Broken: A Former Refugee Works With Others Whose Minds Are Still At War

Michael Hoa Viola-Vu


Michael Hoa was born in Saigon in 1957, three years after his parents and older sister moved south from Northern Vietnam. His father had served in the French forces as a trooper during the French war in Indochina. After moving to Saigon, his father became the head of the South Vietnamese National Police Force until he was assassinated during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The death of his father served as a turning point in his life. Concerned that the Viet Cong would attempt to murder young Michael, now the male head of the household, his mother moved him to an orphanage run by Dominican nuns. His name was changed, and new identification was issued to him, indicating that he was younger than he actually was in an attempt to protect him. In 1972, he entered the Youth Military Academy, first in Pleiku and then in Vung Tau. During the period when he was in the orphanage and in the Youth Military Academy, he became distant from his mother and sisters (who he never saw again) and he felt psychologically lost. Once the United States left the Republic of Vietnam, he felt the country lose strength by the hour. Near the end, the Cadets participated in the defense of South Vietnam, continuing their resistance after the fall of Saigon. From Vung Tau, he was evacuated by boat to the U.S. 7th Fleet, and proceeded through the Philippines to Hawaii. There, as an unaccompanied minor, he was adopted by U.S. Navy Captain Francis Vincent Viola III and his wife Doris. He lived with his new family in Hawaii for three years, moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan, when his father retired from the Navy. In high school, he was a gymnast, a kicker on the football team, and founder of an “International Club” for his fellow high school students. He developed a passion for social work, and in 1980 volunteered to work with Vietnamese Boat People while attending Western Michigan University, where he earned a degree in sociology. He also worked with Vietnam Veterans in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. He then earned a Master’s Degree in psychology, and focused on working with unaccompanied minors, specifically the Amerasian children who were beginning to arrive in America. He eventually earned his PhD in psychology and served as the Dean at Davenport University. He came to Houston in 2005 as a crisis counselor for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and remained in the area working as a reporter for the Vietnamese TV station. In this interview, he talks about his childhood, including the happy years before the Tet Offensive (1968) and the dark period following his father’s assassination. He describes living with his new American family, recalling his mother showing him the refrigerator and telling him that “this is yours,” reinforcing that he did not have to hide food in his pillowcase for later. He discusses forming the “International Club” in high school and difficulties between the Iraqi and Iranian students whose nations were at war. He recalls telling them about his own wartime experiences to defuse the situation. He highlights his work with refugees, and explains the phased periodization of Vietnamese migration to the United States. Finally, he reflects on his life’s journey.


conflicts Vietnam War
topics Civilians Morale Injuries Leadership Refugee Vietnamese
interviewer David Siry
date 01 February 2020


name Michael Hoa Viola-Vu
institution Youth Military Academy
specialty Sociology / Psychology / Crisis Counseling / work with Refugees and Immigrants
service dates 1972 1975