Vietnam vets, Vietnamese student meet at Veterans Run

By: Sarah Wojcik | Shelby - Utica News | Published November 14, 2017

 From left, Bob Gietzen, a Shelby Township resident and Vietnam War veteran; Utica Academy for International Studies senior Tyler Nguyen, 18, of Sterling Heights; and Shelby Township resident and Vietnam War veteran Phil Randazzo pose for a photo during the Shelby Township Veterans Run Nov. 5.

From left, Bob Gietzen, a Shelby Township resident and Vietnam War veteran; Utica Academy for International Studies senior Tyler Nguyen, 18, of Sterling Heights; and Shelby Township resident and Vietnam War veteran Phil Randazzo pose for a photo during the Shelby Township Veterans Run Nov. 5.

Photo provided by Brad Bates

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Three faces beam at the camera in a photo taken at Shelby Township’s Veterans Run on Sunday, Nov. 5.

Tyler Nguyen, a Vietnamese student with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Vietnam, is sandwiched between Shelby Township residents and Vietnam veterans Bob Gietzen and Phil Randazzo, the latter of whom serves as the township’s veterans events coordinator.

Nguyen — who was born in Troy, moved to Vietnam when he was 4 years old, and returned to Sterling Heights in the summer of 2015 — grew up in an area of Vietnam where the Tet Offensive took place.

Randazzo, who received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, served as an intelligence reconnaissance scout and lost most of his platoon during the Tet Offensive, an attack by the Viet Cong from January to September 1968.

Gietzen attended Utica High School with Randazzo, and they went through boot camp together.

Nguyen, 18, of Sterling Heights, is now a senior at the Utica Academy for International Studies in Sterling Heights, and he attended the event with approximately 20 of his peers as a student volunteer with the National Honor Society.

Randazzo said he recruited two students to sing the national anthem, and they introduced him to Nguyen. Meeting Nguyen, he said, was cathartic for him. Randazzo said he declined a few offers to return to Vietnam.

“I survived. I didn’t go back because I didn’t want to see any of the Vietnamese people because I felt bad,” he said. “I was fighting amongst civilians in Saigon during the Tet Offensive.”

Speaking to Nguyen, Randazzo said there was a type of “closeness” he couldn’t figure out. At first, he said, he thought it was because they learned that they are both musicians. Then he realized it was because they both share the connection of knowing the same part of downtown Saigon.

“I kind of felt bad for what he went through after the U.S. left. He told me stories of exactly what happened in that area when the North Vietnamese went in with the Chinese,” Randazzo said. “He educated me more and told me the embassy had been completely torn down to dirt and rebuilt by the Americans.”

While he was stationed there, Randazzo said, he defended the U.S. Embassy while it was under heavy attack for two nights and also fought in the streets.

“The people were all out there too, civilians more or less, all over the place in the downtown city,” he said. “We were not killing civilians. We did find targets. I was telling him about the embassy, and I slept outside the gate on the curb.”

Randazzo said he figured that Nguyen’s grandparents were possibly among the adults he saw, who huddled back against buildings to avoid the soldiers and stay out of their way while they were running and firing. During quiet times, he said, Vietnamese schoolteachers tentatively approached them, and businessmen in suits walked with them.

“It was a very bad situation, just the worst part of the war. But just to talk to that young man … that really made my Veterans Day,” he said. “It felt real good, and it was a two-way street. It was very, very nice.”

In response, Randazzo said, Nguyen told him that he had walked back and forth every day from school and saw the embassy building that was damaged from the fight.

“He knew so much about the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese — it’s unbelievable. The pictures that I seen here weren’t really pictures that he saw,” he said. “I really, really liked that young man.”

Nguyen said he enjoys community service and has a special place in his heart for veterans and veterans affairs. He said Randazzo thanked the student volunteers, shook their hands and introduced himself.

“I started talking to him. His jacket had a lot of Vietnam War stuff on it,” Nguyen said. “We both had knowledge of the war and a culture connection. The fact that he was talking to me, there’s probably not a lot of people my age that can talk about the Vietnam War.”

Nguyen said he “broke all barriers” as a Vietnamese person talking to U.S. Vietnam War veterans. He and Randazzo, he said, both felt comfortable and just wanted to share.

“Overall, I had great conversation with Mr. Randazzo. He really opened up and had no reservations talking to me about the war and his experience. It was a very horrific experience to be serving,” he said. “I kind of sympathized with him. We had great chemistry, and I felt really connected with somebody who understood the cultural background and history and our American history.”

He said it was a “very unique” experience for a high schooler to have.

“My parents were both born in Vietnam. My mom, after the war, had to evacuate while my dad was still in Vietnam. My mom did get the security clearance and moved to America in 1992, then I was born here,” Nguyen said.

He said he wanted to express his gratitude toward Americans, specifically in Sterling Heights, who helped him transition smoothly from a very different lifestyle.

“I would like to thank my teachers, friends and family in America who helped me get to where I am today,” he said. “Basically, my community has always been the cornerstone of all my successes. Now this is home for as long as I can see.”

Nguyen is in the process of applying to Columbia University. He said he would like to pursue a career in international banking and investment.

Both he and Randazzo expressed a desire to meet again to further discuss their crossing paths and continue their cultural exchange.