hough there was food on the tiny fishing boat, Timothy Tran (’21 M.A.) couldn’t eat. For days, the small vessel, barely larger than a double-wide, had played ragdoll to the whims of the Pacific swells, thrashing violently along the outskirts of Indonesia. Seasickness had destroyed the appetites of the nearly 250 people aboard. All they were hungry for, Tran says, was survival.
The men, women, and children were there for one reason: an escape to freedom. It was Nov. 20, 1978, and Tran -- a native of South Vietnam -- had been living under the rule of North Vietnam since the fall of Saigon three years earlier. In the interim, thousands of South Vietnamese had fled the country by boat, seeking asylum from neighboring nations. Nearly half of those who set sail in search of a better life succumbed to the voyage.
So as the oldest son of eight siblings, it was Tran who accepted the risk. His family scraped together all the money they could to aid his departure, and at 17 years old, alone and afraid, he spent seven days and nights stranded at sea. More than 40 years later, the memories remain as crisp as the ocean air.
“It was life and death on that small boat,” he says. “All you could see was water and storms. My only thought was, ‘Am I going to survive this?’”
Tran temporarily found dry land at a refugee camp in Pulau Tengah, Malaysia, staying in the camp for seven months before the United States government offered him permanent asylum. By the time he reached his new home of Charlotte, North Carolina, on July 7, 1979, he weighed only 130 pounds and his hair had grown long. It was dark when he arrived, nearly midnight, and though he knew little English and carried no belongings, his hope burned bright. Unlike so many others, he had made it.
“I had no clue when I escaped from Vietnam that I would end up where I am today,” says Tran, a retired U.S. Army major and chaplain who earned his master’s degree in international studies from UNT this spring. “I believe God had a plan for my life.”
At first, that plan was obscured by the difficulties of adjusting to life in a new land. Catholic Social Services sponsored Tran and placed him in the 11th grade at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, where he strove to learn more English. “I only knew ‘good morning,' ‘good evening,’ ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” he says. He worked nights as a busboy so that he could send money home to his family in Vietnam, and at the end of each shift, he’d crack open the dictionary to soak in more vocabulary.
Following graduation, Tran spent a few years working in restaurants, factories and trucking companies. On his days off, he’d watch movie after movie at the local cineplex, searching for “meaning and the purpose of life.” His only connections to home were in the occasional letters from family, and the loneliness was crushing. Nearly three years after Tran first arrived to the U.S., the stress and depression led him to attempt suicide by driving his car into a utility pole. In the aftermath, a good Samaritan invited him to Oakdale Road Church of God.
“The only words I could understand were ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Amen,’” Tran says. “I was so depressed, but then I surrendered my life to God. I found my calling.”
Tran had always felt the pull of religion -- as a child, he believed he would eventually become a Buddhist monk. By age 26, he had instead enrolled at Holmes Bible College in Greenville, South Carolina, then went on to earn a Master of Divinity from Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1991, he was able to sponsor his parents, brothers and sisters, who joined him in Greenville and became, he proudly notes, “hard-working, tax-paying U.S. citizens.”
Once he graduated from CIU in 1995, Tran joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain. He was first stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, and deployed with the field artillery unit to Kuwait. In 2003, he deployed to Iraq with Fort Hood’s 4th Infantry Division as part of Operation Freedom, where he counseled troops, led 11 memorial services for those slain in combat and baptized 15 soldiers in the rivers of Tikrit.
“It was very tough, very stressful -- as a chaplain, I don’t carry a weapon,” says Tran, who was awarded a Bronze Star in 2004 for his service during Operation Freedom with the 1-22 Infantry Regular by God in Tikrit, including an incident in which he prayed with soldiers who suffered severe injuries after their Humvee drove over an improvised explosive device. “We would convoy in Humvees in the evening, and I would sit there and watch bullets fly across me. I had to learn to trust God to protect us.”
The experiences in Kuwait, Iraq, and later Afghanistan only strengthened Tran’s faith, as well as his resolve to support the emotional well-being of soldiers and their families. By the time he retired as a major in 2015, he had deployed with soldiers to war zones across the globe, and led many Strong Bonds Single and Marriage Retreats, which provide relationship education and skills training.
“It was a great experience to work with soldiers,” Tran says. “Many come to serve in the Army when they’re 18 or 19, with no real plans or goals. I got to guide and encourage them, and help them move forward to a brighter future. Coming from Vietnam, I appreciate the freedom in America, so I was happy to serve.”
Though he had spent the past two decades in the military, Tran wasn’t ready to kick back following retirement -- “I had all the time in the world and no idea what to do with it,” he says. Then in spring 2019, inspiration struck, and he enrolled in UNT’s international studies master’s program.
“I take education seriously because I believe in preparation,” says Tran, who graduated with a 3.9 GPA, is now pursuing an additional master’s in political science at Liberty University, and eventually hopes to serve in the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. “One of my regrets is that when I was young, I didn’t have time to read books -- during conflict, education isn’t part of your life. I was working to help feed my brothers and sisters, so I didn’t get the schooling most of the kids in the U.S. have. I tell my family I’m making up for lost time.”
But it’s the school of hard knocks, Tran says, where he learned his most important lesson.
“Coming to the U.S. with nothing was not easy, there were a lot of obstacles I had to overcome,” he says. “But I want people to remember that every setback, no matter how hard, takes you closer to higher ground. There’s always hope.”