In April 1972, Sam and Jenny Tran were married in Vietnam. They had met a couple of years earlier in Saigon City, but waited to get married because Sam was already serving in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He was a 26-year-old lieutenant in the Biệt Động Quân, better known as the ARVN Rangers. The Rangers were trained by the U.S. Special Forces as a counter-insurgency force that infiltrated enemy lines in search and destroy missions. Sam and Jenny soon welcomed their first child, a son named Tim.
After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, many Vietnamese citizens left as refugees for other countries. Sam and his fellow Rangers, along with thousands of other government workers, were considered a danger to the new communist government, and therefore sent to labor prison camps. Jenny decided to stay and avoid the risk of a potentially dangerous journey – she was pregnant with their second son, Brandon. She eventually traveled to Thailand by boat and applied after Brandon’s birth for a sponsorship in the U.S., using Sam’s military ID tag to verify who she was. She had no idea how long it would be until her husband could join them.
Jenny and her sons arrived in Chicago in 1980, where they lived with a sponsor family. Jenny found work in a restaurant, and Tim and Brandon were enrolled in school. A tutor came to the home each night to teach them English, and Tim and Brandon taught her new vocabulary they picked up in school. Local farmers would bring the family fresh produce, and the sponsors would ask Jenny to name all the vegetables in English, she said.
Thousands of miles away, Sam and his fellow prisoners worked in the fields all day planting crops they used to feed themselves. He eventually became one of the cooks for the thousands of inmates in the prison camp he had been sent to. He spent nine years there, separated from those that meant the most to him. When he was finally liberated, he flew to the U.S. to meet his family in San Antonio. Tim was the spitting image of his father, who eight-year-old Brandon had never met. “Whatever Tim said or did, Brandon believed him,” Jenny said. “When we saw Sam at the airport, Tim looked at Brandon and said, ‘That’s your daddy.’”
With the family together again, they decided to move to San Bernardino County, California in 1987 to be near a larger Vietnamese community. They eventually owned three different markets. Tim and Brandon succeeded in school – Tim went on to be an engineer, and Brandon, a lawyer. They both married and have started their own families. Sam and Jenny are the proud grandparents of three.
About four years ago, Sam, now 71, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As the disease progressed, and with Jenny working five days a week, she decided that Sam could use someone to help him with his daily routine. That’s when they brought an Amada caregiver into their home. Fortunately, Jenny and Sam have a long-term care insurance policy that covers the cost of his care.
Sam’s caregiver, Laura, has only been working with him for a few months, but said she already feels like she is part of the family. Every day, Laura helps Sam with bathing, getting around the house, and exercising. She also provides companionship, playing some of his favorite games like dominoes. “I treat them like family,” Laura said. “I like doing it because if that were my grandpa, I would want to take care of him.”
Like many seniors with chronic illnesses, Sam has his good days and bad. His memories fade in and out, and Laura often has to remind him to speak to her in English, not Vietnamese. “But then one day he walks in without help, singing and joking,” Jenny, 63, said. “I asked him, ‘Who are you?’”
Too much sitting could lead to bed sores, which is why Laura is always encouraging him to move around and finding new ways for him to do so. In recent months, she said he has wanted to get out of the house more often. With her help, he is able to go for car rides, shop, and even go swimming. “He likes going out more now and trying new activities. He enjoys the social part of it,” she said.
Though life has significantly changed for their family since Sam’s diagnosis, some things have remained the same. Jenny wakes up every morning to make Sam green tea and a breakfast smoothie before leaving for work. She continues to cook his favorite noodles and spring rolls. During her work breaks, she always calls to check in on him and to make sure he has done his Tai Chi exercises for the day. They both enjoy spending time with their children and grandchildren on the weekends. They continue to meet with others in the Vietnamese community for reunions during the Chinese New Year celebration. And year after year, despite his illness, Sam still dons his camouflage uniform and brown beret for a reunion of former Biệt Động Quân rangers, many of whom were fellow prisoners.
“There are less and less people every year as they get older, but he never wants to miss it,” Jenny said. And each year, she is by his side.
“The Greatest Generation Series: The Tran Family” was written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.
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