Rivals, Allies: A Tale of Two Airmen : Sons of U.S. and South Vietnamese Military Leaders Are Air Force Academy's Top Grads

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Rhodes admits the kid's reputation was downright scary.

"I heard one night that he was studying in the shower ," said the 22-year-old San Diegan. "I didn't know whether it was true or not. But I thought, 'Wow, this guy's got so much drive that maybe I'm falling behind by comparison.' "

Hoang Nhu Tran looked at his classmate and started to laugh.

"That's not true," he said. "I never studied in the shower." Tran also knew Rhodes by reputation. "I had heard that he was very smart and very determined. And I knew he was going to be the competition."

Dreamed Same Dreams

In an earlier era, Rhodes, a descendant of three generations of American military leaders, would never have attended the U.S. Air Force Academy with the son of a South Vietnamese army major.

But in the post-Vietnam decade, Rhodes' chief rival in the Class of 1987, which graduated May 27, was this 21-year-old refugee from Rohnert Park, Calif., who had fled Saigon with his family in a leaky boat and arrived in America at age 9 able to say only "Hello" in English.

Though born on opposite sides of the world and living at opposite ends of the campus, the quintessential All-American boy and the young immigrant dreamed the same dreams of academic glory.

For four years, they went head-to-head in every contest. When one lost, the other would win. Sometimes, it was painful.

Always Competed

Tran beat out Rhodes to be named the No. 1 freshman. Tran beat out Rhodes again to be selected one of Time magazine's top college juniors. And when both young men tried for a Rhodes Scholarship this past winter, they knew only one of them would get it.

"I think probably the reason I didn't was because of Hoang," said Rhodes, who settled for a Marshall Scholarship, a lesser-known honor. "I'm not that bitter about it. But when I went into the interview in Denver, they said I had one of the best records they'd ever seen. And so did Hoang."

Tran said: "We both knew we could win. We couldn't pinpoint exactly how they determined the Rhodes Scholars, but I think my background probably helped."

That night, after the judges announced that Tran was in the finals and Rhodes was not, Tran seemed miserable that he was probably responsible for Rhodes' loss.

"I was really put into the role of comforting him," Rhodes said. "I said, 'If it would have been me, I wouldn't have felt that bad.' "

At graduation, they divvied up nearly all the senior class awards. Tran bested Rhodes with a grade point average just .007 higher to be named Top Academic Performer. He also received the Loyalty, Integrity and Courage Award.

But when it came time to announce the school's overall "Top Grad," based on academic, military and athletic performance, Rhodes' name was called out. A wave of surprise rippled through the audience.

"I was disappointed," Tran said. "It was a goal I had set for myself. But then I realized that I had tried my best and learned a lot while I was here. And that was the important thing."

For Rhodes, though, "it was the best thing that's happened to me in my life. I didn't know that I was going to get it. But when I did, everybody stood up and clapped. It was quite a moment."

The award entitled Rhodes to be the first to receive his diploma at graduation. Under normal circumstances, he might have been inundated with national publicity.

Instead, Tran was the one to be interviewed on "Good Morning America," on the NBC and ABC network news shows, and by People magazine.

"Tran feels bad that he's getting all the attention and Jeff's not," said academy spokesman Tech Sgt. Allen Eakle.

Still, Rhodes doesn't seem to mind that the only TV appearance he may make "is as a contestant on 'Jeopardy.' "

Though Rhodes never knew what it was to lose until he met his Vietnamese classmate, no one could be prouder of Tran's accomplishments than he. It turns out that their fierce competition produced an unexpected result: The two airmen became close friends.

"To not even speak English when you come over and suddenly you're tops around the Air Force Academy, well, you just got to admire him," Rhodes said. "To be honest, I think those are the kinds of people we need to bring into this country."

They are so different, yet so alike, as they sit side by side in their crisp Air Force uniforms, their new officer bars shining on their jacket sleeves. The two even talk alike, speaking in the polite and precise manner that seems universal among military officers.

Insulated From the War

Only an occasional slip in grammar provides the barest of clues that Tran didn't travel the same childhood route as Rhodes to get to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Born in 1965, Tran knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War except that it took his father away for months at a time. He and his younger brother lived the sheltered life of the privileged class in Saigon.

"We were confined to the house throughout my nine years there, so I had no contact with any fighting," Tran said.

Then, one day, "we could hear the incoming bombs and the rockets and the machine guns and sense the excitement." His parents told the youngsters to throw some clothes into a military laundry bag because they were going to leave Saigon that night.

They drove by jeep to a colonel's home where a helicopter would fly them out. But the chopper never arrived and, after waiting all night and the next morning, his despairing parents headed home. A navy friend of Tran's father waved them down the street.

"He told us to go to the harbor because a boat was leaving. There were many people crowded around the fence. But my father used all his authority and got us across the gate."

A decade later, as an Air Force cadet reading about the Vietnam War, Tran realized that his family escaped just hours before Saigon fell to the Communists in April, 1975.

"I never realized that a lot of people were trying to leave the country when we were and they were stuck behind," he said. "I felt very lucky and very grateful at the fact that my family was able to get out."

They huddled in the hull of the leaky landing boat, crowded with 250 other refugees. For three days and nights, they drifted in the South China Sea and existed on rice and water.

"It was kind of an adventure to me after nine years of being confined to the house," Tran said. "But I knew it was hard for my parents. The worst thing was not knowing whether we would get picked up by anyone who would treat us well."

A Philippine freighter rescued the boat people and took them to a refugee camp in Guam controlled by the American government. Eventually, Tran's family was flown to Camp Pendleton.

"My parents' ultimate goal was to survive," he said, "but they were very happy when they found they could go the United States. That's all my parents had dreamed of. When we were in Saigon, they always told myself and my brother to study hard so we could be sent to American schools."

Tran's was the first Vietnamese family to be sponsored by the Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colo. They lived in a trailer park, and Tran's father found work as a school janitor.

A Lot to Learn

Like other immigrants, the family had a lot to learn about their adopted homeland. His parents were naturally frustrated by their sudden lack of status. And Tran was "a little disappointed" by his first impressions of America.

"Back in Saigon, whenever I would ask visitors to the United States what it was like, they said there were so many toys that you could just pick out the one you wanted at any street corner. So on the way from Stapleton Airport to Fort Collins, I kept looking for toys."

Instead of collecting toys, Tran collected A's. After two difficult years spent learning English, he began making a long string of perfect grades.

It wasn't easy.

"My parents always placed a lot of pressure on us to do well in school," he said. "Whenever I wanted to do some sort of school activity, like wrestling or going to the school dances, they'd always ask me, 'Have you done all your schoolwork?'

"Sometimes I'd get it done and be able to do fun things. Sometimes, I wouldn't and have to stay home. It was the clash between the Eastern and Western cultures."

Credits Hard Work

Today, Tran credits his academic successes to "probably a little bit of innate ability but a lot more hard work. Mainly, it's been just sitting down and hitting the books when the time came to do so every night.

"I saw the light, in a sense, when I realized that the time you put into an education is so worthwhile."

Even his academic adviser at the Air Force Academy says Tran isn't "a supergenius or anything." Said Lt. Col Dennis Fife, "I think that's a lesson we all can learn from him, that we can achieve a lot just by working hard."

While Tran was studying, Rhodes was enjoying the typical American teen-ager's life of rock music, football, long hair and girls. But Rhodes, too, was feeling family pressure, though it was more subtle than his friend's. For one thing, he had a lot to live up to--a father who is an Air Force brigadier general nicknamed "The Boss."

"My father wasn't 'The Great Santini' or anything," Rhodes said. "He didn't really push me. But he graduated with the first class at the academy and did very well."

Father Saw Opportunities

Tran's father impressed upon his son that attending the Air Force Academy would open up a wealth of opportunities for a refugee.

"To be in the United States is a privilege. And to become a naturalized citizen is a blessing," said Tang Nhu Tran, now a machinist with Hewlett-Packard in Northern California.

"I told my son he had a duty and an obligation to serve this country and pay back what he owes."

At their sons' graduation, the two fathers shared a surge of pride. The brigadier general said he "almost popped my buttons" at the sight of his son receiving his diploma before all the other cadets. And the former South Vietnamese major had tears of joy in his eyes just seeing his son become an American college graduate.

"I'd never seen him cry before," young Tran said. "Because of his experience in the war, he's very unemotional."

"I was stunned," his father explained. "He went far beyond our expectations."

Tran will study at Oxford University beginning this fall and then plans to attend Harvard Medical School. He plans to become an Air Force surgeon or aerospace physician, marry a Vietnamese girl "who has the same experiences as myself" and visit his homeland some day.

Rhodes will enroll at the London School of Economics and then hopes to carve out an Air Force career as an engineer or a pilot. Eventually, he hopes to enter politics.

The airmen plan to see each other in England over the next two years and to stay in touch.

"Now that we've become good friends," Tran said, "we realize we have a lot in common."

But Tran's father is sure their rivalry will never end.

"Somebody like my son needs somebody like Jeff to compete with so they can stretch far beyond their capabilities."

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