FORT SMITH, Ark. – Looking at her now, it’s hard to imagine that Vi Le, regional general counsel for Mercy in Oklahoma and Arkansas, started life in war-torn Vietnam.
Le arrived with her family at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith, Arkansas, as an 18-month-old refugee just days after the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Now 45 years old, she was too young to remember arriving in the United States but has heard her parents’ stories over the years.
Le hoped one day to return Fort Chaffee. That day finally arrived June 19, the eve of World Refugee Day, when she and her parents visited where they and eventually more than 50,000 refugees were brought over a seven-month span.
“When people ask where I come from, that’s a very difficult question for a refugee because you can come from so many places. My American story begins at Fort Chaffee. It’s really a special place,” she said.
“This story isn’t really my story because I was a baby. This is about what my parents were willing to do so I could have an education, grow up in a democracy and be whatever I wanted to be.”
Le’s father, Nghi Van Le, a pilot, was concerned that Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was about to fall into the hands of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong. He made sure the rest of his family was able to leave but stayed behind for a couple of days to fly other refugees out of the country.
“We thought my dad was dead because he sent us on a plane ahead of him,” she said, adding it wasn’t until a few days later that they were reunited in Thailand. “There wasn’t time to gather things and we could only take what we could carry. We came to America with hardly anything. People ask me about my baby pictures and I don’t have any except a couple.”
Looking back, Le isn’t sure she would have been as strong as her mother.
“My mom (Phuong Le) was ready to go on this journey with me and her two siblings without my father and not knowing any English,” she said. “I’m a person who needs a lot of information and wants to be sure-footed about what I’m doing. I don’t think I could have left everything behind and gone to another country.”
The U.S. Army was notified on April 25, 1975, that Fort Chaffee would be used as a relocation center. The first Indochinese, including Vietnamese, arrived seven days later on May 2, 1975.
“At Fort Chaffee, my parents felt very welcomed and taken care of,” she said. “It was not a good time, of course, but the stories of the refugee camp are always positive. There was much uncertainty but also a sense of hope that things were going to be OK. They were overwhelmed with gratitude.”
One of her father’s favorite stories about the refugee camp was that the only baby food she would eat was bananas. Coming from Vietnam, they didn’t want to waste any food, so the rest of the family ate the other types of baby food that Le refused to eat.
The Sisters of Mercy helped at the refugee camp, which was a comfort to Le’s family, all of whom converted to Catholicism in Vietnam. In 1975, Sister Judith Marie Keith was president and chief executive officer of St. Edward Hospital, now Mercy Hospital Fort Smith.
“The Sisters did phenomenal work that has paid off for generations,” Le said. “They probably had no idea at the time of the impact they made.”
The Vietnamese refugees didn’t stay long at Fort Chaffee before they were relocated. Le, her family and more than 25,000 refugees settled in the Oklahoma City area, where she and her family still live.
In addition to being a Mercy leader, Le also is board president of Catholic Charities in Oklahoma.
“My story really is about the intersection of my personal, professional and volunteer life,” she said. “In all parts of my life, I get to have a heart for the poor, immigrants, women and children, and those in political strife, all things that the Sisters of Mercy believe in.”
A Look Back at Fort Chaffee Refugee Camp
Source: Encyclopedia of Arkansas
In 1975, Arkansas was tapped by the federal government to be one of four main entry points for Indochinese refugees. The presence and availability of the facilities at Fort Chaffee made it an ideal location for processing tens of thousands of Indochinese seeking refuge.
Within 22 days, there were 25,812 refugees, which made the fort effectively the 11th-largest city in the state. By the last day of the program just seven months later, on Dec. 20, 50,809 refugees had been processed through Fort Chaffee.
The Indochinese population that arrived consisted of Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong. From the local perspective, however, they often were mistakenly perceived to be one homogenous cultural group. As many were political refugees, they were granted permanent, legal residence in the United States.
Refugees were quickly rotated out of Fort Chaffee as sponsors or host families around the United States were secured. The United States Catholic Conference alone found sponsors for 20,000 of the refugees.
At the peak of the airlift, some days saw as many as 17 flights landing at Fort Smith Municipal Airport, with 415 flights in total. By June 14, 1975, there were 6,500 Army Reserve personnel working at the fort.