They came to this country with nothing but perseverance and $20 in their pocket, not knowing whether or not they would survive, let alone that their daughter would one day use the power of focus they instilled to support the warfighter.
For the past 18 years Carolyn Vo Farmer has taken the focus her parents used in pursuit of the American dream to help the Army research, develop and engineer technology for aviation and missile platforms across the life cycle. She presented, “The Power of Focus to Influence Personal and Professional Change,” at a Tennessee Valley Chapter of Women in Defense mentoring event. Farmer is the All Up Round and Canister deputy project manager for the Army Hypersonic Project Office.
“Think about when you’re focused in on something with a camera – think about the clarity and perspective that you gain in what you’re doing. Whether it’s professional, personal, or Army-related, if you’re doing too many things all at once, you might be able to knock off a few things, but when you really turn on that focus and aperture, and hone in on that one particular thing, your power of focus, and what you can move when you are truly focused on a particular situation, is amazing,” Farmer said.
Farmer’s father, Son Vo, was a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese navy, working alongside the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet on the USS Turner Joy during the Vietnam War. Just before the war ended Vo declined an offer from the U.S. Navy for free, safe passage for him and his young family to the United States. Despite knowing he would be persecuted, he chose to stay in Vietnam to take care of his aging parents. Instead, he was sent to a “re-education camp” for three years, where he was a prisoner of war. He received only one bowl of rice and a cube of meat a week for nourishment, and was forced to do hard labor.
“When he was released from the POW camp, he knew that was not the life he wanted to lead. The focus for him was to seek an opportunity for a better life for his family,” Farmer said. “It wasn’t guaranteed. It was completely an opportunity, and he could fail miserably at that opportunity. But for him and his family – for my mom and my sisters – it was completely worth it.”
That better life waited for them in America, but first they would need to get to a U.S. refugee camp in Malaysia. So the Vo family, under the cloak of darkness, boarded a 50-foot fishing boat with 123 other people. Vo, who had taken a celestial navigation course during his navy training, served as the boat’s navigator, in exchange for the family’s fare. For three days they were targeted by pirates and water police, enduring riots from fellow passengers who were scared. Vo remained completely focused.
“That celestial navigation class that he took as an elective in the South Vietnamese Navy definitely saved their lives. It really saved our family’s lives and 123 other people’s lives. He knew exactly what he needed to do, and he did it,” Farmer said.
The family immigrated to America in 1978, after six months at a refugee camp. They chose Huntsville as their new home, because a cousin had married a U.S. service member who was stationed at Redstone Arsenal. Farmer was born a few months later.
“When they came to America they didn’t speak very good English, and they struggled over the years. But they had a commitment to the community. They wanted to serve. They wanted to be American citizens, they wanted to be a part of this American culture, and they strived and tried really hard to be a part of that culture,” Farmer said.
Fast forward four decades and all three of the Vo daughters hold degrees in engineering and have chosen careers to serve the local community or the warfighter. Farmer, who had been working with the International Space Station prior to 9/11, left her job thereafter, accepting a position to support the Hellfire Missile Stockpile Reliability Program.
“After the tragedies of Sept. 11, I knew that I wanted to change career paths. I knew that there was a special calling for me to serve in a larger magnitude,” Farmer said.
She has spent the past 18 years serving her country as a government civilian in a variety of roles. As she’s advanced in her career, she’s looked to mentors for guidance, a practice she encouraged attendees to engage in.
“Make sure you have multiple mentors in your circle,” she said. “Empower subordinate team members and create opportunities, spark growth of new leaders. It’s our job as leaders to make sure that we empower our subordinate team members, move barricades out of their way, and really create opportunities for them. They are a reflection of you.”
One of Farmer’s mentees is Christina Fults, a realty specialist for the Garrison, who said the best piece of advice her mentor has ever given her is that “respect is the primary pillar of trust in life and within an organization.”
“Carolyn has been such an amazing mentor,” Fults said. “Her family history, career and personal life are so inspiring, and have motivated me to continue to develop myself both professionally and personally, not be afraid to take opportunities, create a healthy balance between work and home, and the importance of maintaining a positive and respectful attitude/reaction even when faced with adversity. She truly cares about people and the mission, and this is what I admire about her the most.”
Farmer also took the opportunity to speak about the Army’s focus on modernization priorities and the National Defense Strategy. She is humbled to be an integral part of the Army’s focused intent to deliver an experimental prototype Long Range Hypersonic Weapon System with residual combat capability to the field in fiscal 2023.