- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) - For Ashley Nguyen, shipbuilding is a way to thank America.

It’s how she acknowledges the country that rescued her large family as they fled the Vietnam War and communism.

It showcases her gratitude for the opportunity to begin life inside the safety and security of a U.S. Navy ship, where she was born in 1975.

Nguyen now spends her workdays in Pascagoula as an Ingalls Shipbuilding structural designer, building 3D and 2D models of Navy ship hulls, decks and bulkheads.

“I feel so fortunate to be able to put my talents to use this way.

“I feel like I, and the rest of the Vietnamese people, owed the United States a favor,” she said. “America is freedom, free enterprise and the opportunity to be whatever you want to be. It’s an honor to live here.”

Nguyen said her parents - Thanh and Gia Nguyen - were fishermen during the war. After the fall of Saigon, they took their boat out several times to try to get aboard one of the many U.S. Navy ships around their South Vietnam town.

“They had been turned down so many times because the ships were always full,” she said. “But after three or four attempts, we were finally picked up. My mother was 9 months pregnant, so it was really tough for her.”

Even tougher is getting her parents to talk about the rescue, even today.

“I hear the story in bits and pieces from my family,” the 16-year Ingalls employee said.

“My parents remember so much death,” she said. “People would try to climb into a ship - grabbing on to anything they could hold onto - and they would fall and drown. My mom said they looked like ants because there were so many bodies.”

Getting to a U.S. boat was worth the risk, though, “because it was for freedom,” Nguyen said. “Living under communist rule - that’s not freedom at all.”

Even though Nguyen was born aboard a Navy vessel two days after her parents and siblings were rescued, she was legally born in Vietnam.

The family could never recall the name of the ships that saved them, she said, but there was a smaller ship that took the family to a much larger ship with thousands of other refugees.

They were taken to Guam and then on to a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee in Missouri, and they later connected with a relative on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where Nguyen has spent most of her life.

Nguyen, who earned a degree in design drafting at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Jackson County campus, said she and her 11 siblings have careers in medicine, business, finance, casinos and more.

“We know what our parents went through and the opportunities we have had,” she said. “We are all thankful. We all know that this is the best country. Even if we don’t see that sometimes, it’s true.”

Nguyen has a nephew in the Navy and another nephew who was formerly in the Marine Corps, so she knows how important her shipbuilding job is to military personnel’s safety.

“When I talk to the Navy nephew, he’s always like, ‘Aunt Ashley, you don’t know how thankful I am that you build these ships,’ and I’m always like, ‘This is backwards. I should be thanking you.’”

Nguyen is the latest employee featured in Huntington Ingalls Industries’ “Tougher Than Steel” campaign.

The campaign kicked off in 2013 and focuses on shipbuilders with interesting stories. It features full-page print ads in local newspapers and defense publications.

Nguyen said she never thought too much about her Navy ship connections, but now she sees the uniqueness.

“It’s just ironic,” she said. “I never really thought of it until I got hired in here, but it just fits all together. It must have been meant to be.”

___

Information from: The Mississippi Press, http://www.gulflive.com

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