“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” – Thomas Paine –
If Thomas Paine were alive today, he would undoubtedly give this young woman a nice pat on the back for what she has said and done. This young woman is Anh Duong, an American of Vietnamese descent who came to America in 1975 as a refugee at the age of 15. After graduating from Montgomery Blair High School with honors, she earned a degree, also with honors, in chemical engineering at the University of Maryland in 1982. Anh Duong took a job at the U.S. Naval base in Indian Head, MD where she subsequently became the program manager for explosives at the Naval Surface Warfare Center. She is an internationally recognized expert and the focal point for virtually all explosives research in the US Navy. She has helped develop nearly a dozen high-performance compounds that are packed into Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps warheads.
Being an American of Vietnamese descent myself, I feel so proud and honored to be her countryman. I am so pleased to know she is a strong and patriotic American in spite of domestic and international criticism. I am extremely proud of her extraordinary scientific achievements but I respect her more for being a person with high moral standard and a grateful citizen to her adopted country.
Vietnamese American Makes Tools for War on TerrorEditor’s Note: A former Vietnamese boat person is now a top explosives scientist for the military and the developer of the controversial “thermobaric” bomb.
She’s afraid of blood. Otherwise she would have been a doctor. But she almost passed out in high school zoology when forced to dissect, she says, “some small animal.” To preserve her perfect GPA, she dropped the course.
She was good in math and chemistry, and got a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland and another degree in computer science just for kicks. After that she asked herself: “What should I be doing with my life?” The answer was unexpected: Nguyet Anh Duong, now mother of four and a former Vietnamese boat person, became arguably the best bomb maker in the world.
When the Vietnam War ended and communist tanks rolled into Saigon, Duong, then 15, and her family escaped to sea on a crowded boat. Amid the churning waves, they had to jump from their small boat onto a ship that would take them to a refugee camp in the Philippines. Duong replays the moment in her mind — a misstep meant being crushed between the two vessels. “It’s a miracle that I’m here at all,” she says.
She’s here, and thriving. Duong now supervises one of the world’s best teams of explosives scientists, more than half of whom are women, at the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head, Md. Thirteen of 15 explosive weapons commonly used by the U.S. military are developed at Indian Head.
The bomb that Duong is most proud of is BLU118/B, termed the “thermobaric” bomb by the Pentagon. It was specifically built to destroy Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda hideouts in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Her team had two months to make it. About a hundred scientists and engineers were involved.
It’s a terrifying device. The thermobaric bomb crushes caves with a super-hot blast that can destroy internal organs as far as a quarter-mile away. Its explosion is designed to tunnel through convoluted caves and pulverize anyone hiding as deep as 1,100 feet inside, and then incinerate whatever remains.
Human rights activists have called the bomb “thermo-barbaric.” Greenpeace called for its ban, likening it to nuclear weapons without the radiation. One Russian scientist said the bombs cause small earthquakes, a claim U.S. geologists dismissed as ridiculous.
Duong is undeterred by the criticism. “We’ve gotten more sophisticated compared to the old days of dumb weapons,” she says. “Now you can deliver it exactly where you want it to go. Our strong wish is to avoid as much collateral damage as possible.”
But all bombs are designed to kill. How does Duong reconcile her job with the consequences of her creation?
“I’m not on the operation side,” she says quickly, not missing a beat. “We don’t deal with human fatality. That’s another field.”
She pauses. “Look, the way I see it is simple. There are a lot of bad guys in the world. The best defense is offense. If you’re not strong you’re going to die.”
Perhaps it’s a lesson from her past. Duong grew up in South Vietnam, a country that, near the end of the Vietnam War, was abandoned by the United States, while Soviet fighter jets and Chinese-made weapons continued to flow unimpeded to the communist North. After holding on for two years, the government in Saigon surrendered on April 30, 1975, and over 2 million Vietnamese subsequently fled overseas.
“If you are weak you will lose, it’s a simple fact,” Duong says.
Duong says she wishes that the United States never had to go to war. “But if war is inevitable,” she says, “if we’re going to send troops, we want to make sure that a lot of them will come back. And we better equip them with the best weapons.”
A strong patriotism informs Duong’s work. Making explosives “is something to give back to the country that gave me so much. My family and I, we feel strongly that we were given a second chance coming to the United States.”
A recent multilingual poll by the New California Media, a consortium of ethnic and in-language press, found that up to 85 percent of Vietnamese Americans backed the U.S. war in Iraq.
Asked what she would have done had she not gone into the sciences, Duong says, “I always wanted to be a writer. Every now and then, when the seasons change, I look out my office window and have to resist the impulse to grab pen and paper to write some poetry.”
But for now, Duong is working on other weapons projects. For security reasons she can’t discuss them in detail, but she does mention one, a sort of “dial-a-yield” bomb. “It’s the next stage of guided weapons. Say there are terrorists taking over a hospital and they are on the fourth floor, and there are patients of the 15th floor. Ideally, the explosive device would be regulated to explode in a way that would destroy that floor, and not the entire building.”
Courtesy: Andrew Lam at Pacific News Service (PNS).
Andrew Lam is an editor with Pacific News Service. His new book, "Perfume Dreams:
Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" will be published in October 2005.