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Alumni Newsmakers

An Incredible Journey

Ha-Thanh Nguyen (back row, far right), JD '11, and her family were reunited with retired U.S. Navy Captain Al Bell, who rescued them, at a May banquet in Virginia Beach, Va.

For many students, law school is a journey focused on illuminating the future. For Ha-Thanh Nguyen, JD '11, it was also a chance to uncover her past.

The story began in 2008, when Ms. Nguyen's First Year Legal Research & Writing Professor Tim McIlmail asked about her family's journey from Vietnam to the United States. Decades earlier, Professor McIlmail had volunteered in a Philippine refugee camp where thousands of Vietnamese refugees lived awaiting sponsorship to other countries.

His question led to an unraveling of the past and a timely reunion for Ms. Nguyen's family with the U.S. Navy captain who had saved them and many others from near-certain death.

"Growing up in Chicago, I knew my family made it to the U.S. as 'boat people,' but up until Professor McIlmail asked me about it, I knew very few details about the story of the escape and those who helped us get here," Ms. Nguyen said.

From conversations with her mother and documents her mother had saved, she learned that her family had faced persecution from communists because her grandfather had worked for the former non-communist government of South Vietnam. Additionally, her uncle had been locked in prison in solitary confinement for 10 years for being a Catholic priest. Ms. Nguyen's family decided they had to get out of Vietnam and tried to escape several times before finally succeeding in June of 1982.

Her sister, brother, father, and mother—who was pregnant with her at the time—tiptoed barefoot through a swampy jungle. Upon reaching their boat, they were shocked to see a 35-foot wood fishing craft, instead of the larger ship they had paid to board. The boat would normally fit only five to eight people, but some 50 people were already piled on top of one another in the vessel. Out of fear of detection by communist guards, the family had no choice but to board the boat.

Once they were safely past the checkpoints, the boat sailed out for two days, hoping to get to Hong Kong, the Philippines—anywhere but Vietnam. Several large ships passed by, but all of them refused to pick up the refugees. Just 150 miles off the coast, the boat's engine died. A storm was approaching and the overloaded boat began to take on water. Fearing they would drown, Ms. Nguyen's aunt was forced to burn her shirt to attract the attention of a passing ship.

The ship that they attracted was the USS Morton DD 948, a 415-foot U.S. Navy destroyer led by Captain Corwin "Al" Bell. Captain Bell had been given orders from his superiors not to pick up refugees out of fear that it would encourage more people to risk their lives at sea. Additionally, whichever country's vessel picked them up would be required to take them in. But after seeing the condition of the boat, Captain Bell decided he could not let them die.

The Nguyen family was brought to a refugee camp in the Philippines, where they lived for six months in a small hut with little to eat. In December 1982, they moved to the United States and settled in Chicago. Two months later, in the midst of a freezing Chicago blizzard, Ha-Thanh was born. Her father eventually returned to Vietnam, and her mother worked multiple jobs to support her four children through college. Ms. Nguyen's family back in Vietnam gave her the nickname "Nam-My," which means "Vietnam-America" because she was the first American-born child of the group of 52 refugees aboard the boat.

Shocked about the details of her family's past, she dug deeper and searched the Internet for information about the USS Morton. She discovered that Captain Bell had posted information about the ship and crew online, as well as some correspondence with other members of the 52 rescued people that day, and she decided to contact him. She sent him this message:

"Dear Captain Bell, My name is Thanh, and I am the daughter of one of the families you saved in June of 1982. I cannot believe it has taken me this long to say this to you, but thank you…the entire trajectory of my life has been changed because of what you did for my family that one day."

She received a response from Captain Bell and the two kept in touch. Just before her commencement in May 2011, Ms. Nguyen and her family were invited to a reunion for the ship's crewmembers. Ms. Nguyen served as the guest speaker at the reunion banquet.

Standing before Captain Bell, her family, the ship's crewmembers, and other survivors, she said: "I didn't realize when I wrote that first email to Captain Bell that he didn't just save my family, he saved me. My existence and my life's accomplishments are a result of Captain Bell's heroic decision and the work of his amazing crew. As I sit amongst a sea of law school graduates at my commencement ceremony and become the very first attorney in my entire family lineage, I will be thinking about the USS Morton, and all that you have done for us."

Excited about her new insights into her family and journey, she wrote an essay and won second place in a writing competition held by Fountain Magazine. The award ceremony took place in May in New York City.

An active volunteer both in her community and overseas, Ms. Nguyen graduated cum laude from Northwestern University and, prior to law school, volunteered with a nonprofit organization in Taiwan that helps Vietnamese victims of sex trafficking.

During law school, Ms. Nguyen volunteered at the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center and interned at the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, Criminal Section, and Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, working on cases involving human trafficking, hate crime, and police brutality. 

At GW Law, she was also involved in the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics, where she worked for Professor Joan Meier at the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP). She and her moot court partner, Alexander Hastings, JD '11, were the runners-up in the prestigious 2011 Van Vleck Constitutional Law Moot Court Finals at GW Law.

Shortly after graduating from GW Law in May, she spent time in Vietnam working for a United Nations office to help combat human trafficking. 

"My legal training at GW immediately came in handy," says Ms. Nguyen, who is now working for an international law firm in Washington, D.C. "My colleagues and I used Vietnam law to successfully help prevent a Vietnamese woman from being trafficked to Macau. The experience of my family being saved by an American captain has inspired me to continuously return to Vietnam to help the people my family was forced to leave."

—Kate Harlander-Locke