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Photo by Sgt. Mel Lopez

Henderson Hall icon says farewell to her Marine Corps family

7 Oct 2005 | Sgt. Mel Lopez

One of Henderson Hall’s own will be retiring today after almost 17 years of dedicated service to the Marines here.  During her tenure, Huong Ha Tran, affectionately known as “Sam the Barber”, has been just that - a barber, with her own little shop, nestled in the confines of the battalion Headquarters building. But for many, she was more than just a smiling Vietnamese lady who cut and styled hair.  Her warm, caring character won their hearts. She became a living icon - a mother figure of sorts for those who have accepted her as their own.

After serving as the base resident barber for approximately two decades, Sam decided she would retire and go back to Vietnam to be with her husband of 20 years.  She said she wants to enjoy life before she gets too old.  And most importantly, to live her retired years in her native country. 

As a way of saying “thank you,” Headquarters Battalion sponsored a farewell party at the Marine Corps Exchange Oct. 7, in her honor.  She started off by saying how she had befriended so many Marines over the years, and that she considered them all her family.

“I don’t feel lonely here,” said Sam, “even with my husband being in Vietnam for four years.  I really enjoyed working (here)... with all of you guys.”

Sam added she would always have great memories of Henderson Hall.

Sam was born and raised in South Vietnam.  After the Vietnam War, the country was taken over by the North Vietnamese communist regime.  The victorious North imposed economic reforms and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese whom they suspected might rebel against the new authoritarian government.  Poor harvests in 1978 and 1979, and border wars with China and Cambodia, further disrupted life in the small south Asian nation.

Sam lived under this rule for three years and, in 1979, was forced to leave the area.  She fled to America at the age of 23 with only a small bag containing one set of clothes, and no English.

“Americans welcomed me,” she said.  “America was heaven for me.  I lived in hell in Communist Vietnam.”

As soon as she landed in the States, Sam decided she would do something to keep herself busy and to bring herself into the mainstream.  With very little English in her vocabulary, she managed to get her first job at a Holiday Inn.  She didn’t stay there very long though.  After seven months with the hotel chain, she moved on and landed a job at a mess hall at Fort George G. Meade, Md.  

Within a short period of time, Sam learned a lot about America, and fell in love with its people and their hospitality so much, she tried persuading her father to come as well.

“Father, you have to come to America,” she describes telling her father, “to see how God blessed America.”  She told him this was a great country - a country unlike any other she had ever seen before.  Her father had some reservations about coming to an unknown country though, so Sam brought her sister and five brothers here instead.

Over a four-year period at the Army base, her English improved, and decided to apply for citizenship.  She was so excited about that turning point in her life that she tried once again to convince her father to come to America.  Still, he was hesitant.

“Ok father, wait for me,” she told her father.  “I will go to immigration and then bring you.”
She described her amusing story about her visit to the immigration office.

“I told the lady about why I came here and all that was going on,” said Sam.  “I told her the whole story, and she said, ‘I don’t need to ask you questions.  I can tell (you wanted your citizenship).’  But she asked me a question anyway.  She asked me, ‘Who was the first president of the United States?’  And I said, ‘Yes ma’am, George Washington D.C.!!!” Her guests broke out in laughter.  “She said, ‘Oh my god, you know more than me!  You know his name and where he worked too!’”

After Fort Meade and gaining her citizenship, Sam went to a barber school in hopes of making the first steps to yet another occupation.  Upon graduation, she landed a job at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., where she worked for 3 years as a barber until she transferred to Henderson Hall in 1989.  She has been here ever since.

Sam continued telling her amusing stories during her party Friday, but she also emphasized the memories that she will take with her to Vietnam.

“I thank all the Marines, my family, for coming here today,” said Sam. “It will be hard to say goodbye to you.  I know I’m retiring a little early, but I want to enjoy life before I sit on my rocking chair.”

Sam will not just take memories with her.  As a token of Henderson Hall’s appreciation for her service and hospitality, Headquarters Battalion Commanding Officer Col. Anthony E. Van Dyke presented her with an American flag that was flown at the Marine Corps War Memorial recently.  A certificate accompanying the flag described the significance of the historical flag raising at Iwo Jima during World War II.  It was written in both English and Vietnamese.

Immediately after receiving her gift, Sam showed her happiness vocally, though it was apparent she was trying very hard to hold back her tears.

“I have two homelands,” Sam said. “When I go to Vietnam, I will miss this country.”

Many at Headquarters Marine Corps will miss her.  She will leave the battalion today, but she will remain in the area a short while to prepare for the move back to Vietnam.
Headquarters Marine Corps