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Viewers reach out with stories of post-war rescues and Guam

As Guam announces that they are ready and willing to take in Afghan allies, viewers share their personal experiences with past American rescue efforts.
Educator Shelly Beaser pictured with 13 of the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees she taught in Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania during "Operation New Life." 1975.
Educator Shelly Beaser pictured with 13 of the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees she taught in Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania during "Operation New Life." 1975.Shelly Beaser

When Rachel Maddow recently reviewed some of the history of the United States using the island of Guam as a waypoint to evacuating U.S. military allies to safety, she highlighted the story of Hemmin Barzanji. Barzanji was a Kurdish refugee who was airlifted from Iraq, along with his parents, six children and 150 other families, in a 1996 emergency operation to save thousands of Kurdish allies of the United States.

Barzanji eventually settled in Utah, but his American story, like the stories of tens of thousands of other refugees, started on the island territory of Guam.

Now, as the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan after twenty years of war, Guam has the potential to play a key role in saving thousands of Afghans who endangered their own lives to assist U.S. operations.

Rachel's report sparked memories for many viewers who were moved to write to us with stories of people like Mr. Barzanji and those who helped him. They told us of their own experiences, as evacuees on their journey to the United States through Guam, or as American citizens who helped in that resettlement.

Tom Nguyen wrote to us that he was 16 years old when he and his family were flown out of Vietnam to the USS Midway in a helicopter piloted by his brother, a Vietnamese combat pilot trained by the U.S. military. After moving between a merchant ship called "Green Forest" and Subic Bay in the Philippines, Nguyen joined the 130,000 Vietnamese refugees evacuated to Guam in 1975 as part of what was called “Operation New Life.”

The images of those last hours in Vietnam and the memories of his family's last-minute rescue still haunt Nguyen to this day. As Saigon fell below them, Nguyen said, he had no idea what awaited him across the South China Sea. All he knew was that he was grateful that the U.S. military had decided to airlift out many of the Vietnamese families who had supported U.S. efforts in South Vietnam.

Nguyen and his family would later be transferred to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and build new lives throughout the Southern United States. His niece, who had accompanied the young Nguyen out of South Vietnam, became a physician in Oklahoma City. Nguyen’s brother-in-law and son would both join the U.S. Air Force, training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, the same base where Nguyen’s brother had learned to pilot the helicopter that flew Nguyen’s family to safety almost 50 years ago.

“The current situation, so many people in Afghanistan who supported U.S. ideals for so many years are now potentially suffering from their commitments, brings [me] to tears,” Nguyen said. “Our country - collectively - needs to understand on a visceral level the importance of being a beacon of democracy and care. The adherence to these ideals and ethos means life or death to thousands of our fellow human beings - let alone those who have sacrificed so much to support us.”

Maddow Show viewer Paul Herman shared with us the story of his doctor, an “Operation New Life” refugee who was airlifted to Guam at 18 years old. We are omitting the doctor's name to protect his privacy. Once settled in Pennsylvania, the young man chose to pursue medicine, working his way up to a successful career as a world-renowned heart and lung transplant surgeon in Baltimore. He would go on to aid patients like Herman, overseeing his heart transplant in 2017, and even performed a double lung transplant on one of the American officers involved in his own relocation.

The doctor is now married to a Vietnamese woman from his home village. Herman writes, "They are the proud parents of four very American children. They represent the pinnacle of American immigrant success stories."

Carol, whose last name we are omitting to preserve her privacy, was twenty-two years old when the 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated to Guam. She worked at the naval station, helping with the intake process in Operation New Life.

“I remember how scared they were, being in a land that didn't speak their language,” she said.

Despite coming from a completely different background, Carol empathized with their fear. As a young Navy wife, it was her very first time away from her home and family too. She would go on to become close friends with many of the refugees, and is proud that she was able to “welcome them to the USA after what they had been through.”

Carol is now 69 years old; a retired special education teacher in Las Vegas. Nearly fifty years later, she tells us, “We must never turn our backs on people in need.”

Carol believes strongly that we owe the same assistance to our allies in Afghanistan today.

Jackie Boisvert was also a Navy wife, living in Agana, Guam, when the exodus from South Vietnam occurred. Helping the refugees was, she says, a whole island effort:

“A tent city was immediately established and all military and spouses contributed to the effort. For six weeks of my life, I would work during the day, pick up dinner and go visit my children (1 and 3 years old) at the day care center and then spend all evening into the night helping to 'process' the many families that needed our help.”

With the aid of interpreters, Boisvert worked to help Vietnamese women. In her e-mail she explains, "Because the women were in much need of 'feminine' assistance, many wives were assigned to help with bathing/feminine assistance, diapering instruction and just general emotional support." She remembers the work as long, exhausting and heartbreaking, but also as the “most important contribution to womankind” that she has ever participated in.

Unfortunately, Jackie had few mementos commemorating that period. Seeing the footage we aired of refugees arriving in Guam brought her to tears. “It was the first time I had seen the effort. It immediately hit me with memories of thankful emotion that I had kept for 45 years,” she said, signing off with, "America, once again, must do its job regarding Afghanistan."

Shelly Beaser, a now-retired professor, wrote to us telling her experience as a volunteer teacher in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. In 1975, the town became the second stop, and a temporary home, to more than 20,000 refugees who had been waiting in Guam for nearly a month.

In her email to us, Beaser explained that she was teaching in the Harrisburg School District when a call went out for volunteer teachers to help “the many unaccompanied teens learn basic English and American customs before they were sponsored by civic and religious groups all over the country.” This program included learning English as well as the ins and outs of American high school culture such as clubs, sports and prom, and was referred to as an “Americanization” program.

Beaser tells us that once the teens were sponsored, they often left with little notice or time to say goodbye. In one instance, though, a student was able to write Beaser a short note before leaving:

“Thank you, my teacher,” he said. “I am leaving for the promised land of Iowa.”

On the subject of our allies in Afghanistan Beaser said, “If any families end up in Philadelphia, I’ll do my best to find a way to help.”