Col. Viet Luong, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, came to America in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam and is the first Vietnamese-American to command an Army combat brigade. (Army via AP)
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Fresh off a 14-month deployment to Iraq, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division is preparing for a new Afghanistan mission with a new commander who brings a unique perspective to the ongoing wars.
Col. Viet Luong came to America in 1975 with his family as refugees from Vietnam. He said he is considered the first Vietnamese-American to command an Army combat brigade, having taken up his post in February.
From growing up amid a war to preparing a battle-hardened brigade for its fifth deployment, he describes his rise to the post as a deeply satisfying journey.
"To me it's very profound and it's everything this country stands for: the opportunities, liberty, equality and fraternity," he said.
The brigade he is leading has its own history with Vietnam. It deployed to Vietnam in 1967 and fought extensively throughout the country.
"It's a great honor to be in this brigade," he added. "It's a great unit with a gallant tradition and every day we try to live up to those standards. We're very well connected to the veterans of this brigade and for me, it's a privilege to be here."
Luong began his military career after graduating from the University of Southern California and has mostly served with the Army's airborne units, including the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy.
The military announced earlier this month that the brigade's 3,800 soldiers would be leaving for Afghanistan by year's end. Most of the unit's previous deployments have been to Iraq, although it had a tour of Afghanistan in 2002.
President Barack Obama has ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban, shifting the global war focus away from Iraq.
Luong, who has served in Iraq, said the brigade has experience that will help it adjust to the different circumstances of Afghanistan.
"Some of the agricultural and economic initiatives that some of these leaders have brought with them from Iraq, I think will be monumental in Afghanistan," Luong said.
"Many people will tell you that all the stuff that you learned in Iraq you can go ahead and flush because Afghanistan is different. I don't completely agree with that because there are a lot of good things in Iraq that I think will transfer over."
The unit is beginning training this month for the deployment, but Luong stressed that his brigade will remain flexible because of the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan.
Training will include cultural and language skills and learning to use new equipment, such as lightweight mine-resistant vehicles, called MRAPs.
Without specific assignment orders at the moment, Luong said the brigade will be prepared for a full-spectrum of operations from combat to civil support.
With an Afghan presidential election scheduled in August, the Army's role in supporting the government will be an important part of whatever mission they have, he noted.
"Really our job is to assist the government of Afghanistan connect itself to the people and be viewed as competent, legitimate government," he said.
Luong said efforts to improve the Afghan economy have been successful through collaboration between the military, aid organizations and the State Department.
One challenge he is currently facing is giving his soldiers enough time at home with family before they have to leave again. With only 12 or 13 months expected between deployments, the stress can weigh heavily on soldiers and their families, he said.
"This brigade combat team is the most deployed brigade in the Army," he said. "Over time it's a significant stress on the force and it's a significant stress on the family. And I am always concerned about that. To the best of our ability, we try to mitigate time away from home."