Cary High School senior Woodward Tran grew up hearing about how his father fled Vietnam by boat, risking death from drowning, starvation and pirates until a U.S. Navy ship pulled them from the water.
Woodward, 17, will now show his gratitude by becoming a U.S. Navy officer — just like his three older brothers and his father.
Tran will attend Virginia Military Institute on a Naval ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship, the next step toward becoming a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy.
“My father’s story about how he was rescued inspired me to join the Navy and give back to the country that saved him,” Woodward said in an interview. “My whole family is Navy, except for my mother.”
Consciousness about duty has been a major part of what Lt. Cmdr. Khanh Tran has tried to instill into Woodward and his other three sons.
Khanh knows his life could have turned out very much differently.
“I feel very grateful because I believe we should contribute our part as U.S. citizens,” the father said in an interview. “It wasn’t easy for me to get it. We should do more than just work. We should serve.”
Vietnamese boat people
In 1987, Khanh and several family members fled Vietnam by boat to escape persecution. After the end of the Vietnam War, the victorious North Vietnamese government targeted former South Vietnamese Army soldiers like Khanh’s father.
At least 840,000 people fled Vietnam by sea in the late 1970s and 1980s, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
As they drifted along the Gulf of Thailand, Khanh says what he’ll always remember is seeing the American flag on the U.S. Navy ship that approached their boat.
After spending time in refugee camps, the family was relocated to North Carolina. Khanh married, got a bachelor’s degree from N.C. State University and a master’s degree and doctorate at N.C. A&T State University.
Khanh became an engineer in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency. But he opted to make a mid-career shift to join the Navy.
“I felt like I can do more than just be an engineer to make money,” Khanh said. “I felt I can contribute more and appreciate the country and the government that helped us, cared for us since we left Vietnam.”
Navy JROTC tradition
Khanh and his wife, Trinh, moved to Cary. All four of their sons (John, Jeff, Keith and Woodward) attended Cary High and have served in the school’s Navy Junior ROTC unit. Two sons were the unit’s commanding officer, and Woodward is the executive officer.
There’s some sibling rivalry.
Woodward said Keith, who will graduate this month from the U.S. Naval Academy, made him a bet that he’d give him his paycheck for 10 years if Woodward became a Navy SEAL.
But Woodward said he’s thinking of becoming a submarine officer. He credits his time in the JROTC unit, which he calls his “second family,” with giving him a head start on his career plans.
“They’ve given me opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten as a normal high school student, such as commanding platoons and leading well-disciplined people,” Woodward said. “It’s also helped me improve my leadership skills and communications skills. I’m very happy for that.”
Gregory Erickson, the senior Naval science instructor at Cary High, has watched Woodward mature and become more focused during his time in the unit. Woodward rose to the rank of cadet lieutenant commander, becoming the number two cadet in the JROTC unit.
“He leads by example, sets an example, sets high expectations for the cadets,” Erickson, a retired Navy commander, said in an interview. “They follow his lead.”
‘Very proud of them’
Woodward has also kept up his focus on his grades, joining the National Honor Society and taking a heavy load of advanced courses. Justin Boggus, Woodward’s Advanced Placement Calculus teacher, said he’s impressed with how well Woodward is doing while also handling his many JROTC responsibilities.
“Woodward is a very, very bright kid and he works very hard,” Boggus said in an interview. “He has a lot going for him.”
All of the hard work will culminate in next month’s graduation ceremony at the Raleigh Convention Center.
The Naval ROTC scholarship that will pay for Woodward to attend VMI comes with a five-year commitment of U.S. Navy service. But Woodward says he plans to become a career officer who will retire one day from the Navy.
Woodward will eventually start in the Navy as an ensign. One brother is a lieutenant junior grade, another is an ensign and the third brother will become an ensign after graduating from the Naval Academy.
“I’m very proud of them,” Khanh Tran said of his sons. “I think they understand the situation I was in and they understand that the Navy has given me the opportunity to be where I’m at now and they just decided to serve to pay back the country that has been helping them, helping me.”