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Vietnamese Refugee Uses Pasta, Perseverance to Earn Navy Wings

June 19, 1987

WHITING FIELD, Fla. (AP) _ A Vietnamese refugee who originally was rejected by the Navy as a security risk and later embarked on a pasta-rich diet to measure up to the size requirements, earned his wings of gold as a naval aviator Friday.

His mother pinned Ensign Hung Dinh Vu’s wings on his white uniform and his father, once a Vietnamese military man who later worked at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, applied the traditional chest slap at ceremonies in the chapel on this Florida Panhandle base.

At the nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station, Vu’s thigh length, measured from buttocks to knee, was deemed three-tenths of an inch too short to qualify for pilot training.

Vu, who stands at 5-foot-5, began a pasta-rich diet and a special exercise program to build up his posterior to reach the 21.9-inch minimum upper leg measurement needed to ensure that he could reach an aircraft’s rudder pedals and fit properly in an ejection seat.

″I was packing in the carbohydrates,″ Vu joked before the winging ceremony, ″to add more upholstery back there and put the problems behind me.″

It worked. Vu was transferred from aviation maintenance officer school to basic flight training here, about 30 miles northeast of Pensacola. But his leg length was neither the first nor last of his problems.

Vu, 26, is a naturalized citizen and the fifth of nine children born to Minh Trang Do and her husband, Du Dinh Vu, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Four years ago the Navy rejected Vu as a security risk because two of his brothers had remained in Vietnam after the rest of the family escaped in 1975.

He continued his studies at Elmhurst College in Illinois, receiving a degree in computer science. In the meantime, the two brothers managed to escape Vietnam and Vu was accepted at the Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola.

Although he licked the size problem, his flying career again was put on hold for three months when doctors found a weakness in one of his eyes. He obtained a waiver and finally began primary flight training.

After Vu’s third training flight, his instructor, Marine Capt. Sherwood E. ″Woody″ Collins, and another Marine pilot were killed when their plane crashed outside Columbia, S.C.

That tragedy had him questioning his career choice, Vu admitted, but he eventually graduated from the primary phase of training in small propeller- driven fixed-wing T-34B Turbo Mentors.

His dream of becoming a jet fighter pilot was dashed when the Navy assigned him to helicopters, but Vu is now philosophical about the decision, pointing out that helicopters have more controls and are more complicated to fly.

But before he completed helicopter training he was grounded for another month with a fractured cheek from a base soccer game. ″It’s been smooth sailing ever since,″ Vu said with a smile. ″I always saw me here in this winging.″

He now is looking forward, after one month of recruiting duty in Chicago, to reporting to the Mayport Naval Station at Jacksonville for training in the Navy’s newest antisubmarine helicopter, the SH-60 Seahawk.

Despite the numerous hardships, Vu said the scariest part of his Navy career so far was his appearance on Johnny Carson’s ″The Tonight Show″ in January 1986 after he had eaten and exercised his way into flight school.

″You have a chance to foul up big,″ Vu said. ″I was wearing the uniform on the show and I didn’t want to tarnish it in any way.″

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