Contractors working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District install a 23-foot-tall concrete shaft enclosure weighing approximately 120,000 pounds as part of the guard wall at the Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Nov. 16, 2023.

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Army officer’s heritage influences past, present and future

Louisville District
Published May 8, 2023
Capt. Vihn Dao, who is serving as a Construction Control Representative for the Louisville District, has a discussion with contractor Tre Baker on the site of the Louisville VA Medical Center project May 3.

Capt. Vihn Dao, who is serving as a Construction Control Representative for the Louisville District, has a discussion with contractor Tre Baker on the site of the Louisville VA Medical Center project May 3.

Capt. Vinh Dao has been on a long journey both distance- and experience-wise since his family immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. It’s a journey that he continues to navigate using lessons from his family and as an Army officer.

Dao’s family came to America from Vietnam when he was four years old, bringing with them a history that was quite different from those in their new homeland.

“We came to the U.S. and settled in Indianapolis in 1992 under the Humanitarian Operations sub-program of the Orderly Departure Program. Under this program, former re-education camp prisoners from the Vietnam War were allowed to be resettled in the U.S.,” he said. “My dad had served as an infantry officer in the South Vietnamese Army from 1968 until the end of the war in 1975. Once the war ended, the North Vietnamese started rounding up all the Officers from the South Vietnamese military and put them in these so-called “re-education” camps.”

“From his stories and what I’ve read about these camps, there wasn’t much education going on at these places. He spent nine years of his life in one of those camps. Because of that, our family was eligible to be in that program. We settled in Indianapolis because we had some relatives here that sponsored us,” Tao added.

Tao and his family have since learned to appreciate aspects of both their Vietnamese and American culture over the years.

“I was raised speaking Vietnamese in the house, eating Vietnamese food, and listening to Vietnamese music. My parents were also Buddhist, so we had an altar in the house with my grandparents’ pictures and visited the local temple occasionally,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older, I don’t really visit the temple anymore, but I still love the food and listen to Vietnamese music. I still take my dad to get Vietnamese food whenever I’m home. I also still listen to the same music that they listened to as I was growing up. It’s mainly music written during the Vietnam War years. It’s relaxing and nostalgic.”

Tao, who is now an engineering officer for the U.S. Army, said he feels that his and his parents’ cultural values were instrumental in making him who he is today.

“This is going to sound like the typical cliché answer, but my parents have always pushed me to work hard in school. They wanted me to do well so I can get a good education and succeed in life,” he said. “They kept pushing me because they felt that if we were still in Vietnam, because of my dad’s background, I would not have been given the opportunity to succeed. I would not have been given the opportunity for an education nor would I be able to get a good job over there.”

“They knew we have a great opportunity here in the U.S., so they weren’t going to let me waste it. Because of how they’ve raised me, I still try to work hard to ensure that I don’t waste the opportunities I’ve been given,” he added.

Tao has served in a number of roles for the Army since commissioning as an Army officer through the ROTC program at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in 2011.

“I’ve served in the typical positions expected of an Army officer such as platoon leader, executive officer, and company commander. Those roles were more leadership focused,” he said. “I’ve also been on a battalion staff as the assistant operations officer, then as the operations and plans officer at the Army Corps level, not to be confused with the Corps of Engineers. These roles were more planning-focused in support of the subordinate units that were executing the missions.”

He's currently serving as a Construction Control Representative for the Louisville District working on the Louisville VA Medical Center project.

“I’m working in the Quality Assurance section of the Veteran Affairs Division. The other USACE representatives and I review the project drawings and specifications then inspect and work with the contractors to ensure they are in compliance with the contract,” he explained. “It’s exciting to be working on an almost $1 billion VA hospital. It is much different here than working in a military environment, but I’ve learned a great deal about reading and interpreting drawings and specifications and the overall construction processes.”

“Even with all I’ve learned, there’s still a ton I’m learning every day from the two quality assurance leads. Working with civilian contractors every day has been a great experience,” he added.

He said he feels the experience he is gaining working for the district will benefit him in the future.

“Working for USACE is not an opportunity every engineer officer gets in their career. These positions are actually pretty low on the Army’s priority list to fill compared to the operational units,” Tao said. “Being here now, I believe it will give me a higher chance of being able to come back later in my career. All of the knowledge and experience I’m gaining now will also be beneficial when I transition over to a civilian career.”

Chick Lock

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