Immigrant gives back by training deputies

John Nguyen's nickname has little to do with his physical stature.

Short and slightly built, he has more in common with Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan than the movie star with a similar name, John Wayne.

But the name sticks, in part because of his larger-than-life story.

It starts in Nguyen's native Vietnam, where he grew up learning martial arts from his uncle and grandfathers. Today, he uses that knowledge to teach law enforcement how to ward off and disarm attackers.

Nguyen views his position less as a job and more as an opportunity to give back to the country that offered him a new chance at life more than 20 years ago.

"I want to do something for this government to show my appreciation," said Nguyen, 64.

Nguyen's first visit to the United States was in 1969, when he was brought over for officer training school at Fort Benning, Ga. He returned home as a liaison officer with the U.S. troops battling the North Vietnamese forces.

When South Vietnam fell to Communist forces, Nguyen and his family were sent to a "re-education camp" by the enemy. In the last two years of their five-year imprisonment, Nguyen and some fellow officers covertly built a boat so they could escape. It was a risky endeavor.

"If I had been caught my life was ended," Nguyen said.

On May 12, 1980, Nguyen, his wife, son and about four other men shoved off under cover of darkness into the Mekong Delta in a boat 8 feet wide and 42 feet long. They narrowly escaped fire from a warship, then pointed their boat in the direction they hoped was the Pacific Ocean.

They made it to the ocean after a day's rough journey, and they drifted for another eight days in rough seas until they were rescued by a ship operated by the United Nations. They were taken to an island off the coast of Malaysia, where there were roughly 12,000 other refugees.

Nguyen was given a position with security of the camp while U.S. officials prepared their immigration documents. After six months, they were given clearance and their plane tickets. It was a tough decision to leave home, but it was a better option than returning to the uncertainty and poverty of Vietnam.

"I know I could survive in the United States," Nguyen said.

NGUYEN CHOSE Georgia because of his previous stint at Fort Benning and because of the familiar climate. Several families at First Baptist Church of Augusta helped the Nguyens find a place to live, a car and a job.

Despite his Vietnamese education, Nguyen had to obtain a GED before he could start at Augusta Technical College. He was soon hired as a mechanic for Richmond County.

Between classes and working, Nguyen had little time for the martial arts of his youth. But he finally relented to a friend's request for instruction and began teaching classes in 1986.

For Nguyen, martial arts is not the flash and theatrics seen in the movies, but a way of life.

It's about making good, moral choices, taking care of the body with diet and exercise and mediating to keep the mind the focused.

More than 40 years of martial arts training couldn't prepare him for the challenge of teaching self-defense to law enforcement. After first becoming a certified peace officer, Nguyen next spent hours learning the narrow parameters and appropriate responses deputies could use to defend themselves and others.

One of the methods he teaches is squeezing vulnerable nerve endings in the body, called pressure points. Pressure points allow deputies to bring suspects under control without using excessive force or injury.

It's tough for law enforcement because they have guidelines to follow, even though a bad guy can shoot at them anytime he pleases, Nguyen said.

While his life has had its ups and downs, Nguyen adheres to the Vietnamese philosophy of leaving bad memories in the past. He compares life to a moving river.

"Everything in the past is the past," he said. "We have to deal with the present and the future. Just let the water flow."