Aging Vietnam war veteran closes circle with oath of citizenship

by Jordan Green

Aging Vietnam war veteran closes circle with oath of citizenship

As Y’Bret Nie took the oath of citizenship with 41 others in Courtroom 3 of the federal courthouse in Greensboro on a recent Friday, he pledged to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required to do so by law.

A diminutive man dressed impeccably in a navy blue jacket, an olive green vest, gold tie, lime green pants and black loafers who does not speak English, Y’Bret Nie has done more than his share of fighting the United States’ enemies.

He estimated he is 99 years old.

Lutheran Family Services, the agency tasked with assisting him in obtaining citizenship, lists his age at 97 and his official date of birth as Jan. 1, 1912, a standard notation for anyone whose exact date of birth is unknown. Undoubtedly the oldest applicant for citizenship that day, Y’Bret Nie had proven his qualifications many times over.

The atmosphere in Courtroom 3 was a mixture of solemnity and bureaucratic languor, with the applicants making friendly small talk as US Citizenship & Immigration Services officer Regina Bryant ticked through each name and verified paperwork to ensure all were still eligible. After the Judge Thomas Schroeder administered the oath, Bryant instructed the new citizens to step forward to receive their certificates and to state their name and country of origin before the court.

In a stream they came, receiving their certificates and then picking up small American flags and handbooks of citizenship before mouthing their countries’ names in halting cadences: Vietnam, Laos, China, India, Liberia, Ukraine, Philippines, Thailand, Ivory Coast and Morocco.

When his name was called, Y’Bret Nie, made his way to the front. He accepted his certificate from Bryant, who asked whether he had an interpreter. Y. Tin Hwing, the 66-year-old president of the Montagnard Dega American Veterans Association, rushed to the front. By then, Y’Bret Nie had wandered across the floor, completely bypassing the lady with the flags and handbooks. Bryant decided to let it go and waved Y. Tin Hwing away.

In all but a few cases, the US government requires that successful applicants for citizenship know how to speak English and demonstrate a basic understanding of US history and civics. Amy Greensfelder, Y’Bret Nie’s immigration counselor at Luther Family Services, said her client had received a medical waiver based on a physician’s diagnosis of “memory decline associated with aging.”

Congratulating the new American citizens, Judge Schroeder noted that they had made a choice to leave behind old customs and ties. “I know that wasn’t an easy decision,” he said, “and it took a lot of courage.”

He went on to note that he and most others enjoy US citizenship and its guaranteed freedoms as a birthright. “Your citizenship,” he said, “is earned and more deserved.”

Before the ceremony, Y’Bret Nie described his family’s journey after fleeing with three generations of his family from Vietnam, where they had long suffered as members of the persecuted Montagnard minority under Vietnamese communist rule.

His eyes brightened and he laughed appreciatively as he described his time assisting the US military in its effort to defeat the Vietnamese communists, fighting under Lt. Col. Carl Regan.

“I worked with the Americans, sometimes with the CIA, most of the time with the Special Forces,” Y’Bret Nie said through interpret Y. Tin Hwing. “I was very familiar with the area. Wherever the communists were, I knew. I pointed them out to the Americans so they could call in the air strikes. They put me in a helicopter and dropped me down to see what the damage was. The communists considered me, I guess you could say, to be a traitor.”

Y’Bret Nie said he considers himself fortunate to live in the United States. He said he hopes his new citizenship will allow him to sponsor his son, who is currently jailed by the Vietnamese authorities but expects to be released soon.

After the communists seized control of the southern half of the country in 1975, Y’Bret Nie said, they dealt harshly with the Montagnards, many of whom had helped the United States. Vietnamese from the north have gradually encroached on Montagnard lands, killing pigs and chickens, destroying crops of rice, banana, sugarcane and corn. If the Montagnards tried to protest the takings, the Vietnamese citizens would threaten their lives with the backing of the government.

Y’Bret Nie and his wife, H’Aya, their sons and their grandchildren fled Vietnam in 2002. Y’Bret Nie was 90 at the time, and his wife was 74. They walked three days and three nights through the deep jungle to reach Cambodia. They brought some food that soon ran out, but they also carried some money and gold that they could exchange for food. When they arrived at a United Nations resettlement camp in Cambodia, they were given a cooking pan, rice, dried fish and eggs.

“What really impresses me is that he walked through the jungle,” Greensfelder said, as she sat in the federal courtroom. “I asked his grandson: ‘Oh, did you help your grandfather and grandmother?’ He said, ‘Oh no, he knew the way because of his military experience.’ I had this image of these two old people hunched over. But, actually, Y’Bret was leading the way.”

Y. Tin Hwing was dressed smartly in a gray suit and a cap bearing the American flag and the US official seal. A convivial man, he smiled broadly as he conversed with Y’Bret Nie in the Manong tongue and joked with Greensfelder at the offices of Lutheran Family Services. He explained that his daughter, a 24 yearold nail technician named Hdliu Hwing, would also be taking the oath of citizenship.

Hdliu wore a blouse with blue vertical stripes, blue jeans and sunglasses propped on her head. Like dozens of others, she had applied for a name change that would go into effect simultaneously with her oath. Hdliu Hwing would become Leslie Hwing.

Y. Tin Hwing suggested that he and his daughter ride to the federal courthouse with a reporter. On the way, he noted that he himself was a distinguished veteran, having fought alongside the US military beginning in 1961 when President Kennedy gave the order for the Special Forces to deploy to Vietnam from Fort Bragg.

Y. Tin Hwing said 200,000 Montagnards gave up their lives in the fight against communism, and had they not participated the 58,261 names of US servicemen and women engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall might well have numbered many more.

“You don’t know very much, do you?” he kidded the reporter, adding, “I find that Montagnard young people and Vietnamese young people also don’t know much about the war.”

Y.Tin Hwing, Hdliu Hwing and the reporter emptied their pockets intoheavy plastic bowls that ran through the X-ray machine at the federalcourt house, retrieved their belongings and took the elevator to thethird floor, where they milled around in the corridor outside thecourtroom. Y’Bret Nie, H’Aya and Greensfelder soon followed.

Y.Tin Hwing had taken the oath of citizenship about five years ago. Hehad accompanied Montagnards to naturalization ceremonies once or twicebefore, but this was his first visit to the federal courthouse.

“Whatdo you got to do?” Hdliu Hwing asked. “Do you get in line?” “They’regoing to tell you what to do,” her father said. “Just wait.”

LibAshworth, a volunteer from Calvary Baptist Church in Winston- Salem,rose from her seat against the wall and addressed Greensfelder. Sheasked if Y’Bret Nie knew that his son was at the courthouse. Y. TinHwing put the question to Y’Bret Nie, whose face remained impassive.After awhile the young man, who had been sitting with his wife andchildren, walked over. Tauinya Ya and his father chatted in Manong andlaughed together, yet stood at a distance from each other.

TauinyaYa reminisced about the trek through the jungle with his father. Hisson, Koeu Ya, was one and a half at the time. Now he had become achubby fifth grader sulking away from his father at the courthouse. Asecond son making the journey was an infant at the time. Tauinya Yasaid he had been upset with himself at the time because he had beenforced to leave behind his mother in law, who has since died. He hadthought he would not be able to learn English and otherwise adapt tolife in the United States. Now, he had developed several vocationalskills, including driving a truck, and operating machines, cranes andfront-end loaders.

Followingthe ceremony, the new citizens partook of Fritos, Oreos and othersnacks from a table set up in the corridor. Greensfelder had left theceremony early but promised to return to drive Y’Bret Nie and H’Ayaback to Lutheran Family Services.

Y’BretNie, H’Aya, Y. Tin Hwing, Hdliu Hwing and some of the other newcitizens stepped onto the elevator. It was going up and it stopped onthe fourth floor. H’Aya stepped off, and Y. Tin Hwing grabbed her bythe arm and pulled her back in. Then they all rode down to the groundfloor. Y. Tin Hwing insisted on waiting with Y’Bret Nie and H’Aya untilGreensfelder arrived. Hdliu Hwing fretted that she needed to get back towork. It was almost 3 p.m. She punched in a number on her cell phoneand informed a colleague that she would be running late.

Y’BretNie (center) and his son, Tauinya Ya, (right) took the oath ofcitizenship at the federal courthouse in Greensboro with 40 otherapplicants on Nov. 20. (photo by Jordan Green)