Gold Dolphins the Goal

A native of Vietnam and senior in USF’s Naval ROTC program, Ho Le is one of the few accepted into the elite nuclear submarine service.



By Mary Beth Erskine News Writer


Ho Le




Ho Le can picture vividly what his life is going to be like in the near future.

He’ll be living and working in a three-story steel tube, 300 feet long and 30 feet wide. Doors locked. No windows. No sunlight. No easy way out. Operating a nuclear power plant 400 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Slicing silently and strategically through oceans around the globe.

It takes an individual with a special mindset, skills, self discipline and commitment to teamwork to live and work submerged for months at a time in a nuclear submarine. That’s why all submariners are volunteers, and all must pass an extensive screening before being accepted. For officers, the multiple screenings and battery of tests culminate in the most intense interview of their young lives – before a four-star Naval admiral.

This year, the Navy selected just 10 percent of all officers commissioned from the Naval ROTC program – only 105 nationwide – for its Nuclear Submarine Service.

University of South Florida’s Midshipman Le is one of them.

“The interview process I went through in Washington, D.C. was the most intensive I have ever been through,” says Le. “It was literally a maze of waiting rooms and hallways and two rigorous technical interviews before the final interview with the admiral. I’m so glad that John Sarao (associate director of USF’s Joint Military Leadership Center) helped me prepare. It’s a pretty big deal to be selected for an interview.”

With submariners being among some of the most highly trained and skilled people in the Navy, upon graduation from USF in December, then Ensign Le will begin a lengthy education process: graduate-level study at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, in Charleston, S.C., followed by training at the Nuclear Power Training Unit to apply the concepts of nuclear propulsion and then 12 weeks in New London, Conn. for basic submarine officer training.

It will entail about 15 months of education and training, after which Le will finally receive an assignment as a division officer on a submarine, managing a team of skilled enlisted submariners.

Once on board, learning continues. Regardless of specialty, all crewmembers must learn how everything on the ship works in case of emergencies. Pneumatics. Ventilation. Hydraulics. Sonar. Weapons systems. Upon completion of this lengthy qualification process, Le will earn the right to wear the coveted gold “dolphins” on his uniform.

“When I earn my ‘dolphins’ is when I’ll know I’ve really made it,” says Le.

While the lifestyle aboard a submarine will be challenging, hardship is nothing new for Le or his family who emigrated from Vietnam.

His father was a lieutenant with the South Vietnamese Army. After the Vietnam War ended, like so many others who had fought for the south, he was sent to a “reeducation camp” – the official title given to the prison camps operated by the newly unified Vietnamese communist government. Meanwhile, his wife and six children were forced to fend for themselves, with the older siblings working in the rice fields and fishing to help provide for the family.

After three years, Le’s father was released, and his family was then forced to leave their urban home in Can Thos to relocate to his mother’s rural village in Vinh Long. Far from the life they had once known, the family struggled for survival – for food and life’s basic necessities.

“Life was very difficult,” says Le. “And America was the dream. Most Americans don’t understand what an opportunity they have here in this country.”

So when the Reagan administration entered into an agreement with the Vietnamese government that allowed freed soldiers held in reeducation camps to emigrate, the Les were eager to start a new life. But that was not easy either for the eight-year old starting third grade in America.

“I had no friends here. I knew no English. It was pretty rough for the first year or two. The only thing I could do well was math, and my teachers were pretty amazed by how much math I knew so young. But by about fifth grade, I understood the language pretty well and things got better.”

A graduate of the International Baccalaureate program at Tampa’s Hillsborough High School, Le enlisted in the Navy as a high school senior. “I joined the military because of my dad,” says Le. “My family says I’m a lot like him. And because of him, I’ve always been intrigued by the military.”

He decided to use the year prior to the start of his military commitment to begin his college education at USF, and after being awarded a Naval ROTC scholarship, was able to defer active duty to continue his studies.

“The caliber of education at USF has been amazing,” says Le. “The campus is awesome and the faculty have always been there for me. USF has helped me so much. I’m now ready to put on those ‘butter bars’ (rank insignia) and get to work on the next phase of my life.”

And while his father passed away recently and won’t be there for Le’s graduation or to follow his son’s military career with the nuclear submarine service, Le is sure of one thing.

“I know he was proud of me,” says Le. “He was very proud.”

Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.