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Memorial Day speech by Vietnamese refugee honors American veterans

  • Greenfield Cub Scouts from Pack 3 make their way down Main Street during the Memorial Day parade on Monday Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Flags wave as people line the sidewalk along Main Street to watch the Memorial Day parade in Greenfield on Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Former City Councilor Maria Burge, center, stands with World War II veterans William Kostanski, left, and Darwin Hine as the National Anthem is played at Veterans Mall following the Greenfield Memorial Day parade Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • William Phelps, a veteran of the U.S Army Special Forces Green Berets places a wreath at the Vietnam veterans war memorial following the Greenfield Memorial Day parade Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Nam Pham, who is a Vietnam refugee and the state assistant secretary of Business Development and International Trade, speaks to those gathered at Veterans Mall following the Greenfield Memorial Day parade Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • A member of the Greenfield High School marching band plays Taps during a Memorial Day ceremony at Veterans Mall after the parade in Greenfield on Monday. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • City Councilors Isaac Mass, front, and Doug Mayo make their way down Main Street during the Memorial Day parade in Greenfield on MondayMonday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • The Greenfield High School marching band makes their way down Main Street during the Memorial Day parade in Greenfield on Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Veterans make their way down Main Street while riding in an Army jeep during the Memorial Day parade in Greenfield on Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • The Greenfield Middle School marching band makes their way down Main Street during the Memorial Day parade in Greenfield on Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • William Phelps, a veteran of the U.S Army Special Forces Green Berets, stands for a photo with his family at the Vietnam veterans war memorial following the Greenfield Memorial Day parade Monday, May 28, 2018. Recorder Staff/Dan Little



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, May 29, 2018

GREENFIELD — Nam Pham decided to stay home from elementary school the day he said the building was shelled, flattened by communists. With many of his classmates gone and his South Vietnam village under attack, his family moved to the city of Saigon.

There, Pham, still a young child, saw American soldiers for the first time. Waving, unsure of how to respond to these people, he was pleasantly greeted with some candy. “I thought, ‘huh, this is nice,’ ” he told the crowd of veterans and other residents packed into Veterans’ Mall on Main Street.

The Vietnamese refugee’s remarks were among Memorial Day commemorations in Greenfield Monday. The city also hosted a parade that lined downtown with residents despite the cool and drizzly weather.

Pham, who came to the United States in 1975, is a longtime friend of Vietnam veteran Mayor William Martin. The current assistant secretary of business development and international trade in the state administration explained his gratitude for America while delivering the keynote to Monday’s annual parade and ceremony.

“People often ask me, ‘Nam, what do you think about what we did to Vietnam? To South Vietnam?’ ” he said. “I would ask them, ‘You mean, what you did for us or to us? I know many of you have visited Vietnam, and you were surprised — how come South Vietnamese, even North Vietnamese people embrace Americans?”

Pham, the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants from 1994 to 2000, said, “We love America and we love Americans, not because America is the number one country on earth, but as Vietnamese, we love Americans because millions of American men and women who had crossed the ocean had fought for us, fought for our freedom, fought for our safety and tried to save us from communism. We never forget that. War is messy. Wars have issues, but overall, we recognize, American G.I.s, American soldiers sacrificed their lives to save us.”

The speech Pham delivered — the first time he has spoken publicly to a crowd about his experiences as a refugee, he said — was a much-wanted perspective, some veterans said afterward.

“When we read some moderately revised history, it indicates that the Americans were the bad people in Vietnam and it’s part of the crux of the issue of some of the negative feelings Vietnam veterans have when they returned to the United States,” Martin said. “Nam is a first-hand observer, a first-hand report. There’s no way to dilute what he said. It’s all facts.”

Pham recalled fleeing the country by boat. While in choppy seas, a U.S. Navy ship that must’ve been twice the height of Wilson’s Department Store, he said, took them abroad.

Having to scale the ship by rope, an elderly woman fell into the ocean. No sooner than her falling, the naval officers dove to rescue her.

“The image of the American soldier trying to save a stranger, the image of all of your sacrifice to try to keep this land as a land for the free, as a home for all of us, is something that I’d like to tell you makes a big difference, not just for us here, but for all the people around the world,” Pham said. “That’s why America is still a beacon of hope. We’re still a shining city upon the hill. We’re still the best place for people who want to find freedom, peace and happiness. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m forever indebted to the sacrifices of all of you and your families.”

The hope with having Pham speak was to give a new perspective regarding Vietnam, said Tim Niejadlik, director of the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services.

Niejadlik, in his opening remarks before introducing Pham, shared his own story from his service in Iraq. He spoke dearly about a lock interpreter his unit had, whose son and later, himself, died in the hands of the militants while trying to honor America.

“Our brothers in arms might not all be Americans,” Niejadlik said, choked up momentarily during his speech. “They might be those we worked with or those who were left behind after we left the country.”

Former City Councilor and veterans advocate Maria Burge spoke highly of Pham’s remarks.

“The speech was so moving,” Burge said. “I wish that all Vietnam veterans had heard that. It’s been long time coming to be honored that way. I am very proud to be a Vietnam veteran.”

Burge assisted with Monday’s parade, which featured the Greenfield High and Middle school bands.

Among residents enjoying the festivities were 100-year-old William Kostanski, who served at Pearl Harbor, and 99-year-old Darwin Hine, a paratrooper.

Both men served in World War II and were the elder statesmen of the veteran services Monday.

“I almost cried when I saw Mr. Kostanski and Mr. Hine try to stand up to salute the flag,” Pham said, about the two veterans front-and-center, who stood up for the National Anthem, played by the Greenfield High School band. “That image will forever be ingrained in my mind. So thank you so much.”

You can reach
Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264