Col. Thai talks ‘Grissom grit’, near-peer fight

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Alexis Morris
  • 434th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Shortly before taking command of the Hoosier Wing, Col. Van T. Thai sat down with a representative from the 434th Air Refueling Wing public affairs office for a “question and answer”-style interview. The transcript below, edited for length and, in rare cases, clarity, is intended to educate the Grissom community on Thai, his perspectives and his vision for the wing. 


Q: Sir, welcome to the Hoosier Wing! Given your background as a KC-135 pilot, how are you feeling about being named commander of the largest KC-135R Stratotanker unit in AFRC?

A: It’s really an honor and pleasure. My family and I, we’re humbled coming here to Team Grissom. The 434th Air Refueling Wing has a great reputation and has shaped itself to meet the requirements of our nation. The great Airmen, leaders, teammates and community, [are] the runway to get us to where we can continue to meet the needs and be ready when called upon.

Q: From the initial notion of joining to now, can you give us a brief overview of your career thus far?   

A: I jest with a lot of folks when I talk to them that it’s been a Forrest Gump kind of career, right? I’ve been running, having a good time, I really don’t know where I’m going. But wherever I’m planted by the Air Force, we continue to grow, learn from there and try to get enriched. I’m very fortunate.

In my career, believe it or not, this is my first flying tour in the United States of America. Besides pilot training, I've been stationed overseas most of my career and I've been able to, you know, lead, be it in Europe, in the Indo-Pacific, and definitely in [U.S. Central Command]. And that's when I first ran into members of the 434th. I love the men and women of the 135 community. They’re so awesome, they’re so down to Earth.

At this point in my career, I'm way over by 20 years. Not too over, but over enough that we can do some other cool stuff and all that but I enjoy serving as an Airman and I enjoy what I call ‘rockin’ the mish’.

What I mean by that is that people go “hey, I'm hacking the mesh,” right? I'm like, Yeah, that's nice. Hacking the mission’s nine to five, you show up. But why you're rockin’ the mish, and the difference is, that by rockin’ the mish, you're crushing it, you're giving it your all and you're giving your best each and every day.

Q: What drove you to join [the U.S. Air Force]?

A: I’m an immigrant American. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam… We emigrated first to Toronto, Canada, which is like eight hours up the road, right past Michigan. That's where my dad's family is, New York and Toronto, but we grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. My mom's family is from there.

As an immigrant American, all I want to do is continue to contribute and give back. I see that America – God bless her heart – has given my family and I so much opportunity. Now we got to roll up our sleeves, right? Nothing's free. We got to work at it. But she's given us the opportunity to change our stars. And that's kind of when people talk to me and I go, ‘I'm living the dream’. It is truly a dream, the American dream. Based on hard work, sacrifices and focus.

That's why I wanted to serve because I see the military, that 1% of American society, as that light in Lady Liberty. It keeps everything lit. That's why even today, I know we have a lot of immigration issues, all this other stuff, but all over the world America is still that beacon of hope, no matter where you are in this world. So again, we are very fortunate to be able to come to America and to serve.


Q: What aspirations do you have for your tenure?

A: First and foremost, I want to listen because one of us is not as valuable as all of us… I want to see what is important to each of my teammates, then find out where I can synergize our goals and remove the barriers. This colonel rank, this wing commander title isn't anything unless you're doing something with it, unless you're clearing out the barriers for your teammates, your Airmen and your colleagues to get after it.

There's an opportunity to show off our Grissom grit, or muscle flexing a little bit, to the next generation. Whether it be a max flush, an elephant walk, there’s a lot of ideas out there in discussion. So we can get after showing the airpower that the Airmen of Team Grissom, the 434th, can generate, execute and push for our nation. So, I’m looking forward to seeing what the team can do realistically. And it shows that we’re hungry for more and when I say more, more what? More tankers, [KC-135]s, [KC-46]s, which I know that the community will be looking forward to.

Q: Given ongoing world events and that your previous assignment at Yokota [Air Base] centralized around operations and exercises, what do you want Hoosier Airmen to know about the criticality of readiness?

A: Here it is, the future is the near-peer fight. By China, by more robust enemies that have the technology that can affect our way of life and if we lose, it can be detrimental to our allies and our friends. So we have to get after it.

Graduating the [U.S. Air Force] Academy in ‘98, I was a young lieutenant when everything happened until I was there actually supporting the teams as we’re conducting Operation Allies Refuge for the Afghan retrograde, so I kind of saw it from the beginning to the end. And it’s a different fight.

We’re not fighting terrorism, terrorists that don’t have the level of technology, the capabilities that we have. If they get a win, it’s isolated. When we’re in a near-peer fight, however, it affects everything. Tactical, operational, strategic. It affects our way of life and the U.S., our allies and partners, we want a stable world and we’re not going to let anybody bully.

There has to be a shift in the American mentality and the grit and toughness of our folks because it’s not going to be easy. We got to get ready, mentally, for thinking outside the box, rolling up our sleeves, doing what we can, and then, you know, pitching in where we can. I like to use this quote from the [U.S.] Marine Corps and that is: “the more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war”.

At the end of the day, nobody wins in a war, especially not the military because we are the ones who will be putting our lives on the frontline.  So war is bad, nobody wins in war, but we need to be ready when called upon to execute that job when our nation calls upon us.

Personal and Rapid Fire

Q: How do you spend your free time? Do you have any hobbies or favorite activities?

A: I’m a foodie. One of my best philosophies is that I workout to eat. It’s a balance, like everything in life is a balance. I like to workout, be it weightlifting, tennis; I played a little rugby in France. I play golf, but I’m not very good.

I like outdoor stuff, definitely hiking. I think being with a group is cool, but I do cherish my alone time. I'll hike so that I can enjoy the fresh air, clear my mind and just think and remember that I'm just one small piece in this world. It's humbling.

Q: What would people be surprised to know about you?

A: I’m an introvert. People laugh at that, even my teammates before when I would tell them I’m an introvert. I love connecting to people, just because I like to learn about them, their experiences and all, but I think being an introvert is more of how you recharge yourself. So people might be surprised to learn that.