s really outside my scope,” he remembers realizing. “So, then you go to security. And you see corrections pays the most out of any security out there.”
With a growing family, that was a strong consideration. Vang says he would encourage his children – three sons – to enlist if, he says, they have the heart for it.
“They really have to want it. It can’t be just, ‘My dad’s a Marine. I want to be a Marine.’ You have to be a Marine for yourself,” he said.