Armed with snacks and blankets, Tam Nguyen is on the front lines of new approaches to mental health crisis response
By Dorsey Griffith
Tam Nguyen, it seems, was born to serve. The son of Vietnamese refugees who had supported the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, Nguyen knew from an early age that he wanted to give back to the community to honor his parents and the country that welcomed them after the fall of Saigon.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans had a profound effect on the then 14-year-old who decided then that he would one day be part of the U.S. armed forces. After graduating from Los Amigos High School in Fountain Valley, he enlisted as an Army combat medic and deployed to Iraq in 2005. His tours over the next eight years taught him critical life-saving skills but also caused crippling trauma, leaving emotional scars he still struggles with today.
Fortunately for the community of Garden Grove, where he now lives with his wife, young son and daughter, Nguyen, 37, has found a new way to save lives at Be Well OC, a program that manages 911 calls for people needing mental-health support.
When he deployed, Nguyen was gung-ho about serving in the War on Terror.
“I felt invincible,” he recalls. “I thought if I studied hard enough, and worked hard enough, and exercised hard enough, I would be able to save everyone’s life.”
In fact, all the training in the world couldn’t save everyone, including women, children, and young soldiers – comrades he had come to love who were killed in battle or died by suicide. When Nguyen returned home, battlefield-related nightmares robbed him of sleep. Over time he became suicidal too.
Trained to understand and help treat soldiers with anxiety and depression, Nguyen knew what he needed and sought life-saving therapy. When he felt stronger and sure-footed, he was redeployed — this time to Kosovo as part of a peacekeeping mission.
“I went from the streets of Iraq where insurgents were tossing grenades at us to Kosovo, where people were offering us coffee and shaking our hands,” he says. “I got to realize the world isn’t so bad.”
When his tour of duty ended, he returned home, married his best friend, went to paramedic school and dreamed of a civilian job in his hometown. But when his wife joined the Army and deployed to Alaska, he landed a two-year paramedic job with a private security contractor in Afghanistan as part of a SWAT team for the U.S. Ambassador. This mission, too, took a terrible toll.
More than once his team came under attack by insurgents with machine guns trying to infiltrate the embassy compound. Well trained and armed, Nguyen and the embassy personnel repelled the attacks, but for the two years he spent there, Nguyen remained on high alert.
After completing the mission, Nguyen joined his wife in Alaska, where they had their first baby, and he went to work as a paramedic. But the mental health struggles continued, as word reached him about former comrades dying of overdoses or suicide. The sound of helicopters or responding to a gunshot victim triggered new nightmares.
“I was on my last thread,” he says, “and I had to go back to therapy.”
After the family moved back California, Nguyen felt helpless as a paramedic to really address the mental health challenges that lie beneath so many medical crises. Losing two of his Afghanistan team members in 2020 and 2021 further convinced him he was ready for a career change. When he heard about Be Well OC, which responds to mental health crises and provides counseling and addiction resources, he knew he had found his new mission.
“We use radios and computers, not weapons and armor,” he says. “We carry snacks and blankets and a medical bag in case of an overdose. Our weapons are bottles of water and boxes of Oreos to help us connect with whoever is struggling.”
Now a program supervisor, Nguyen says Be Well OC de-escalates crises, keeps people with mental-health challenges out of the ER, and ensures that anyone in crisis receives the appropriate help they need quickly.
“I am doing my dream job, serving the city I grew up in,” he says. “I really feel like I am saving lives every day.”