Honoring the fallen

Local restaurant co-owner seeks to recognize fallen brother, military personnel at wall-unveiling event

Courtesy Hue Nguyen
Army Sgt. Sammy Nguyen (right), a CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter flight engineer with Company B, 3rd Battalion and the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade

Those who have personally known fallen soldiers and wish to salute them may do so on Wednesday, Sept. 13, when GD Bro Burger, 1798 E. Willow St., hosts an event unveiling an honor wall on the side of its restaurant, where pictures of loved ones can be placed.

Hue Nguyen, 46, managing and majority partner of GD Bro Burger, said the wall is primarily meant to honor his older brother Sammy Nguyen, an Army sergeant who died at age 44 in military service during basic physical training on Sept. 5, 2008. This week marks the ninth anniversary since his passing.

The inspiration in decorating the wall stemmed from simply wanting to adorn the side of the restaurant, which is currently a blank canvas.

Hue had initially expressed interest in supporting the nonprofit Rock for Vets, which seeks to improve the lives of veterans through music. He met with the founder Frank McIlquham, who, with Hue, generated the idea to utilize the space to create a powerful message to send to the community and honor fallen veterans and all family members who have endured such a tragedy.

“It’s a powerful message that we think will get the community involved in supporting our vets,” Hue said in an interview on Wednesday. “Can you imagine sitting here and having lunch or dinner and just seeing this wall, once we fill it up over time? […] I think people are just really going to appreciate it. It brings a lot of meaningful value for me and my family.”

Hue’s hope is that families will come the day of the event or even arrive subsequently and continue filling up the wall with pictures, joining his brother on the wall.

The event itself will feature remarks from guest speakers, including Hue, an unidentified military guest and a few others. Lee Seltzer, Rock for Vets Army member, will provide a live saxophone rendition of “Taps,” which is often played during the completion of a military funeral.

Hue said Signal Hill Mayor Ed Wilson and Signal Hill Chief of Police Christopher Nunley might make appearances.
Ten percent of the proceeds garnered that day at GD Bro Burger will go to Rock for Vets.

Sammy joined the military around 1993 or 1994, Hue said, adding that his brother was “full of life.” He was always cracking silly jokes and was a free-minded spirit.

“We called him the black sheep of the family,” Hue added.

At the same time, however, Sammy went through some dark times.

Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
Hue Nguyen, the managing and majority partner of GD Bro Burger, 1798 E. Willow St., will honor his brother Sammy– an Army sergeant who died during military service on Sept. 5, 2008– at a wall unveiling on Sept. 13 at the restaurant, where the public is welcome to bring photos of their fallen military loved ones to place on the wall, as well.

Hue said Sammy drifted and had no goals for himself. He disliked academics, got into drugs and surrounded himself with the wrong kind of people. For a certain period of time, Sammy was homeless, without the family’s knowledge.

“It’s because of the challenges that he faced and the people that were influencing him in his life toward that wrong direction that led him toward that path,” Hue said. “In my earlier part of my youth, honestly, I was ashamed of him. I was more of a school guy, cared about my education and sticking with a discipline and going to college. I was young, too, so I never understood why he couldn’t follow that same path. For me, it was, ‘Why is it so hard for you to have work ethic and follow these core values that I have?’”

As Hue got older, he learned to appreciate Sammy and understood that people are different.

In his early 30s, Sammy suddenly made the choice, without consulting anyone, to join the Army.

“He kind of just disappeared,” Hue said. “We thought he went missing, but, later, my dad got a letter from him explaining where he was, what he had done and that he needed to get his life in order. He thought the discipline he needed and the structure he needed to be a responsible person was in the Army. It was the right decision. The Army saved his life, is what he told us.”

Hue said he believes Sammy just said “enough was enough” and decided to turn his life around. In the coming years, Sammy got married and had a daughter.

“He did wonderful things,” Hue said. “He served our country, went to Iraq, served in Afghanistan, and he was proud of it. He called himself an Army brat […] That gave him meaning. My whole family became proud of him.”

He was also stationed in Korea to perform more training. In his service, he was also a CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter flight engineer with Company B, 3rd Battalion and the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade.

Sammy died during physical training for the Army. Hue and his family wish to keep the nature of his death private, but Hue said that Sammy passed away doing what he loved. He passed on in the prime of his life.

Whenever Hue or his family visit Sammy at Fairview Memorial Park Mortuary in Santa Ana, it’s a celebration. It’s recognition of a life once lived. And the honor wall will serve as another piece of that.

What Hue and his family miss the most about him is his free spirit and high energy, but what they probably regret more than anything else are the chances that never came to be, primarily the opportunity for Sammy to see his daughter grow up.

“We miss that he was a good father,” he said. “I miss the fact that he can’t be here to enjoy seeing his little girl come up […] He didn’t get a chance.”

And during the last two years of his life, Sammy had begun developing a stronger bond with Hue. Sammy’s trademark raunchy humor would sometimes be interpreted as foul– and, as Hue said, very typical of the military– but he said that the family understood it. Even people who were resistant to his personality began opening up to him.

“You know Howard Stern? The deejay people can think he is foul and his humor is kind of raunchy, but there’s so many people that find it uplifting,” Hue said. “They find some value in his humor. They get joy out of it. And it was the same thing with Sammy. He was our Howard Stern.”

It was offensive in a good way, Hue added. Never discriminatory.

He detailed an example of Sammy’s lifestyle– Sammy would get up in the morning after coming back from the Army and crack open a beer at around 8am or 9am.

Courtesy Hue Nguyen
Army Sgt. Sammy Nguyen (right), the older brother of Hue Nguyen– the managing partner of GD Bro Burger– who died during physical training in the military in 2008, will be honored at a wall unveiling on Sept. 13 as part of an event recognizing fallen soldiers.

“I can never drink a beer at 8am, but that made me laugh,” Hue said, as he began to recount his exchange with his brother. “‘You’re going to drink a beer now?’ ‘Yeah, why not? Drink one with me!’ He’d make you do things that you would not normally do.”

With Sammy, it was always about enjoying life and doing things in the moment.

“‘Let’s do it now. Why wait until this evening to have some wine and enjoy a laugh? Let’s open a bottle at 8am or 9am in the morning,’” Hue recounted. “And I was just like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ We’d do fun things that would take me out of my comfort zone that I would never do, and I think that’s what he brought to our family. He was a black sheep. I’m very much a planner, I’m detailed about everything and don’t always do things off the cuff. And, so, when you have someone that provides that balance and makes you do things off the cuff, I think it makes you a better person. It makes me take on a little more risk and doing some things that I normally wouldn’t do. I’m jumping out of the box.”

Nine years later, it seems as if the family is missing that little piece of the black sheep that, at first, brought tumultuous moments, but later brought much joy.

“We miss laughing,” Hue said. “And I think since he’s gone, getting together with the family at times, we still laugh, but it’s not the same. There’s a piece missing […] And just getting back to [my previous point], seeing him be a really good father and a good husband and a good family man. It would have been nice for him to be part of his daughter’s growth. Those are the things we miss.”

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