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He fights for family, for freedom, for America

Iraqi soldiers eat in the same mess hall with the American soldiers, so sometimes, the Iraqis will stare at the one GI who sticks out.

He wears the same uniform as everybody else, did the same training as the rest. He is a specialist, an enlisted man who runs bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

His mother in Rock Hill worries the same as any mother. She watches the TV news and sees death and Iraq, and her heart sinks.

"I cry, sometimes," the mother said.

His father is proud the same as any father.

"One year in the military for me," the father said.

They send care packages to their son, where the difference between this soldier and others shows. Inside the boxes are rice noodles.

More, this soldier is tiny by soldier standards: 5 feet 6 inches tall, 115 pounds. He wears glasses.

But that is not why the Iraqis stare. They stare because this fighting man is Vietnamese. Vietnamese-American, really, born in the United States.

But an Asian face.

The name tag on his breast says Pham. He is Hoang Pham, 22 years old, a soldier like hundreds of thousands from this country and so many from this area. Why he drives a bulldozer in Iraq could be the story of any white or black enlistee from York County. He graduated from Rock Hill High School in 2002, an honor student, then started at York Technical College.

He also worked for an aunt in her restaurant, the way so many Vietnamese immigrants do. Family is always the priority. Help isn't a choice. Take care of each other. Work, work.

Pham looked at his future and saw dollar signs.

"I wanted money for college, so I joined the Army Reserve up at the Galleria," Pham said of the recruiting center at the Rock Hill mall.

Pham did not tell his parents he was going to enlist. He came home and dropped that bomb.

His mother, Hoa, was not happy.

His father, Ham, who like all South Vietnamese during the 1970s had to serve in the Army, knew his son must find his own way in life. Plus, Pham's uncle was a soldier in Vietnam.

Yet that is where the story is unlike most, if not all, soldier stories.

Pham's parents fled Vietnam after the fall of the south to get away from what wars do to countries and to people.

Then, their son joined here, at a time when there is little doubt he would go fight in a war in a foreign country where people would die every day.

Pham's parents already had two tiny children in 1983 who they got out on a rickety boat under cover of darkness. Get caught, go to jail. They succeeded, spending a year in Indonesia before coming to Rock Hill, where extended family were settled. They had two more children born here, Hoang Pham the baby.

All are U.S. citizens now, the oldest by naturalization. Pham and his sister were born here. Both parents worked in factories for 20-plus years, saving and saving. Two of the four children, girls, graduated from the University of South Carolina.

Pham was assigned to the Army Reserve unit in York. But like so many in the National Guard and reserves, he was sent to another unit based in Georgia because of his skills and told to get ready to go to Iraq.

Last year, his parents bought a convenience store at the corner of Willowbrook and Confederate avenues. The oldest son, Huy, helps his parents at the store. Seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., one or two or three in the family works the register, stocks the place, cleans.

"We look at work as helping out the family, doing what we can for the good of all of us," said Huy, the older brother.

Pham was sent to Iraq in September. There was no talk about politics or what his family had to endure to get to this point.

He just went.

"I signed up," Pham said. "I knew there was the chance I could go."

The military is filled with immigrants, and sons of immigrants. They willingly fight our wars, whether they agree with these wars or not, alongside those sons whose families have been in this country 300-plus years.

Some of those immigrants, the black ones, were brought to America in chains. Their descendants fight for America. Some immigrants snuck in, like so many Hispanics or Asians, risking death or jail. Many spent years becoming Americans, legally. Some came illegally, no question about it.

Still, all of their sons wear the patches of the U.S. military.

"The bad guys shoot at the uniform, not the person in it," Pham said.

Pham came home several days ago on a short leave. Last Sunday, the store was closed for a few hours, the first time ever, so family could have a barbecue. Vietnamese food and American food. Relatives thanked him for his patriotism and urged him to be safe.

I asked Pham if he felt he is American or Vietnamese, and he said, "Both."

While on leave, Pham did something else, too. He worked in his parents' store. Because that is what sons in Vietnamese families do. In Iraq, Pham carries an M-4 weapon. In Rock Hill, he makes change for cold drinks and thanks people for their business.

Pham leaves for Iraq in a couple of days. He does not know when he will come home.

Like almost every mother, if not all of them, Hoa will pray.

She will pray, in Vietnamese, for her son to come home to her in Rock Hill, in South Carolina, in America.

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