A former refugee who enlisted in the Army as a way to give back was recently lauded for her proficiency in engineering.
Born in South Vietnam, Col. Danielle Ngo’s family came to the U.S. in 1975 after being evacuated from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. They settled in Massachusetts, then later became naturalized citizens. She said she doesn’t remember much from that time in her life because she was 3 years old, but she does have a vivid memory of her grandfather folding a U.S. dollar bill and putting it in her pocket.
Ngo says she always knew she would join the Army because her mother taught her that “the service that saved us.”
“She [her mother] didn’t talk very much about our life in Vietnam, even when I was growing up — she didn’t like to discuss much about it, but I did know about the Army and that the Army pulled us from the war. So, in my mind, it was giving back to the service that saved us. The military saved me and my family, how can I give back?” she said.
In 1989, Ngo enlisted and then joined ROTC at Boston University. By 1994 she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the field of engineering and later graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Science in Finance.
She says she listed engineering as one of her top three job choices because she “thought it was the toughest branch in the Army that a female can be in.” It was rare at that time to find female minorities in that field, a fact that led to her often being the first or only — as was the case in her combat airborne unit.
There were external barriers to adapting, she says, like the physical demands of the job. But it was the self-imposed challenges that she had to work hard to overcome.
“My internal challenges were just my insecurity that people would think that I couldn’t keep up or that I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to set a great example for other females and I didn’t want to fail at anything, and so I put a lot of internal pressure on myself to be the best I could be and keep up with everybody in the unit,” Ngo said.
She added that her set of experiences also taught her that “you can succeed in the Corps of Engineers without being a degreed engineer.”
“It set the stage for the rest of my experiences in the military and probably is one of the reasons I’ve stayed in so long,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed the camaraderie, the sense of purpose that engineers have. As an engineer, you can do so many different skillsets as an officer because you have to know a little bit about everything.”
The mother of three children currently works as the executive officer for the U.S. Army Inspector General at the Pentagon. She was recently named the 2020-2021 Asian American Engineer of the Year, an award she described as being “really honored” to receive, especially so late in her career.
She credits her mother and her culture for placing such a high priority on education early in her life and the Army for affording her the opportunity to attain three master’s degrees.
Ngo also mentors young Asian Americans through outreach and STEM programs. She is adamant about exposing others to the possibilities that can exist in their life.
“Look at me, you can do the same things that I’ve done. You can achieve the same things that I’ve achieved. I’m not any more special than you are, and so, if you look to me and see that I can do these things, you can do these things too.”Read comments