For the past ten years, De Nguyen, better known as Mr. D, has been a staple to the Leesville hallways. As head custodian, he spends his days taking care of the school and organizing his team of custodians. Most may see Mr. D and, quite frankly, have no idea who he is aside from a custodian.
But what most don’t know is that Mr. D has a life filled with experiences and accomplishments far beyond the halls of Leesville.
Mr. D, was born near Da Nang in Middle Vietnam. “[It was] a very close district. Most of the cities [in Vietnam] are in North or South Vietnam, but Middle Vietnam belongs on the beach,” said Mr. D.
In high school, he was an avid math student, but after graduating, while the Vietnam War was at its peak, he decided to enlist in the Air Force for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
From 1969 to 1975 he served as a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese Army. Trained by the United States, he flew into several of the major battles of Vietnam, including the Easter Offensive. His helicopter was shot down twice at the battle of An Loc, after which he sought safety in the jungle.
In 1975, when the communist government of North Vietnam took over the South, Mr. D was taken as a prisoner of war. He was a prisoner for a total of 13 years. His sentence was originally only a few years, but after four and a half years, he escaped. However, Mr. D was captured again shortly after escaping.
According to Andy Hunt, the Lessons of Vietnam teacher at Leesville, the typical punishment for Mr. D’s actions would be execution, however, Mr.D’s sentence was simply extended by eight and a half years, making a total of 13 years in prison.
After finally being released in 1988, he lived as a refugee until he came to North Carolina in 1993 with his wife and two kids as part of a refugee program. Upon arriving in North Carolina, and before coming to Leesville, Mr.D worked in manufacturing at a design company.
In the time that he’s been in America, Mr. D’s two kids have graduated college and now have families of their own. Both of his children attended NC State University to earn their engineering degrees. His daughter, a chemical engineer, now lives in New Jersey. His son, a computer engineer, lives in Texas.
While at Leesville, Mr.D has made a name for himself as a hard worker and all around kind person.
“He’s an incredible custodian, human being, person. He just cares so much about the school, takes so much pride in his job, is a good leader for the rest of his custodial crew, just one of the best people I’ve ever met,” said Dr. AJ Muttillo, principal of Leesville Road High School.
He’s formed connections with the teachers and students at Leesville during his span as head custodian, at points even helping teachers with lessons for their class. Hunt recalls a time when Mr.D noticed him working and took time to give advice on the research he was completing for his Lessons of Vietnam class.
“I was working night school for Wake Tech, and he saw me studying stuff, and he saw maps of Vietnam and started asking me questions…sometimes he [would say] ‘this is my country, this is my history’ or ‘I’ve read your textbook’…he was able to tell me sort of what assets were where in the war or things that I may have gotten wrong or misunderstood,” said Hunt.
It’s not just Hunt who has had memorable interactions with Mr.D, many members of the Leesville staff can name a time when Mr.D has helped them.
“When I first came to this office and I wanted to just hang some pictures and decorate, he wouldn’t let me touch anything…he feels like that’s his job and he takes so much pride in it…and we all know you don’t mess with Mr. D,” said Muttillo.
Finally, after ten years at Leesville and an incredibly accomplished life, Mr.D will be retiring this year.
“The first day I [came] here I didn’t know anything about [being a] custodian…but right now I understand everything, and I am ready for [retirement],” said Mr. D.
So, the next time you see Mr. D in the hall, know that he’s much more than a custodian.