184 – Tu Lam | Finding Peace as a Warrior

On this episode of the Mag Life Podcast, two warriors formally meet and for a heavy discussion about their war and peacetime experiences. Daniel is joined by Tu Lam, a Vietnamese-American former US Army Special Forces Green Beret, martial artist, trainer, entrepreneur, and TV show host. Known for his tactical gear and training company, Ronin Tactics, he is also known for his on-screen appearance on Forged in Fire: Knife or Death, as well as being featured as a playable character in Call of Duty: Warzone. Tu has carved out a public image of himself as a disciplined modern-day warrior and teacher.

Daniel explores Tu’s unforgiving upbringing as a Vietnam War refugee, his decorated career as a US Army Special Operations soldier, his passion for the martial arts, and his Bushido mindset to find peace during adversity.

Host: Daniel Shaw

Guest (usual Co-Host!): Tu Lam

Introduction/Timeline: Eric Huh

02:41 Escaping Death

Daniel asks Tu about his upbringing and what lead him to where he is today. Tu reveals a tragic and violent past, being born literally in the midst of the Vietnam War. Upon the US leaving South Vietnam and Saigon falling, the North Vietnamese forces rounded up the majority of Tu’s family and had them executed. His mother took her children and fled with thousands of others to escape oppression. What awaited the Lam family was more cruelty and suffering as they, along with hundreds of other refugees, were cramped into tiny boats, sailing in the South China Sea.

Upon reaching the coast of Malaysia, they were denied entry into the country. The Malaysian troops cut their motor and left the entire boat of refugees out to die. For 30 days straight, the refugees drifted out with no access to clean water or food. Just as Tu’s mother had given up all hope and contemplated feeding poison to her children to spare them of further misery, a Russian naval supply vessel spotted their boat. Despite being on opposite sides of the war, the Soviet troops showed mercy and saved the refugees by providing food and medical aid. This was nothing short of a miracle made by fortuitous timing. If the war was still ongoing, the Soviets would have been compelled to follow wartime protocol and would have taken the refugees back to Vietnam.

The horrors the Lam family faced, unfortunately, did not end there. The refugees were relocated into a camp in an Indonesian jungle, with no actual facilities or resources. Dead bodies would be regularly found in the jungles near the camp as people attempted to forage and find food. The strength of Tu’s mother was all that held them together.

“[My mother] is my strength… [During that time] there was a slim to no chance that we would have lived. And she goes, ‘I would have rather died than to have lived in fear’”

After a year and a half, Tu’s uncle was finally able to pay for his family to immigrate to the US.

12:55 Living in a Post-War America

One of Tu’s earliest memories of living in the states was entering a grocery store in North Carolina with his mother. From living through horrific starvation to suddenly being able to pick any food item of his choice was a culture shock. But post-Vietnam War America was not without its faults. Tu’s entire childhood was riddled with instances of racist encounters and harassment from his white counterparts. The context Tu gives is that the entirety of the Vietnam War was not at all popular in the US, which in turn spawned many racist anti-Asian sentiments.

At eight years of age, Tu experienced bullying from a racist white classmate. One day the situation escalated to where both Tu and his bully were sent to the principal’s office to be reprimanded. The bully’s mother was called in and was informed about the incident. When she turned to speak to Tu, instead of offering any hint of an apology, she called him a racist slur, told him to leave the country, and supported her son for bullying him. Tu tells Daniel, “I was just defeated.”

Even despite all of this, Tu’s mother clung to hope. She told Tu, “No matter what, if you have an education, you can never be oppressed.” It was through these continued struggles that Tu knew he wanted to become something more than just the scared, bullied child.

24:30 Aspiring to Become a Warrior

The pressures of starting a new life resulted in Tu’s mother and father divorcing. Eventually, his mother remarried to a US Army Special Forces Green Beret. For the first time ever, Tu had a warrior role model that showed him something to aspire to.

“He was teaching me discipline. He was a very strict man… [We’d wake up at] 4:30 in the morning, every morning, we didn’t get days off. School now? It’s ‘you’re gonna wear slacks and you’re gonna wear button-up shirts to school [and] your grades better be good’… Physical fitness is on par, so every day is single physical training along with academics.”

Tu Lam with knife
Warrior culture was ingrained in Tu Lam’s upbringing from a very young age.

Not too long after the divorce, Tu’s biological father sent him a box of VHS tapes on Bruce Lee and Bushido, the way of the samurai. He instantly became fascinated by this code of conduct and later began tying in the warrior mentality with the lifestyle and discipline training from his Special Forces soldier step-father. During this time, Tu’s mother would also regularly take Tu out to feed the homeless in their community, to instill in him the value of always helping those less fortunate in order to build a better world. It was then that Tu knew what he was destined to become.

“I decided to become a Green Beret. I knew my calling… I was putting stuff together. The Green Beret, [who] free the oppressed. The way of the samurai, the Bushido code. A hard way of living. You know, I got tired of being this weak individual and I saw this path to enlightenment and this way as a warrior to be my best self. I knew it as a defeated boy”

35:18 Enlisting in the Army and the Path to Special Forces

Despite his mother’s protest, Tu joined the Army with the sole intent to become a Special Forces Green Beret. At the time, there was no direct track to becoming a Green Beret, Tu simply decided to seek as much training as he possibly could by completing Airborne and Ranger school. Tu would also join a Long Range Reconnaissance Company as part of their amphibious reconnaissance team. This not only gave him more specialized skill sets, but it also fast-tracked him to Special Forces Assessment Selection as a rank E-5 sergeant in only a year and a half.

Tu Lam US Army Special Forces Green Beret
It was Tu’s lifelong dream to become a US Army Special Forces Green Beret, just like his uncle and step-father.

Upon completion of assessment, Tu was assigned to 1st Special Forces Group as part of their Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) team stationed in Okinawa, Japan. The primary threat at the time was North Korea, as they had developed their Nodong missiles which were capable of reaching the continental US. Tu’s team was specifically trained in recovering downed pilots as well as doing reconnaissance in the region.

40:31 The Journey into Martial Arts

Ever since he was introduced to Bruce Lee films and writings, Tu was a dedicated martial artist and continued this well into his military career. While in Okinawa, Tu came across a US Marine fighting club, called the “Tough Man Contest”. Tu participated in these fights against other active-duty servicemen and did extremely well. Soon after, a fight promoter noticed Tu’s fighting prowess and arranged for him to fight in paid events outside of the base. Tu gladly accepted.

Tu Lam Budisho
Bruce Lee and Bushido were key elements that instilled the passion of martial arts in Tu, having competed in full contact fights and specialized in bladed weapons.

Tu gladly signed on to be the main event fight for a Japanese promotion to a fight a Pancrase champion. Despite pushback from his superiors (who specifically banned Special Operations soldiers from fighting outside of the base) and a horrible water-borne illness he had contracted, Tu went through with the fight. His sickness was so severe, Tu weighed in only at 180 pounds while his opponent came in at 210 pounds. Even fully knowing he would lose, Tu sought to go out on his shield rather than to submit without a fight.

46:01 Martial Arts and the US Army — Coming Full Circle

From here, Tu continued his fighting career into Thailand, competing in Muay Thai matches. It was here that a Sergeant Major took notice of Tu’s combat sport activities and specifically requested to meet him. Tu initially thought he was to be reprimanded as he was actively going against the strict rules that barred him from participating in full-contact fights. Instead, the Sergeant Major wanted to recruit Tu to be the primary combatives instructor for a Tier 1 unit. The Sergeant Major commissioned Tu to travel around the world with an unlimited budget to study various martial arts styles and to bring this knowledge back to his soldiers.

For Tu, this was a dream come true. He trained with Native Americans in their form of tomahawk fighting, the Filipinos in the art of Kali, Indonesians in Pencak Silat, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu under Royce Gracie, and many other martial systems. On top of this, Tu was given full access to the training amenities the rest of the Tier 1 unit was provided such as a top-of-the-line fitness coach, workout equipment, and high-quality foods. This was an incredibly rare opportunity as traditionally only rank E-9 Sergeant Majors are allowed in the CAG Tier 1 unit. Daniel reflects on how his time in the Marine Corps was a far cry from the level of resources that Tu had received in the US Army Special Operations. Typically, Marines work with whatever they are given, but the more specialized units within the Army can seemingly obtain anything.

52:56 Back into Action

Eventually, Tu would find himself back into a direct-action role. For a brief time, he was allowed to operate within the same Tier 1 unit he was giving combative instruction to. It was during 2004 in Iraq that US forces, especially Special Operations, faced some of the heaviest fighting. Upon the next rotation out, the E-9 slot Tu was taking up had to be relinquished. While he was given the opportunity to reapply under a separate role within the unit, Tu’s goals and passions were now elsewhere. As such, Tu went into reconnaissance in a more specialized capacity.

Tu Lam Special Forces
Tu Lam has a very diverse Army career, being able to do both direct action, hand-to-hand combatives, and espionage work.

Tu’s background in the 1st Special Forces Group, Native Warrior program, which involved blending in with the local population, lent itself very well to this kind of work. He already spoke several different languages and understood how to apply subtler combative skills. This new role he had entered heavily prioritized espionage and intel gathering work, teaching him the inner workings of how cell phones and satellites function as well as covert means of communication. Later, Tu was relocated to the US AFRICOM or the United States Africa Command, in which Tu participated in operations in Libya during Gaddafi’s regime, and took part as a counter-assault security team alongside the Secret Service during former President Obama’s visit to South Africa.

01:01:14 Renewed Hardships and Pain

While Tu’s time in the Army certainly came with its exciting adventures and once in a lifetime experiences, it also brought extreme trauma and pain.

“During that time, I started falling apart as a human being. I was at 14 years and a half at war… When I say that, it’s back-to-back rotations into warzones and conflict areas for 14 and a half years. I had 19 years of Special Operations. So I was falling apart and didn’t even know it.”

Tu explains to the audience that during war, there is no set schedule while in an active warzone. “The enemy has a say in your schedule”, Daniel adds. As such, the way the Special Forces Groups would treat the constant cycle of sleep deprivation, combat readiness, pain, and awkward sleep times was to repeatedly medicate. To stay awake during active combat zones, they would take Adderall. To force sleep during inopportune times, they would take Ambien. To treat pain from injuries sustained in combat, they would take opiates. Eventually, during anti-poaching operations in Cameroon, Tu found himself depressed and addicted to these drugs.

For a brief moment during his time in Africa, Tu starred off into a sunset and drank tea. That simple, serene moment alone put his mind at peace and he realized what he ultimately wanted to go back to: to be at peace. After his rotation was over, Tu retired from the US Army.

“My new journey was peace. [But] I didn’t find it [yet]… People think that if you’re in a safe environment [and] you don’t have to be in that combat environment anymore, you’re not active duty anymore, [that] you’re gonna find your peace. Peace is not found there. Peace is not found in money. Peace is not found in success. Peace is not found in fame. Peace is found in what you are willing to give, every single day.”

While at home with his wife, Tu would spend every day sleeping in a pitch-black room or staring at a completely blank TV screen. Tu explains that he had betrayed his own Bushido code and could not find his inner peace until sometime after, when Tu accidentally stumbled upon The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi.

Tu Lam Code of Bushido tatoos
For Tu Lam, it was a natural progression in his life to connect his Special Forces experience with the code of Bushido.

The author was a legendary ronin, a masterless samurai who was a warrior philosopher and teacher who had found his peace in the late 1600s. Tu found a passage that read, “Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.” Something so simple yet impactful would forever change Tu’s life. Daniel agrees, adding that if an individual is not happy and at peace with themselves, they will never find it anywhere else. It would be simply attempting to treat a symptom instead of the cause.

01:09:32 Understanding the Mind

Tu reiterates that there’s a fundamental flaw in how the vast majority of westerners practice finding peace. Too often, people seek happiness from the external, whether that be wealth or a girlfriend. Upon his epiphany and rekindling with his Bushido code, Tu emptied his medicine cabinet and flushed his drugs down the toilet.

He began seeking new outlets of relaxation and release, eventually coming into the practice of meditation. This simple yet complex process involves attempting to shut out the unnecessary noise in your mind and seeking calmness. It is an attempt to not overthink all that has occurred to the individual or what might happen or what is presently happening. Daniel adds he’s never successfully meditated as he is the type of person to always think about the consequences of his actions.

Tu’s path to peace found him deeply studying how the mind functions. He discovered studies that revealed the human brain from years 2 to 5 does not have a truly analytical mind developed and is going purely off a subconscious mind. This means any level of traumatic experiences have immense consequences for the development of that child. Tu realized his childhood trauma of escaping war as a refugee and experiencing constant racism had left mental scars in him. In combination with his years at war, this contributed greatly to his inner turmoil.

01:15:17 Finding Inner peace

Tu realized the source of his trauma is buried in his subconscious, the key was to access it. His research had shown that the best time to contact the subconscious is during mornings when the brain waves are slower and as such, more readily reached by meditation. For the first few years, Tu found that he could not quite achieve this true meditative state. Until one day, he became incredibly aware and in tune with his natural surroundings. He was mentally present and aware without even trying or knowing it.

Tu’s long journey to inner peace began with self-reflection and putting his mind at ease through meditation, which later blossomed into spreading this peace to others. He started his now-famous training and tactical equipment company, Ronin Tactics, which trains military, law enforcement, and armed citizens in firearms and tactics. In turn, Tu returned to his roots in helping others to be free and able to defend themselves. Tu also turned to the outlet of writing. He was able to take his wartime and childhood scars and humanize them into teachable lessons for those who follow him. Without even realizing it, Tu’s journey to healing was in fact helping others.

01:18:46 Be Kind

Along this process of finding peace, Tu made sure to never forget what his mother taught him, which was to exhibit kindness. He explains that during war, it’s easy to forget kindness as you’re forced to push that aside from situation to situation in order to complete a mission, save others, and survive.

“When I’m trying to find my peace, I realized that what kept me alive overseas which was the element of fire and hate, I’ll never find that in this evolution of my life… if I continue to hold onto that energy. So in my mind, I had to ‘kill’ my best friend, which was hate… So how do you do that? Kindness.”

Tu made an effort to show kindness to all the people in his life. At a Starbucks, he thanks the barista graciously. If he is reading a book near an entrance, he holds the door open and tells people to have a nice day. Daniel could not agree more, as he’s made this his own personal philosophy as well. He also believes that there simply is not enough kindness being shown in the world today and that even simple gestures can go a long way to making the world a better place to live in.

Tu expresses how difficult becoming a kind person again was, having spent over a decade in the Special Forces. Being a member of such a small, tight-knit elite group tends to make the individuals involved distance themselves from others who did not experience the same things they did. Relating to others became an enormous barrier to many in the Special Operations community.
As such, Tu works on and practices being kind every day.

01:23:09 Reprioritizing Happiness

Tu soon found that kindness can oftentimes come in a full circle. In the process of Tu spreading his knowledge and compassion, the History Channel noticed his accomplishments and contacted him. They recognized his energy, his personality, and his skillsets as someone worthy of being a co-host for their hit series, Forged in Fire: Knife or Death. He made a new friend in Bill Goldberg, his counterpart on the show. Not too long after, Infinity Ward, the video game developers behind the mega-popular Call of Duty series wanted to feature Tu’s entire likeliness in their latest Modern Warfare entry.

"Ronin" in Call of Duty: Warzone
Tu Lam is appropriately featured as “Ronin” in Call of Duty: Warzone.

On the outside looking in, Tu seemed to have it all, coming out a decorated military background, coming into the entertainment industry, and running a successful tactics training company. Despite all of these accomplishments, Tu informs Daniel that he was still depressed during all of this. Tu reminds us that depression is a never-ending battle and that finding inner peace is a constant effort.

Tu elaborates that he’s a Type A personality, meaning he’s someone that always seeks to achieve a high level of standards and excel in everything he tries. But again, success does not necessarily mean happiness.

“What drove me to become an entrepreneur, a successful trainer [of] a success company was significance. I had to place a high level of standards on myself. I’ve been doing it since I was a child… In the Army, it brought me up to the top. In this evolution, the civilian and entrepreneurship, it brought me up to the top, really fast. But I would never find happiness there… I placed too much energy on acceptance from other people.”

Tu explains upon reading the works by the famous Tony Robbins, he no longer places significance on how others perceive him. Love and compassion are now his number one priorities. Daniel wonders how others in the Special Operations community and the rest of the world respond to Tu’s message of focusing on love and compassion.

Tu gives this exact talk at a Special Operations warrior conference, explaining the importance of reprioritizing your life and evolving with the times. What you prioritized in the military during combat does not always lend itself well into the civilian world. Simply put, you cannot live a meaningful life holding onto hate and fire at all times. Past experiences do not need to define you and can in fact be used to make you stronger.

Forged in Fire.
Tu Lam on the set of History Channel’s Forged in Fire: Knife or Death with Mike Goldberg and Travis Wuertz.

“How you look at the world is truly an illusion my friend… I want you to go back in time and think about the hardships. And I want you to restructure that idea to your advantage… And if you can’t gain anything from it and you victimize yourself from it, then I need you to look at it differently.”

The racism and trauma Tu faced in his formative years were used to fuel his drive to become compassionate and to fight for others. Because he understood what it meant to be a victim, Tu dedicated his life to helping prevent others from being victims as well. Daniel relates this back to the idea of orientation, the process in how humans are able to process past experiences and reorient how those experiences affect and inform their future behaviors and actions.

Gunmag Training's Chief Instructor Daniel Shaw is a retired US Marine Infantry Unit Leader with multiple combat tours and instructor titles.  Since retirement from the Marine Corps, Daniel teaches Armed Citizens and Law Enforcement Officers weapons, tactics and use of force. Daniel takes his life of training and combat experience and develops as well as presents curriculum to help Law Enforcement, US Military and Responsible Armed Citizens prepare for a deadly force encounter.  When he isn't directing marketing for Gunmag Warehouse, Daniel travels the US teaching and training under Gunmag Training, and discusses all things hoplological and self-defense related on The MagLife Podcast.

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