Christopher Phan was just a year old when his father escaped from their war-torn homeland of Vietnam in 1975. U.S. troops were pulling out; the country was collapsing, and Phan’s father, a lawyer who worked closely with the South Vietnamese government, felt it wasn’t safe for him there any longer.
He escaped with a group of South Vietnamese police and an American ship picked them up at sea. Because that kind of journey was so treacherous, Phan’s father left his family behind until he could get settled in the United States with the intention of sending for them later.
“Later” turned into seven long years.
“As a child, I was too young to realize the danger around us in South Vietnam,” Phan says. “Everything was taken from us, and the authorities would harass and interrogate my mother and grandmother because of my father’s previous role and his escape.”
“We were fortunate though, because my grandmother had the foresight during the war to hide many of our valuables in a field,” he adds. “I remember going out with her at night with lanterns to dig them up in the cover of darkness. We would then sell whatever items we needed to survive.”
When Phan finally arrived in the U.S., his family settled in Indiana. An American family had previously sponsored and welcomed his father there. While Plan was happy to be in this land of new opportunity and freedom, he still felt unsettled and uncomfortable. There was some animosity toward the Vietnamese after the war, and enrolling in school as a fourth grader where he was the only Asian in a sea of “white faces” was a bit daunting.
“I was basically a team of one; it was pretty intimidating,” Phan remembers.
But, he found kindness and guidance along the way. His fourth grade teacher took him under her wing and taught him English. He began to assimilate with his adopted country and earned his U.S. citizenship in 1987.
Once a proud American, Phan vowed to someday give back to the country that gave so much to his entire family. He followed in his father’s footsteps, and earned his law degree from Indiana University. At that point, he decided to enlist in the Navy.
“I wanted to join the military, using my law degree,” Phan says. “I felt a strong commitment to serve America for the wonderful life I was living here.”
Phan joined the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps and spent eight years on active duty at naval bases across the globe. During his JAG career, Phan wore several legal hats.
Phan vividly remembers his first naval assignment in New Jersey. “I was stationed at the U.S. Naval Weapons Station Earle on 9/11,” he says. “The base was right across the water from Manhattan and I saw the planes hit the twin towers. Since we were the closest ship to the area, we were called in to help, but it was utter chaos,” Phan remembers. “I’ve never been in a nuclear zone, but if I had to say what that day was like, that would be it. There was a gray haze of smoke and debris everywhere. It was surreal.”
Phan deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, with Navy SEALs Special Forces in 2010, where he was responsible for advising them on all rules of engagement and conflicts relating to insurgents.
“As a JAG, you always dread when they come knocking at your door at three or four in the morning, because if the SEALs’ missions went seriously wrong, they would need to call one of us,” Phan says.
He remembers an incident when the SEALs were ambushed during a mission and they lost a man, with several others wounded. Phan was called in to advise on legal ramifications afterward that involved civilians caught in the crossfire.
Phan came off of active duty and moved to Garden Grove, California, where he opened his own law firm. After a year, he was recalled to service and moved to Virginia to work with the Wounded Warrior Project. It was there that Phan began teaching criminal justice and business classes at the University of Phoenix Virginia Beach campus.
“I love teaching at University of Phoenix,” Phan says. “I really like the fact that the students are there because they want to be; they are very locked on to their mission of learning. They don’t take it for granted.”
“Many of my students are veterans, and I think my family and military background, as well as my real-life experiences as a lawyer, illustrate the fact that they, too, can achieve any goal they strive for,” he adds.
When Phan returned to California, he began teaching at University of Phoenix’s Southern California campus, but found himself out of a full-time job since he had closed his law firm before leaving for Virginia.
Last year, Phan saw the perfect opportunity to give back to his Garden Grove community. The city council had an opening and Phan jumped at the chance to run for office and represent his neighbors, a third of whom are of Vietnamese descent.
“I walked to every single house in the community during my campaign,” Phan says. “I still have the pair of shoes I wore to remind me of the hard work involved; they now have holes worn through the soles.”
Phan’s hard work—and miles of walking—paid off as he won the city council seat this past November. In January, he also started a new chapter in his legal career as a deputy district attorney with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
While he couldn’t have predicted his life’s path, it’s exactly what Phan set out to do more than 30 years ago when he arrived from Vietnam—give back to America.
“I’ve always looked at life as being an opportunity,” Phan says. “I never wanted to look back on this gift of life in the United States and regret anything.”