How a Military Couple Embodies the American Spirit While Honoring Their Asian Heritage

By Randall Couch

The month of May was first designated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in 1992. The month gives us the opportunity to celebrate the many diverse cultures of Asian Americans and shine a light on their contributions to our country and our nation’s military.

U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Tom Nguyen, 660th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron expediter and his wife Senior Airman Sawako Nguyen, 60th Health Care Operations Squadron gastroenterology technician, provide a good example of Asian Americans making lasting contributions while still keeping their unique heritage.

A Family’s Journey from Vietnam to America

It was April 28, 1975, and Saigon was about to fall. Tom’s uncle, Tam Do Nguyen, was a South Vietnamese naval officer and had worked with and fought alongside the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet from 1972 to 1975. On this day, the Navy gave him a difficult decision to make, stay in Vietnam with his family, or get on a ship and go to America. Even though it would mean leaving the only country he had ever known and heading off into an unknowable future, Tam Do boarded that ship and changed his family’s future forever.

Tam Do ended up settling in Corona, California, and saved every penny he made, eventually buying a house. He married, had two children, kept saving and in December 1993, he brought 17 members of his family from Vietnam to the United States. Tom was four years old, and he and his parents were among those 17 relatives.

U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Tom Nguyen | Photo credit DVIDS/Randall Couch

Now there were 21 people living in Tan Do’s house.

“They all concentrated on getting jobs, learning English and getting the children into school” Tom said. “They saved their money and bought another house. The 17 of us that Tam Do brought over moved into that house.”

Tom remembered that “everyone continued to focus on assimilating themselves into American culture and eventually, one-by-one, they bought their own homes or found new jobs and moved out, each going their separate ways but remaining close as a family.”

Tom and Sawako’s Journey into the Air Force

Tom gained U.S. citizenship when he was 16 years old. After graduating from high school, he attended college for two years and then got a job as a high school tennis and cross-country coach. Tom had a cousin, Johnny Do Nguyen, who he greatly admired for his work in Iraq as an Army Ranger.

“I was impressed with all of the ‘cool’ things he had done,” said Tom.

He decided he wanted to follow in his cousin’s footsteps and went to see the Army recruiter. He recalls, “when my cousin heard about this, he gave me an ultimatum, go to the Army recruiter and tell him you’re not joining the Army, then go next door to the Air Force recruiter and sign up with them or I’m going to beat up both you and your Army recruiter!”

Tom enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2011 and became an aircraft maintenance technician.

Tom, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1993 at the age of four, checks aircraft forms on a KC-46A Pegasus aircraft. | Photo credit DVIDS/Randall Couch

“I joined with the idea of giving something back to the country that has become my home and allowed me the opportunity to live without communist rule,” said Tom.

After completing basic training and technical school, Tom was sent to Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, where he worked on E-3 Sentry and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft and later was assigned to Kadena Air Base, Japan.

It was at Kadena Air Base where he met Sawako Hanashiro, a native of Okinawa, who was home on summer break after attending college in Shizuoka, on mainland Japan. They eventually married and had their first son on Okinawa in 2018. The couple was later transferred to Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington.

Here, they had their second son and Sawako was a stay-at-home mom for a while. When she decided to go to work, she found it difficult to find meaningful jobs as a resident alien. She decided to join the U.S. Air Force because, as she put it, “you have no credit history and no work history so it was hard to find jobs that I could turn into any kind of a successful career. I ended up doing nails for about a year.”

Sawako, a gastroenterology technician, checks the gastroenterology clinic’s schedule at David Grant Medical Center on Travis Air Force Base. | Photo credit DVIDS/Randall Couch

After Basic Military Training, Sawako became an aerospace medical technician and the family was transferred to Travis Air Force Base, California.

Sawako has now been in the Air Force for over two years and serves as a gastroenterology technician at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base, California. It’s very difficult to imagine she is not a native English speaker except for the very occasional moments when she subtly pronounces a word with a slight Australian accent, a phenomenon she attributes to some of her early English teachers.

This journey from Japanese college student in Okinawa to mom and U.S. Air Force medical technician in California presented plenty of challenges, but Sawako was not finished yet. The U.S. State Department rates Japanese as one of the top 5 most difficult languages to learn, because Sawako is a native Japanese speaker and speaks English with native proficiency, her language skills are in demand.

“I took the Defense Language Proficiency Test for Japanese. That has brought me opportunities to perform duties as an interpreter, mostly for joint exercises,” said Sawako. “I have been sent to Guam twice as an interpreter for Cope North, a trilateral exercise involving the U.S., Australia and Japan” she adds.

As a native Japanese speaker, Sawako is sometimes called on to provide translator services for multinational exercises involving the Japanese Self Defense Force. | Photo credit DVIDS/Randall Couch

She may get the opportunity again this year to provide translation services for the Cope North planning meeting in Japan.

The Nguyens try to maintain elements of their native cultures at home to pass on to their children. Sawako teaches the children Japanese, and they stay in contact with relatives both in Japan and Vietnam and occasionally visit.

“Our first son seemed to be a little late to start talking. A doctor explained to us that my mom, who was living with us at the time, was speaking to him in Vietnamese, my wife was speaking to him in Japanese and I was speaking to him in English,” Tom said.

“He’s just confused.” said the doctor. “He’ll be okay.”

While they seek to maintain their diverse Asian cultural heritage, the Nguyens truly embody the American spirit and never stop striving to better their lives. Sawako was recently promoted to senior airman below-the-zone.

Tom says of his wife, “she’s just killing it!” Sawako also recently applied for her U.S. citizenship. Tom is currently a flightline maintenance expediter on the new KC-46A Pegasus aircraft and recently applied to become a first sergeant.

“My passion is helping people.” he says. “As an expediter I try to get to know my maintainers … get to know what motivates them and try to help them. Becoming a first sergeant will only give me more opportunities to help others.”

Tom and Sawako’s efforts display both the spirit of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and the American spirit every day of the year.

-This story was originally published on It has been edited for

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