TARPON SPRINGS — From the back seat of a car barreling westbound on a Florida highway, 18-year-old Tommy Nguyen stared out toward the flat, sprawling terrain and thought to himself, "Wow, this is freaking beautiful."
It was November 1993 and Nguyen was catching his first glimpses of the United States. He and his father were moving to a mobile home in New Port Richey, days removed from four years spent at a refugee camp in Thailand.
Neither spoke English, he said, but that didn't diminish the luster of having finally arrived.
"It was like a dream to me. I still remember everything like it was yesterday," said Nguyen, 37, who is now an officer with the Tarpon Springs Police Department.
Last mont, Nguyen achieved another dream and became a certified canine unit officer.
"It's what I've always wanted to do," he said. "It was hard, but after everything I've been through … it was worth it."
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Nguyen's father had served as a high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese Army. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the victorious communist government sentenced him to eight years in prison and sent his wife to a work camp.
Nguyen, the youngest of four boys, spent most of his childhood living with his aunts, uncles and grandparents.
"They tore our whole family apart," he said.
When his father was released in 1983, the government refused to give him legal documents. Because he had no papers, he was not able to live in one place for long, but had to move from house to house.
"I remember when I was little, (the government) would knock on our door at night and I'd be afraid as hell because I didn't know what was going to happen," Nguyen said. "They'd want to know how many people were in the house."
Eventually, Nguyen's father decided to leave Vietnam for Thailand. Nguyen, 14, decided to go along, not knowing the risk he was taking. The government imprisoned those caught trying to defect.
They left their home in the middle of the night, two among the millions of people in post-war Vietnam who fled in hopes of being relocated to countries including the United States, Canada and Australia.
As Nguyen and his father trekked through the jungle, they carried only an extra set of clothes and a few pictures from the elder Nguyen's military days to prove his status as a political refugee. They waited for the signal, then swam 500 yards to a narrow wooden fishing boat to join 19 other refugees.
The boat was at sea for three days and three nights, fending off pirates and choppy waters, before making landfall in southern Thailand, Nguyen said.
"Everyone was so happy. I thought it was the United States," he said.
They arrived at a refugee camp — tall barbed wire fences "like a prison yard," Nguyen recalls — where thousands of other refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were crammed together in diplomatic limbo, waiting to learn whether they'd be sent back to their home country.
"There was no room. I slept underneath a hut with no blanket. It was like being homeless," Nguyen said.
Once a week, each refugee received a scoop of rice and a portion of raw fish or chicken the size of a child's fist. To earn some money, Nguyen lugged 5-gallon buckets of water across the camp for about $10 a month.
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After four years in the camp, the family was cleared to live in the United States. They moved into the mobile home in New Port Richey and began building their new life.
Nguyen went to school and worked in a restaurant, a Tarpon Springs factory and as an air-conditioning technician. His father died of liver cancer in 2000.
Eventually, Nguyen found his calling: police work, first as a patrol officer with the Tarpon Springs Police Department, and now as a canine unit officer. He was assigned to Dobies, a Belgian Malinois not yet 2 years old that was named for funeral director Thomas Dobies, a dog lover who provided dogs and funding for area canine units.
Nguyen and Dobies had to complete 16 weeks of training together before they could be certified as a canine unit. Almost immediately, they got their first opportunity to work as a team on the streets.
In late July, a Tarpon Springs woman told police she saw someone walking down the middle of her street with a handgun. Officers approached a man matching the description, but he fled, darting through nearby back yards, police said.
When he was arrested, he was carrying crack cocaine, they said, but no gun.
Nguyen and Dobies were called in to perform an "article search." Pacing behind houses, Dobies' ears perked up and he bolted toward a bush. There, Nguyen found a loaded gun.
"I was so happy. It was exactly what we'd been training for. We'd worked so hard for 16 weeks," he said.
Those who know Nguyen have been impressed with his determination to succeed and his appreciation for the opportunities he has been given in the United States.
Among his fans is Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen.
"Tommy, he's all heart and soul," Kochen said. "His background, his work ethic (and) his love for his country — it's really an inspiration for us all."
Follow Matt McKinney on Twitter: @mmckinne17.