By Lt. Cmdr. Heather Seibold, Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center
At just seven years old, Josephine (Josie) Huynh-Breiland and her family fled from their home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in search of freedom and a better life.
Now, 43 years later, Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Huynh-Breiland is on orders to Expeditionary Combat Readiness Command in Norfolk, Virginia. She brings her medical expertise, and resiliency forged as a child, to assist deploying Sailors. Huynh-Breiland leverages experience gained over an almost 20-year career — one built on a foundation of courage, strength and perseverance.
In 1978, while traveling amongst the second group of “boat people” — a name used to refer to refugees escaping communist rule in the aftermath of the Vietnam war — Huynh-Breiland, the seventh of eight children, journeyed from the Philippines to the South of France. Over the next decade, she remained a refugee as her family endured the difficulties of separation and uncertainty while working toward their ultimate goal: reaching the United States.
“The U.S. had closed the doors on refugees, and France was the only country that would take us in,” she said. “My parents and my 5 siblings stayed together, but my older sisters and brother got separated. My sisters made it to the U.S. and my brother landed in Australia. Finally, in 1987 the U.S. agreed to let my father come here first. After waiting for three years, my father was able to sponsor the entire family. We all made it to the U.S. on April 29, 1988, and my brother made a life of his own in Australia.”
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea during the Indochina refugee crisis — a fact that is not lost on Huynh-Breiland.
“I learned early in life that your resilience and ability to adapt, or lack thereof, will either break you, or make your life richer,” she said.
Having achieved naturalization as a U.S. citizen, Huynh-Breiland said she felt a calling to do more. That calling came in the form of a United States Navy recruiting postcard. However, given her first hand insight into what war can do to a culture, and specifically to her family — the military was not a decision her parents readily approved of.
After long talks with both Navy recruiters and her family, Huynh-Breiland accepted the challenge with eyes wide open. She took the oath of enlistment and never looked back.
“I was super proud to get my U.S. citizenship,” she said. “I just wanted to serve in the U.S. Navy. I knew it was a big commitment.”
Over two decades, Huynh-Breiland has been able to make a difference in many mission critical roles. She provided medical and dental care to Thai families and visited an HIV/AIDS orphanage as part of Cobra Gold 2005; earned her surgical technician Navy Enlisted Classification; served aboard USS Mesa Verde and USS Ponce; and supported the Naval Expeditionary Medical Unit at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Her experience as a Navy Sailor in Europe, a place where she spent many years of her youth as a refugee, gave her a moment’s pause.
“Germany was my favorite deployment,” she said, “I got a chance to visit the U.S. Embassy in Paris while I was mobilized, but it was bittersweet, since during my time as a refugee, I could not even travel outside of France.”
Huynh-Breiland said while traveling the uncertain and dangerous path to a better life by boat and throughout her days as a refugee, she often found herself reflecting on her parents’ teachings.
“They always told me to stay strong, and continue to have faith,” she said. “I’m now privileged to travel the world with a passport.”
Now in the Reserve, assigned to Expeditionary Medical Facility Camp Pendleton, California, Huynh-Breiland said she is proud to be able to share her rich cultural heritage and her story of building a new future for her family through the Navy.
“There is no place better than the United States, to call home,” she said.