Ret. MSG Tu Lam (Army Special Operations, OIF, OEF Veteran)
I was speaking with a friend today about the power of a name. She was trying to choose a title for her creative agency and we both agreed that name had a lot of power. It needed to be indicative of not just a job description, but a movement in life. When you believe in something greater than yourself, something that exists in such a complex place of passion that few others understand, you attack it with full purpose and conviction. "Ronin" is just that name for retired Sergeant Major Tu Lam. He gave his life to the Army for 22 years, pursuing the life of a warrior, always sacrificing for his country and never thinking of self. The couple of days I spent with Tu were powerful in nature, because I could truly see the indicators of his belief system in every segment of his life.
Tu believes strongly in the Bushido Code and passionately practices from the deepest place in his heart. He truly believes he was born to be a warrior, and nothing I saw in my time with him would negate that belief. My time with him was more indicative of truth in lineage and one's path to a sense of mastering one's art form. This art form is a path of violence for Lam but the word "violence" belies the true sense of this form in Lam's life. When we think of violence we typically think of a negative space where life and limb is injured or destroyed. I believe in a reason and necessity for violence. Tu shares this belief as well, because he knows that there is no other way at times. You become a master of violence in order to control the chaos around you. I think often of the quote from Chinese martial arts lore where a student is talking to his master.
“Would it not be more tranquil and serene to be a gardener and tend the plants?” the student asked. “Tending the garden,” the master replied, “is a relaxing pastime, but it does not prepare one for the inevitable battles of life. It is easy to be calm in a serene setting. To be calm and serene when under attack is much more difficult, so, therefore, I teach you that it is far better to be a warrior tending his garden rather than a gardener at war.”
About a week ago I was standing atop one of my favorite overlooks in south Texas and my mind drifted to the places I'd been; my path, if you will. As I watched the hawks' flight over the edge of the cliff, I thought about all of the possibilities and dangers in signing on that dotted line when I was 17 years old. I thought about the path of commitment to something greater than self. I thought about the freedom that I now enjoyed being a byproduct of the other men and women who'd made that same decision. That overlook was more magnificent than ever after my time of recollection. How much more so for a soldier like Tu Lam? Tu's path brought him out of a terroristic Communist state and into a land he believed so strongly in that he spent 22 years as its protector. Tu knows what it means to be without freedom, so he formed himself into the anti-matter that would conduct high-intensity operations where only the most fearless men would go. His day-to-day movements in those dark and deadly spaces are the reason we enjoy the freedoms we do. That's not just a clichè saying. That's a matter of truth, and that truth is only known in specifics by the greatest forms of intelligence this country sends into the most deadly of operational spaces. I've already said enough, though. I'll let Tu take it from here.
Can you talk about your path to where you are now?
TL: When I retired I became the Ronin (masterless warrior). The process was to seek truth in the world, seek truth in myself, and to take my life’s teachings and to give back to the good of this world. The good in this world being law enforcement and military. Along with that came the journey of discovery after stepping off the battlefield. I stepped off the battlefield and now I’m meeting the people I protected while I was overseas. There is a discovery process in that. I’m now able to go to the places I wasn’t able to go to because my schedule was war and training for war. When I got out it was a healing process and the healing process evolved into much more than that.
When you started out in the world of Special Operations it was pre-9/11. What was that like compared to how it is now?
TL: My understanding from birth was one of war. I was born out of war. I was born in ’74 after the fall of Saigon. In ’76 they dragged us out into the streets of Vietnam because they were trying to impose the Communist ideologies of our government. My uncles were serving in the Navy and were dragged out into the streets like animals and shot. They separated our family and imprisoned my other uncles in what they called “re-education camps.” My grandfather took his life savings and smuggled us out of the country because my mom was like, “There’s no way my two sons will grow up under Communist rule.” We left on an overstuffed wooden boat with hundreds of other refugees. First we had to be navigated past the pirating that was going on. There were a lot of bandits, pirates and everyone who was leaving country had money. These pirates would intercept the refugees, rape the women, rob the boats and kill everyone on board.
We navigated past the pirates first then made it into Indonesia where the Coast Guard stopped us. They told us we couldn’t come into their country. They anchored us down and pulled us back into the ocean on lines, then shot our motor and cut the lines, leaving us out in the middle of the waters to die. Our boat drifted further and further into the ocean. My mother told me that people were stealing from each other, fighting, and eventually dying due to the terrible conditions. We were caught up in a storm and this storm took us out into the middle of Russian waters by the grace of God. A Russian supply boat picked us up as they were crossing the Pacific Ocean into Singapore. They dropped us off at a refugee camp in Indonesia. The irony of this story is the same ideology that took me out of my country (Communism) was the same ideology that brought me to safety.
My family was gunned down like animals by a Communist government and yet the Russians, another Communist government, saved us. That was my first lesson in humanity and that everyone is truly different. The Indonesian monks came and helped us while we were in the camp. My aunt had married a Special Forces Green Beret and he expedited the paperwork to get us out of Indonesia and to the United States. At the age of eight I found myself on Ft. Bragg and my mom re-married a Sergeant who was a Green Beret. At that early age, I was indoctrinated in the ways of a Special Forces soldier. I learned how to speak different languages, learned how to take apart many different types of weapons, and learned how to properly navigate the back woods of North Carolina.
I was taught how to navigate the stars and build my own compasses. The truth is, we were just spending father and son time but he was teaching me a trade craft. Throughout my life he’d leave, come back, leave, come back and I’d equate it with seeing something bad on the news. Panama happened and he immediately went over there. I felt from a very young age, being raised as a part of that warrior class, that I had a much higher purpose. I knew what a sheep, sheep dog, and a wolf were from a very young age. My dad taught me that very early on. I asked my father how I could help protect and my dad said I’d have to pass a test to become a part of the brotherhood. At ten years old I wanted to be a Green Beret.
Like a lot of Asians, I was academically gifted at a very young age. I had scholarships and I turned them down. I made better grades than my brother and he ended up being a doctor. When I got to age 18 I went to MEPS and applied for 11B (Infantry). There was no such thing as 18X or direct entry into Special Operations. You couldn’t just come off the streets and train for Special Operations. You had to become an E5 (Sergeant) first and then do a certain amount of years. Those years could be waived and so I made E5 after a year and a half. When I went in I went into long-range reconnaissance, which took me directly into the Marines’ Amphibious School, Ranger training, and a lot of other leadership courses as well as the Army Sniper School.
Those were the skills I honed in and at age 20 I was ready for SFAS (Special Forces Assessment Selection). I made it into Special Forces Selection and was part of a C-SAR team (Combat Rescue) at Okinawa. PJs (Para Rescue) come into hot zones as the paramedics and we are typically the commando force that protects them. I did that for roughly a year and applied for a CIF (Counter In-extremis Forces) Company. Anything that happened dealing with hostage rescue or things of that nature in Asia, would turn into a situation that I would rapidly deploy into. Anything having to do with direct action FIT, bilateral, or unilateral operations I would work into those operations. During my time at Okinawa, the Twin Towers fell and they pushed me back into the Philippines where we combated Abu-Sayyaf.
After a certain amount of time, I felt that I wanted to work outside of the Asian area and get into the wars going on in the Middle East. I asked 1st SFG(A) to go to war in the Middle East and my Sergeant Major told me I absolutely couldn’t. I applied for a certain assignment that I won’t elaborate on, and that got me into the Middle East. This allowed me to do certain missions across the world where I was acting alone because the nature of the work wouldn’t allow for teams that were bigger than solo man. I then went to 10th SFG(A) and helped stand up their Crises Response Force (CRF) for the continent of Africa Counter Terrorist Unit and we went into North Africa, specifically Libya. My last few missions were Libya and then Cameroon where I did anti-poaching operations with the Cameroon Commandos. I went from there to South Africa where I protected our former president along with elements of his Secret Service.
What happened after that time?
TL: I started facing my dark times. The war started to catch up to me and you can only mask the war for so long. I lost a lot of friends along the way through warfare and that’s when I went into my period of depression. Things got harder for me and I tried to mask that by going back to college and getting my Master’s Degree. It was hard though and like I told you I was academically gifted, but I was having a hard time memorizing things. They did a CAT scan on my brain and found out I had TBI. I have a scar on my right frontal lobe, which is where those memories are stored. That causes some mood swings, depression, and things like that. They couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong though and they equated it to PTSD and they put me on anti-depressants. I was taking the medication they were prescribing me and I started spiraling out of control. It was masking all of my emotion and I was losing my humanity while I was on those drugs. I took all the medicine, dumped it down the toilet, flushed it, and I was done with those medications.
Facing those withdrawals was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. I started experiencing cramps, nausea, vomiting, depression, because of those withdrawals. Everything started spinning out of control very rapidly. I picked up the book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi and I was always a big Eastern philosophy type of guy. I always looked up to guys like Bruce Lee as my idols, so as I read this book it resonated with me and my skill sets that I possess on the path that I’d been walking. Through the depression and through the hardships, I came out as a Ronin. The Book of Five Rings was written by a Ronin and his words were written in a Buddhist cave as he meditated while dying of stomach cancer in the year 1600. I picked up this book in 2013 and it resonated with me in the present day. That’s where I came up with the idea for my company name, “Ronin.” The Ronin symbol is the “O” which is zen and that zen means that at the present time you own your body and mind. Your mind isn’t transcending that moment and going somewhere else. It’s there in that moment. You’re hearing what I’m saying in the current moment and processing that. Think about what you do every day where you’re forecasting almost every moment. Only through combat do you truly become about here and now. Your future is not guaranteed. That stripe over the top of the “O” in Ronin is war. Through war, I found my zen. That’s symbolic of Ronin.
What about your spirituality helped you in your time at war?
TL: I was always on the spiritual side as a martial artist. I’ve spent most of my life as a martial artist. I always had the connections in that aspect. It helped me out a lot overseas. It helped me in how I expressed myself, how I carried myself, and also it helped me as a warrior with the fluidity in my mindset. If you tell me, “Tu, this is the truth. This is the answer.” In my mind, I’m listening to what you’re saying and respecting that but I’m also thinking, “I’m going to find my own truth.” Life is more than just what a person tells you. It’s about going out through life and developing as a human being. Seeing these places I’ve seen, experiencing what I’ve experienced and living in those moments has helped me find my truth. When I went overseas what I really quickly realized is that there are two sides to every story.
Yeah, we’re absolutely going to destroy the enemy of our country to protect our livelihood and freedom. But, you have to put yourself in their shoes too. You have to understand why they are the way they are. Only through understanding can you make a difference. Only through education can you truly make an impact. We can kill as many of those insurgents as we want but that won’t change the ideology and the danger in that ideology. I found myself different in that way from other team members. I thought more along the lines of a martial artist. There was a time where I lost my way and I lost a very dear friend right in front of me, so for a period of four years after that I was driven by hate and fire. When I stepped out of that hatred, I realized my life was spinning out of control. After war in the Philippines I climbed the Himalayas as a part of mountain operations and I met with Tibetan monks. I meditated and prayed with those monks. Those guys freaked me out because they predicted the war in Iraq. They told me, “More of your friends will die. The war is not done with you.”
How many combat deployments did you do?
TL: I don’t know how many deployments I’ve done. I honestly can’t remember. We were doing three-month rotations when I was with the Tier One guys and if you’re a part of a special assignment you were going to be tasked in between those deployments to go around the world and work on certain tasks. That’s why I can’t pinpoint the number of those deployments. I’ve been some places that are non-declared war zones. My deployments were not cut and dry. It was more than just Iraq and Afghanistan but still very much part of the war on terror. Fighting against Chad rebels is not an Iraq or Afghanistan deployment but it’s still a part of the job. All I can tell you is that I did 14 years of on and off war in between short missions here and there around the world.
What was your toughest deployment overseas?
TL: I would say that my direct missions in Iraq were some of the toughest. Africa was tough because we knew we could help out but there’s not as much you can do in a non-declared war zone. We didn’t have the approving authority through the country to execute operations of war. They didn’t want war in their country but it was already there whether they liked it or not. That made Africa a really hard spot to operate in. We didn’t have the ability to execute. When I was in Libya there was no such thing as reinforcements. They can’t get in because the rebels owned the airport and the rebels would shoot you down if you tried to fly in. We were dealing with unified rebel groups, post-Ghadafi and we were always trying to maintain a bilateral ability to carry out operations in that country.
Do you remember your toughest day overseas?
TL: My toughest day was when I lost my friend Tung Nguyen. He was a Vietnamese guy like myself, 3rd Special Forces Group, and when I first met him he was with 1st Special Forces Group. Then, he went to SWIC and he wanted to stay at Ft. Bragg so he went to 3rd group after that. When I linked up with him he was a part of a task force and I lost him on that rotation. We were on a kill/capture mission and he was killed by friendly fire in Baghdad. There was a convoy coming through and we had an explosive breach on the door. The explosive went off and the convoy coming through thought it was an IED and we hadn’t cleared battle space. Certain Special Operations units think they’re too cool to clear battle space. The convoy went through, the explosion went off, they fired towards the explosion and Tung unfortunately died.
What’s the hardest aspect of fighting terrorism?
TL: It’s not just the word “terrorism” but it’s really the tactics that they’re employing. It’s guerilla tactics in the model of hit and run, hiding, and unconventional warfare. In order to win a war like that, you have to understand psychology. You have to understand what motivates these guys to do what they’re doing. You have to fight them in a way that’s unconventional. In my eyes, if you’re going into a country where you’re kicking down doors, killing, and destroying, you have to rebuild as well. You have to give people hope and you have to fight the future generation of terrorism through that hope. Let’s talk about the Philippines for a second. Those kids are born into terrorism because they’re born into poverty. Terrorist networks like Abu Sayyaf come in and recruit these kids while giving them food, a place to stay, and training while indoctrinating them into their ideology. You have to fix that problem.
There are certain countries you’ll never be able to fix but there are certain countries that are actually very fixable. How do you do that? You help them. You give them an outlet. You give them an education, the ability to have running water in those villages, the ability to grow crops. Through that hope and opportunity they will soon figure out that terrorism isn’t the only way. That’s the nature of the Green Beret mission. Yes, you have your kill/capture missions but hopefully we can change the mindset while we’re doing that. You have to teach the people how to defend themselves. That’s what we do as Green Berets in acting as force multipliers. We go in and we are able to teach them a skillset and how to defend themselves.
Now, when I say it’s not going to work in every country, you have to think about what happened in Iraq. We left Iraq and kept no military assets there and that country fell within six months. It didn’t matter how much we helped them. They need supervision and that’s how their culture is. If you have bad leadership or a lack of supervision in a country like Iraq, you’re going to get bad results very quickly. If that country has certain political agendas, that country is going to move towards that path. If that country is tied to some type of tribalism or religious core belief, they’re going to go that way in very facet of life.
What does Bushido mean to you?
TL: Bushido is a series of values and ethics that a warrior possesses. In ancient Japan when emperors were fighting for territories and empires the Samurais protected their lords. For 100 years they were at civil war. The gallantry and selfless service of the Samurai led them to take their own life if they dishonored their lord in any way. They were indoctrinated in warfare from a very young age just like the knights. You were born into that way of life and nobility. When you were born Samurai you had no other choice but to be Samurai. It was in your code of life. If you disgraced the status of being Samurai you lost everything. Your kids didn’t get the perks of the land, the perks, the royalties of being a Samurai. That’s why Samurais would take their own lives. They knew they’d lose everything after that level of disgrace fell upon their name.
The word Bushido came out of that period after the hundred-year civil war where the artists and writers were coming up with terms for the warrior code. That translates into the modern day codes and ethics of our Army. Honor, loyalty, and courage are the pillars of Bushido. That’s how that translates into the warrior code. Bushido is the path of the warrior. I could’ve walked off the battlefield and found my peace in retirement. But, as a warrior, and in the evolution of a warrior I have to grow as a human being. Growing as a human being and taking on the teachings of Budo, which is the way of a warrior, I find my essence of peace. Through war comes knowledge and Bushido is the way of that warrior. I take that life lesson and through the process of Bushido, I go on a journey as a Ronin (masterless warrior) and give back the essence of the teachings of my life. So as a warrior, I have evolved from just a warrior into a scholar, and from that into a master.
What does it mean within combat to have respect for the enemy?
TL: It’s 100% important to know and respect your enemy. In order to change an area, it’s vital that you know the way your enemy thinks. It’s important to ask yourself, “Why is this person a jihadist? Why does he want to kill Americans? What is the history behind that?” Only through that knowledge can you truly affect change. Otherwise, you’re just going into areas and kicking down doors and affecting that immediate area. That means absolutely nothing in terms of the overall war. Yeah, you might take down an insurgent or cell leader, but another one will step up in their place because of the ideology. You have to kill off the ideology at birth. Unfortunately, we’re not doing that and it’s very tough to do that. We’ve tried many times. It’s very hard to give a certain mindset to a group of people.
These people hate our sole existence. They hate us for everything we are and everything we represent. They’re willing to strap a bomb onto themselves and run towards us. How can you defeat an enemy like that? We have to kill the ideology off before that can develop in that person’s mind. These are things we’ve talked about throughout the years, and things I learned myself fighting in unconventional warfare for so long. But, at the end of the day, a lot of this is just theory based. I could say, “You know what Tim, I want you to do this. It’s for a higher purpose,” and you’re like, “Yeah, sure.” Then when I walk away you say to yourself, “Psh, that’s too hard. I’m not doing that.” The mindset’s not there with these people. How can you force a mindset onto a people group? It’s like a bunch of extreme Muslims coming into our culture and trying to push their ideology on us. Are we going to accept it as a freedom loving democracy? Nope. So, how do we win?
How do you win?
TL: This war has been going on since crusade times. We’re not going to win. This is just the way it is. We’ve tried direct action raids, "hearts and minds," dropping bombs. They’ll keep stepping up no matter how many we kill and that’s just the nature of it. We just have to be prepared to keep knocking them down. If you truly love freedom there will always be someone lining up to do the necessary job to protect that freedom. Think about when we took out Saddam. Zarqawi stepped up and things actually got worse. It’ll get worse in the future. All I can go off of is what I’ve seen overseas in all of my deployments. Why is Europe no longer a super power? Internal conflicts. They were fighting over taxes, over land, over each other’s territories. That’s why we left and created our own colonies. We had the promise of a new land and new freedoms.
We had the promise of opportunity and we eventually became Americans through that. Europe fell because they restricted the people, they had way too many internal conflicts, and eventually, that caused their fall from being a superpower. What happens when you have internal conflicts within a family? You fail to sustain growth. If you’re fighting internally how can you defend your country? What’s going on in America right now? The generations that are behind us are of the entitlement attitude. “What can you give me?” “What can my country do for me?” These are the questions that are now being asked versus, “I’m of a warrior class and I’m going to protect my country no matter what,” or “I’m a civilian and I’m proud of my country.”
How many kids are being raised to put their hand over their heart for the American flag and being explained the significance of that action? We don’t see that. We might see some but what are the masses doing? In Europe, you have over-population now and a lack of natural resources. That’s why when they came to America from Europe they saw all these natural resources and were amazed. As the population in America continues to grow what do you think will happen? Data is there that the sea levels are rising. Unpredictable weather patterns are created by this rising of the seas. Look at Katrina and what happened with that. Did people help each other out during that disaster? Mostly they raped, pillaged, and killed.
They shot at rescue helicopters coming in and policemen trying to help out. That safe haven they built for those people during Katrina was used as an arena for raping and killing. They were defecating on the floors like animals. That will be a snapshot as natural disasters increase in this country and our divide continues to grow larger. Along with climate change, unpredictable weather patterns, overpopulation, the tying of the hands of law enforcement, our military being depleted, what will we get? Trouble. Our ability to protect ourselves both abroad and domestic is becoming a major issue. We have this new issue with a generation of entitlement and that’s the future.
What about the mindset and spirituality impacted your ability to fight in battle?
TL: I was always pretty decent at picking things up quickly in combat because of my martial arts background. I was doing some of those foundational things since I was eight years old. In The Book of Five Rings, Myomoto said, “You must fight like you already died.” As a warrior, I’ve seen myself evolve. The first time I was in a firefight I was so scared that I ran straight into a tree. I was trying to peel out and break contact. There was thick vegetation, it was night, and I heard that AK-47 crack at me and I knew exactly what that was. My team sergeant said to break contact and we started peeling back and I was running and I hit a tree (laughs).
I woke up to my guys dragging me across the jungle floor. Later on, as I evolved as a warrior, I was the one who saw everything in the moment. There were times where I was really scared but the teachings of Miyamoto Musashi were with me. I fought like I’d already died. Obviously, I wanted all my guys to make it back but I fought fearlessly and calculated. I picked up The Book of Five Rings in 2013 and I read that passage about fighting like you’ve already died, and I realized it was exactly in line with my beliefs. That was back in the 1500’s and he was dying of cancer at the moment he wrote that. That book made me reflect back on my life and I realize that it further defines who I am in my path to enlightenment.
At what level were you picked to go into a Tier One Unit?
TL: I was fighting in Thailand in a Muay Thai match and I felt like I had so much to prove within the world of Special Operations. Imagine you’ve spent your entire day jumping from helicopters onto trains, learning vehicle interdiction, and then you decide you want to fight in a Muay Thai match. I told command that I wanted to go fight in a match and they said, “Absolutely not.” All those guys went out to Bangkok and I went to the match and fought (laughs). There was a 1st SFG(A) Command Sergeant Major and he was watching. I walked into the ring and he immediately knew I was one of the 1st group guys. He liked it because he knew I was a warrior.
He talked to one of my friends and told him he was interested in bringing me into the unit as a combatives instructor. He said, “Before Tu turns it down, tell him that he can fight anywhere around the world if he joins the Unit.” My buddy comes up to me after I get done changing and tells me that the Command Sergeant Major was there and I was like, “Oh my God. Where is he?” My buddy replies, “No, he already left but he wants you to apply for the Unit. They want to send an open invitation to be a combatives instructor. Before you turn it down just know that you can train anywhere you want under them.” I applied for it and got on with those guys, went through their hiring process, and I got hired. I did about eight months as a combatives instructor and realized I needed to be doing something more productive in the war than just teaching fighting, so I moved on to a specialized assignment within the Unit.
Was it tougher at that top level of Special Operations in those civilian clothes situations?
TL: I was a meathead (laughs) so they put me in D.C. at first to teach me how to be more Asian. I was too Westernized and they wanted me to not be as bulky and lower my posture. They taught me how to dress and act as someone else, because later on I had to pretend to be someone else. I’d do a true interview with major company’s CEOs and I tried to make them believe I was another person. They would ask me questions about how I was raised and what my life was like up until the present day. I had to really live that life and become it.
What are you trying to do now with Ronin in combating the downward spiral you currently see our country going into?
TL: I could complain about our country going in a direction that I don’t want it to go or I can actually do something about that. There are a lot of people complaining that aren’t doing anything about it. I decided to step up and try to make the world a better place through my past learning and experiences. I’m trying to be the change I want to see.
Is it difficult to teach law enforcement with different rules of engagement and different processes as compared to the military side?
TL: It’s definitely different teaching law enforcement. They have different concerns that I didn’t have when I was overseas. If they shoot someone they might lose their badge and lose their ability to serve as an officer. Now they carry cameras on their bodies. They’re being heavily scrutinized by the media who broadcasts all the worst and most controversial situations. Everyone blankets officers across the board because of the actions of a few officers. You know that not everyone serving in the military is a standup guy. Just because you’re serving doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to transform into a standup human being.
When I teach these people as a Green Beret, I know the background. I study law enforcement and I have a lot of friends in the law enforcement community that know how things are. I talk to them and understand their mindset before putting my own spin on the teachings. I’m teaching them how to apprehend, protect themselves, how to use impact weapons, and how to kill if necessary. These teachings transcend into a mindset of body, mind, and spirituality. This turns into personal development and growth. There is obviously the side of lethality I also teach.
How important is it to be prepared in every different facet of combatives?
TL: Being prepared is always the issue in coming into a combative situation. As a Green Beret I always came into situations with the highest form of knowledge because that’s how we trained. Bad shit happens. Just because you’re a commando doesn’t mean you’re going to live. You’re just better trained for those bad situations. Because of that better training, the government is going to put you up against harder targets.
What was the most memorable moment on a deployment for you?
TL: Believe it or not, my most memorable moment on a deployment wasn’t on a combat mission. The combat missions are cut and dry. We either went on the mission and killed the enemy or we captured them. It was our job to find, fix, and finish. My most memorable experience was in Laos. During the Vietnam War we dropped a lot of ordinance on Laos so a lot of kids were losing limbs playing around in the rice paddies and jungle. We had a humanitarian mission where we were conducting de-mining operations to teach the local villages how to de-mine. As a young Green Beret I was one of the first guys into Laos. I was talking to my ‘terp (interpreter) and this little girl came running up to me. I tried to give her candy and she didn’t want that. I had no idea what she was saying so I asked the ‘terp to tell me what she was saying. The ‘terp said, “She wants a pencil or a pen. Do you have that?” I gave her a pen.
She pulled my arm down and kissed me on the cheek. The ‘terp looked at me kind of strangely after that. He said to me at lunch, “Sir, do you realize what you’ve done?” I replied, “What?” He said, “You gave that little girl and education.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “They don’t have pens or pencils here. They write with stick or stones in the dirt.” So, I drafted a jungle antennae to where I could send a VHF signal back to Okinawa and I asked for more school supplies, lumber, and everything they needed to make more schools possible. We airdropped those supplies onto Laos. Along with de-mining missions we gave them an education. You want to affect a country? You change their circumstances as much as you can. You show them what it’s like to have a chance. I don’t know what would’ve happened if that little girl hadn’t received that pen. I do know that she could’ve resorted to the easy options and those would take her into slavery or terrorism. You do what you can to survive over there.
What was it like for you getting out of the Army and transitioning into civilian life? I was like a fish out of water.
TL: I spent close to 23 years in the Army and then it was all gone suddenly. It was a huge leap for me but it was necessary. I was falling apart in mind, spirit, and body. I wasn’t put together like you see me today. I was all over the place. It was hard for me to get out of bed. I was unmotivated. I was super depressed. I was facing depression constantly and it took me a good six months to get over that. I owe the majority of finding my way to getting off the medications. If I hurt my arm they doctors would give me Percocet. If I couldn’t sleep they’d hand me Ambien. If I couldn’t stay awake the response was, “Well, you’re a sniper. You’ve got to stay awake so you can make that shot. Here’s some Adderall.” Then, your body gets out of a regular, natural routine.
If I wanted to stay awake, I’d take a pill. If I wanted to fall asleep, I’d take a pill. If I wanted to feel a certain way, I could take a pill. If I wanted the pain to go away, I’d take a pill. You’re not human anymore. Your emotions are regulated by chemical entities. That had to stop. I was at the top of the top in my world. I was on the NFL Pro Bowl team of the Special Operations world. If something catastrophic happened I was one of the first to respond. When you’re working at that high of a level, you’re non-expendable so they give you whatever you need to perform at that level. When you’re done with the military, they’re done with you and you then have a choice to make. You can continue on, acting like your best years are behind you and let that push you into a place of depression. Or, you can get off the train and quit the cycle. I decided to do the latter. I became human again.
How did your spirituality help you through those moments?
TL: I’m Christian so I re-baptized myself to wash my hands symbolically and that blood on my hands. I re-dedicated myself to the Christian life and I promised my wife we’d make this journey together. I bring her with me everywhere I can. As I left the last evolution I looked back and said, “That last evolution was great but I won’t let it define my next evolution.” I’m taking my life teachings and I’m now giving back to the masses. That’s what I’m trying to do now.
Did you feel detached when you got out?
TL: I felt detached from civilian society and from the warrior class. For so long I served in my warrior class and I was a part of this niche group. I can’t relate to civilians because I served as a warrior for so long. My interests and skill sets were totally opposite of civilians, even to this day. I was lost when I got out. I was no longer in the military but I couldn’t identify with civilians. I don’t even talk to my ex-teammates much anymore. It’s not that we aren’t friends. I just don’t socialize that often with them because I don’t have much in common with them anymore. My life has evolved into something else and I don’t want to be that veteran that’s constantly thinking about the past. I never wanted to be that way. I left that other stuff on the battlefield.
Why did you decide to go into Special Operations?
TL: The Green Berets have a motto “De Opresso Liber,” or “To Free the Oppressed.” I was the oppressed growing up in Vietnam. I had my freedom ripped away from me. I had no hope. If I’d stayed in Vietnam I might be in prison, dead, or be just another communist, content with a terrible lifestyle. I was the people without hope. God has given me hope. My mom sacrificed everything she had so I could become an American. When I became an American I saw a higher calling. I had certain natural talents in my thinking and in combatives. I realized that I could take that mindset and I could use that mindset in other countries to help out.
What was your mindset in seeking out and destroying the enemy and how did you see yourself in that role?
TL: Obviously we perform well in the world of kill/capture as Green Berets. We perform well in the world of conflict. I never wanted to kill the enemy. The hardest thing I ever had to do was take a life because my job was to serve humanity. I told you at a very young age the Russians saved my life. Their ideology is what saved me from the same world that took me away. The hardest thing to do was to take a life when I respected life so much. I did what I had to do in times of war, and I was proficient with those skills in taking life.
What about training is therapeutic?
TL: My path as a Ronin and in the next evolution of my life is to take the last evolution of my life, all the hard lessons learned, the good times, the bad times, and give that back to what I perceive is the good in this world. So, I’m utilizing certain skill sets and using those to give back to law enforcement and military. During that process, I’m healing. When you’re in the military you have an objective or higher purpose. When you get out, you can easily become lost if you don’t have a purpose. This is my new direction or my new purpose in this portion of my life. I want to give back and make a difference in this world. By giving back, the small changes will one day become big changes. I always feel like one voice with a purpose will echo throughout the masses and change the way people think.
What was the most difficult thing for you in leaving on deployments?
TL: The toughest thing is leaving your family on deployments and going into harm’s way. I think the hardest thing is you’re always trying to make it back home and that’s not guaranteed to any of us over there. Training is no longer just a word. It’s knowledge and a skillset you utilize to thrive and survive on the battlefield. You’re asking me about the hardest thing going into battle and I’ll just tell you that it’s not knowing if you’re going to see your loved ones ever again.
What was the toughest part of coming home?
TL: Reintegration was the hardest part about coming home. After experiencing a lot overseas your mindset is different. You don’t trust people as much as you used to. You’re going to be a changed individual after war and losing friends in battle. After those experiences you’ll never be the same. You’ll be a different person after that experience of war and that’s just the nature of combat. Coming back and trying to fit in in this domesticated world is difficult to do after you’ve seen the things we’ve seen.
What do you see as the main issues in our culture in the United States and what would you do to fix those issues?
TL: The biggest issue in our culture is patriotism. When I was young we put our hand over our heart as we raised the American flag, as one nation under God. We recited the National Anthem and we were proud to be Americans. Nowadays most schools don’t even pay tribute to the American flag or our God. You’re starting to see more of the entitlement attitude in today’s society, versus worrying about what you can do to protect this country and protect the things you love. A lot of people in our country now are completely disconnected from what’s going on overseas, nor do they even care to defend their own lifestyle. That’s the difference in our society nowadays as compared to back when I was young.
What about the brotherhood of Special Operations is so unique?
TL: The hard times built character within the teams. There was a real sense of purpose with a real common goal. We worked together. Some guys are strong at some things and some guys are strong at other things, but as we worked together as a team we worked perfectly. We all learned to shoot, move and communicate effectively; but when you do it as a team, you become invincible. You become this amazing, incredibly well oiled machine. That’s what I noticed on the teams. We were always able to put aside our differences and background to achieve a common goal.
If you could tell a civilian one thing to change how you are perceived as a soldier what would that be?
TL: I think a lot of civilians think we join the military because we don’t have anything else or we don’t want to go to college. I had academic scholarships and I turned them down to join the military. The military will give you a higher education and it gives you principles as a human being. They give you ethics and morals. When you leave the military you should be a much better person than when you joined. The amount of knowledge you gain while serving far supersedes a Master’s or Doctorate. The military teaches you about life and allows you to make the greatest possible difference in our world. You not only get to make a difference in your own life, but you get to create effective change in the lives of others. It’s a higher purpose and higher calling. We don’t join because we don’t have anything else to do. Most of us join because we have great direction in our lives and we are driven individuals who seek to create change in our world.
How do we build a bridge between civilians and veterans?
TL: I would say that knowledge is key. I think what you’re doing now with The Veterans Project is going to help bridge that gap. Because of social media the world has become a much smaller place. I’m able to communicate with people in Asia or Europe on a daily basis. That’s a major help and aid to knowledge. You take this new form of communication with social media and you use it to educate the masses. You educate them on all that we’ve faced, our good times, our bad times, the struggles we’ve faced, and the sacrifices veterans and their families have made for the welfare of the civilian world. Civilians should respect the warrior class because their freedom is hanging on a thread. It’s being saved daily by our warriors fighting overseas. The military itself needs to be more open about the sacrifices that our warriors have made. Not that we need to open the book on our secret operations, but people need to be educated on the struggles in that veteran space. We also need to talk about the good times, educational benefits, and the work ethic that the military imposes upon soldiers.
What did you learn rising up the ranks as a Green Beret?
TL: Lead by example. A lot of guys talk about a higher level of physical fitness and a higher level of education. You have to present that every single day as a Green Beret. It doesn’t matter what you did in the past. It matters what you did today and what you’re going to do for the teams in the future. You put the teams ahead of yourself. As a leader, you always put the team first. That’s your family. The biggest thing is to lead by example, be a positive role model, and when times are hard, you have to be the strong one. When others are weak, you pick up for the weak ones.
What has your wife meant to you throughout the process of your career and now with Ronin Tactics?
TL: It’s never easy when you deploy roughly ten months out of the year, where you’re going places where you can’t even communicate because you’re working under different statuses and different covert mission sets. Secondly, what’s hard is that my wife was a very young girl when I met her. She had to grow and put herself through college and find a job without me. Being married, you’re supposed to grow throughout life together but she put all that on pause to allow me to serve that higher purpose. She understood that this is who I am and this is what I’m bred to do. When I started Ronin Tactics she supported me every step of the way. She knew that this was my next evolution and that this is what I needed to do in order to heal, in order to be the person I want to be. The great thing about everything is that when we were married during times of war we didn’t get to spend much time together. We didn’t even really know each other that well but now we get to do all these things together. She’s my business partner and she helps me through life. I can’t do this by myself and thank God I have her supporting me.
Why do you think suicide is such an issue within the community and what do we do to change that?
TL: This generation of Special Operations soldier is experiencing some of the hardest parts of combat we’ve ever experienced. It’s been the longest conflict by far in American history. Some of my friends have been going over there for over 15 years now. I don’t care how strong willed you are. The family will eventually crumble, and the soldier will eventually crumble as well. You have to understand that the war will eventually catch up to you no matter how strong you think you are. When the war does catch up with you, you have to go out and seek help. You need to find a support system and you need to educate yourself so you can deeply understand what’s going on with self. Medicating yourself is not the answer. It just masks everything and takes away your humanity. A lot of people abuse prescription drugs when they get back. I’m not going to blame that on veterans because that’s the way medical practice is, especially in the military. They jam that down our throats and of course we trust our doctors and medics. When you move on to the next evolution of your life you’re not putting on a 150 lb ruck, you’re not free falling out of an airplane, you’re not swimming into a port. Your life doesn’t need to be that physical anymore. It depends on what you do in the next evolution but you don’t have to have that anymore. You don’t need to rely on those pain killers, sleep aids, anti-depressants anymore. You need to find a different answer. You need to find a higher purpose, share your stories, and educate yourself. Don’t just consume yourself with the combat side of tactics and techniques when you get out. Educate yourself in poetry and art and balance yourself out. That’ll make you a better human being. There needs to be serenity in your life.
What about your legacy is important to you?
TL: I want people to remember me as a warrior that met our enemy on the battlefield with my brothers and I fought as hard as I could and as long as I could. At the end of that war, I tried to take everything I learned, all those life teachings from my youth to adulthood, and tried to make this world a better place. If something was to happen to me, I would want the people that I’ve touched in my life to seek to constantly be better human beings every single day. I want them to remember the path that I walked and use that as motivation for their own lives. If I could do it, anyone can do it.
What did the battlefield teach you about the fragility of life?
TL: Your life can be taken at any moment. Value your friendships; value your loved ones, because at any moment they can be taken from you. I had dinner with some of my friends and we were laughing and joking around. We went out on target and that friend wasn’t at dinner the next night. He didn’t make it back. That’s the nature of life. I’ve been there and I’ve experienced losses. Value your friends and value your loved ones. Be the person that you’ve always wanted to be. If you’ve made mistakes in life, it’s not a life sentence. You made a mistake, learn from that mistake, and prove yourself.
Where do you see Ronin Tactics moving into the future?
TL: We are being requested more and more by law enforcement in major cities. Major cities are starting to ask us to come out. Major agencies want to bring us in to teach their employees. The equipment development side of the house has started to take off. I’m developing a lot of weapons and equipment now. I’ve been requested overseas in Germany and Asia to teach blade tactics. So, I’ll go over there and teach them tactics at a certain level in order to help them protect themselves. Of course these tactics I’m teaching won’t be of the classified type but more of the hand-to-hand and blade tactics. My goal is to make them better people through my teachings and training.
The journey this project takes me on continues to surprise me. Each story defines itself through the life of the veteran and their individual makeup. I had someone ask me once about the process of covering men like Tu Lam. I'll be honest. I'm a born talker. I love to talk. The beautiful thing about this project is it's taught me to listen and yearn for a greater understanding of those around me. I find myself curious about more people's lives, and not just those of veterans. The project, as a whole, has made me more caring and compassionate in my day-to-day.
But then again, how would you not want to listen to a man who's done 22 years on the Special Operations side? Men like this have seen humanity at both its best and worst. There are many lessons to be learned from warriors like Tu Lam. He's an intimidating figure until you really get to know him and his heart. It's something to know someone could dispatch you in a very short amount of time, and it's a completely different thing to see some of the skills that he could dispatch you with. Lam's speed and reflexes seemed to be other-worldly and his cerebral process was absolutely incredible to watch. All I can say is, that I'm glad he's on my side. Men like Lam bring out the best in everyone around them.
I thought back to that moment standing on the cliff side and I remember peeking over the edge. I thought back to times on this same cliffside before I'd served my country. I didn't know where life was taking me at the time, probably similar to most American males at that age. I was a confused teen coming from a lower middle class home. I thought back to Tu and his clear direction of destiny. At 8 years old he would've stared over this same edge knowing full well he was going to serve this country at the highest capacity possible. I wasn't jealous of his childhood because I know he faced horrific conditions at a very early age. But, I was envious of that warrior stance. Intrepidity is truly a gift, one that Tu possessed in his past life, now this life, and going forward forevermore. Check out Ronin Tactics on Facebook, @ronintactics on Instagram, and their website www.ronintactics.com.