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U.S. Air Force Reserve commander born at sea after parents fled Vietnam pays it forward through service

  • Published
  • By SrA Brandon Kalloo Sanes
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs


Asan Bui was born at sea forty-four years ago this month.

Adrift in the ocean, aboard a wooden boat, Bui’s father and expectant mother found themselves pitted against all odds along with their 5 children, ages 2 to 11.

Now a commander in the Air Force Reserve, Lt. Col. Bui shared his story, explaining that his parents were South Vietnamese refugees fleeing political persecution and the possibility of death at the end of the Vietnam War.

After a lengthy, bloody conflict in Southeast Asia, communist-led combatants overran American-backed South Vietnamese military forces on April 30, 1975, in what is known as the Fall of Saigon. The event triggered a mass exodus of approximately 1.6 million refugees, who fled the region for fear of retribution, according to the National Archives.

Bui explained that his father, Chien Van Bui, a South Vietnamese soldier in the 232nd Artillery, wanted to stay behind and fight for the land he knew and loved. However, with the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong advancing, the father of five, with a sixth on the way, was forced to make a life-altering decision; either flee the beloved country he fought for, or stay behind and risk losing his family.

“Anyone that fought alongside the United States would be killed or imprisoned in reeducation camps,” said (Asan) Bui. “I have personally spoken with individuals that have gone through this brutal ordeal and survived. Some were not released for over a decade and still carry the traumatic scars.”

Those who suffered in these camps endured hard manual labor, intended to forcibly change their personal and political beliefs, he elaborated.

With the clock ticking, his family carefully slipped away from their coastal village in a small fishing boat. According to Bui, they drifted into the vast South China Sea, anxious about the future and worried about threats of piracy and unpredictable weather. Adding to their stress, supplies were limited, and the boat was filled well beyond capacity with extended family and friends.

“There wasn’t enough food or water,” said Bui, explaining the predicament as told by his family. “We were floating in the ocean for days before being spotted by a helicopter crew, which relayed our location to a U.S. military vessel, initiating the rescue.”

Shortly thereafter, his mother went into labor giving birth on the very ship that saved them from near death. They eventually docked at a staging area near Camp Asan, Guam, where refugees were processed for resettlement within the U.S.

His parents affectionately named him after the camp.

Decades later, Bui’s life has come full circle as he commands the communications flight within the 920th Rescue Wing, a combat-search-and-rescue unit located at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. The unit is also tasked with peacetime missions; most recently supporting hurricane relief operations in the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence and the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael.

He has served 19 years in the Air Force, with experience in several fields including acquisitions, cyber and special operations, all while spending countless hours volunteering for his church and community. And yet, Bui insists he wants to do more.

“We started out very poor and experienced discrimination early on,” said Bui. “But my father had faith, never quit and led from the front. These qualities were essential to our survival and have been with me throughout my career.”

Two American families have come to mean a lot to Bui, the Irwins and the Johnsons, because they sponsored his family upon arrival. He said both families provided food, housing and other invaluable resources, which jumpstarted their new lives.

“I want to honor those (military and sponsors) that have sacrificed so much for my family and the Vietnamese refugees,” said Bui. “Especially the Vietnam Veterans. I hope to return the favor by reinvesting in this nation.”

Bui aims to accomplish this goal through military service and philanthropy. 

“This country will provide you with opportunities, but you have to take ownership and responsibility... Then you have to run with it.”

“My father ran with it.”