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Four Lao brothers serve in same Tennessee Air Guard wing

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Yonette Martin,
  • 118th Wing Public Affairs, Tennessee Air National Guard

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The record for the number of siblings serving at the same time at the same wing is difficult to determine, but the Tennessee Air National Guard’s 118th Wing is probably getting close.

Four siblings share similar aspirations to make their family proud and to ensure a successful career in the Air National Guard. Their fellow Airmen know them as the Phimphivong brothers.

Their connection to military service goes back to their late maternal grandfather, Maj. Phouthone Savathvongxay. He joined the Royal Lao Army and fought alongside the United States from 1963 to 1975 against the communist Pathet Lao, a group allied with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War. He was captured and sent to a forced-labor communist camp. He escaped and came to the United States as a refugee in the 1980s. Two uncles also fought alongside American forces as bomb runners during the war.

Their father, Sam Phimphivong, aspired to join the Royal Lao Army during the civil war and become an officer but didn’t get the opportunity. Instead, he and their mother, Souksavanh Savathvongxay, filed for refugee status and made the difficult decision to migrate to the United States.

The couple settled in Fresno, California, where the siblings were born and raised for a few years. The family later relocated to Smyrna, Tennessee.

Respecting the paths of their grandfather, father and uncles, these brothers stepped in the footprints of the men who inspired them to make a difference.

Staff Sgt. Anoulom Phimphivong, the eldest of the brothers, enlisted with the Air National Guard in December 2012, setting the tone for his younger brothers.

“Our father supported us joining the military,” said Anoulom, an analyst with the 247th Intelligence Squadron. “He was very strict, so we grew up with some discipline … and adjusting to military life wasn’t too big of a leap.

“I chose the Air National Guard because of the higher degree of autonomy relative to other branches,” he said. “The Air Force’s culture emphasizes technical expertise over other aspects of military life.”

Anoulom chose the 118th Wing because it adds a level of camaraderie serving with other Tennesseans. “I love being a Tennessean, and I love the American values,” he said.

Serving his community as a high school teacher while working toward completing his doctorate in reading and education intervention facilitates being a traditional Guardsman for Anoulom.

“The smallest and first unit of influence is the family, and the last was growing up in a collectivist culture,” he said. “I would usually ask myself, ‘What is my current task, and how does it affect the broader community?’”

Serving in the Air National Guard has many benefits. “The Guard teaches organizational leadership and teamwork … and it’s up to me to figure out how to best serve those above me and those I lead,” Anoulom said.

Convinced by their older brother, the rest of the siblings decided to serve and realized the benefits of the military: technical expertise, career progression, built-in mentorship, and community engagement.

The youngest of the brothers, Airman 1st Class Khongsinh Savathvongxay, a health administration specialist assigned to the 118th Medical Group, enlisted in April 2018. He is the only son who shares his grandfather’s last name because his mother wanted him to carry on her family’s legacy.

When not in uniform, Khongsinh works part-time jobs, as a medical scribe at an orthopedic clinic and as a grocery clerk. Using his Air National Guard education benefits, he’s preparing for the Medical College Admission Test and plans to complete a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He hopes to become a medical officer.

Khongsinh appreciates the opportunity to serve with his brothers. “I think it’s fantastic we are all at the same base,” he said. “There’s a sense of pride and morale when you work with family. ... It provides a sense of joy.”

With two of his brothers on board, next to join the wing was Senior Airman Anourath Phimphivong, an analyst assigned to the 246th Intelligence Squadron, who decided to enlist in May 2019.

“The Air Force is a pathway for me because it gives me the opportunity to discover what I want to do and what I’m good at,” said Anourath. “I share an interest in computers, and it was easier to make that connection with the Air Force versus joining another branch.” Like his other brothers, he chose the 118th Wing because it allowed him to serve close to home.

Anourath works as a retail associate and holds an associate’s degree, with plans to develop skills in the plumbing trade and complete his bachelor’s degree.

“I know many people in my unit who work tech jobs and hold management positions because of their degrees,” he said. “I look up to them because they’re a positive influence on me. They encourage me to continually improve my overall life.”

Serving in the same wing has helped harmonize the Phimphivong brothers’ relationships. “My oldest brother always tries to set us up with opportunities,” said Anourath. “He always gives positive feedback on how to approach what I want to do. He is very supportive.”

Lastly, Airman 1st Class Olay Phimphivong, a geospatial intelligence analyst assigned to the 237th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron, enlisted in June 2019. Despite three brothers serving in the wing, Olay says there’s no sibling rivalry. “We check in on each other and converse about military life, but beyond that, it’s strictly supporting each other.”

Olay plans to use the Tennessee Strong Act and GI Bill benefits to further his education in electrical engineering. “I like learning new and challenging parts of my career field,” he said. “I want to help bring the new tools we learn back to the field and leave it better than how we found it.”

Reflecting on the collectivist culture they grew up embracing and the Air Force’s culture of integrity first, one of the most important life lessons Olay has learned is team effort.

“We don’t succeed by being individuals, but by trusting and relying on others to accomplish the mission and taking care of one another,” he said. “Communication is key to learning and being successful in our line of work.”

It’s rare to have four siblings serving in the same wing simultaneously. However, a fifth brother, Oli — Olay’s twin — is considering joining in 2023.

“I’m still pretty numb to the idea that five out of six siblings will be serving our country and all of us at the same wing,” said Olay. “I know it’s very unique and special, but we haven’t really dwelled on how truly special it is.”