How A Coach’s Unbelievable Journey Took Her From Vietnam To Barnegat High School
How often do you play the 'What If?' game, pondering decisions you made or did not make for better or worse or those of family and friends which have impacted your life in some way over the years?
Tammy Nicolini, a physical education/health elementary school teacher in Eagleswood and the current Girl's Head Basketball Coach at Barnegat High School has been pondering a series of 'what if' moments not just made by her but by her family and especially her father in a story she is sharing outside the family and close friends for the first time, one that begins more than 5 decades ago in Vietnam.
That's when Anh Thu was born, then Anh Thu Hoff and known today as Tammy Thu Nicolini.
She was born while her father was serving in the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War.
While serving the 2nd of his three tours in Vietnam, two of which were in combat, Staff Sergeant Charles Hoff met a woman who later became pregnant and gave birth to Anh Thu...his 3rd daughter, with the older two waiting for their Dad back home in the U.S. with their Mom and Hoff's wife.
Faced with a personal dilemma, Sergeant Hoff cared for the child and placed her in the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Danang after Anh's mother died defending her from a grenade that went off in their village.
He would go visit his infant daughter in the orphanage when he could while trying to stay alive on the battlefields including one moment, in particular, that was indeed a what-if moment that, if it had gone the other way, would have altered everything, forever.
His unit was under attack, being shot at by the Vietcong as they tried to leave the area in a helicopter.
Each of them jumped out to try and avoid being shot and killed.
Most of them didn't survive the fall.
Sgt. Hoff, who would later earn three purple hearts, survived the fall but then hoped that the Vietcong wouldn't realize he was still alive as they walked on by checking each and every Marine on the ground.
"He was very fortunate when he was wounded and when he fell out of the helicopter, he landed face down. At that time, the Vietcong came over to check and make sure that 'the enemy' so to speak, was dead, and he just laid there lifeless so that they thought he was dead," Tammy Nicolini tells Shore Sports Network. "He said it was an experience he didn't like to think about nor did he ever want to experience again, but he also learned a tremendous amount in that combat and moments of time of how to survive."
The war changed Sgt. Hoff's life forever, a proud man, a proud Marine who never emotionally recovered from the things he saw and heard during the War in Vietnam leading to PTSD diagnoses and leaving him with no desire to go back there ever again.
"I can remember as a kid, there were times where he could sit outside for hours in the thunder and lightning, and I was like 'Dad, it's thundering and lightning and pouring' and he would tell us that it reminded him of being over there because it would rain for days and they'd be out in the trenches and different places and it was just the sound of it with all the fire going on around them," Nicolini said.
Following the attack, Sgt. Hoff spoke with his wife back home while in Vietnam, worked on bringing home their newest addition to the family, doing so when Anh was 19-months old.
"My mother was open arms and accepting of me and said 'bring her back'," Nicolini said. "It was a wonderful thing because it would have made things much more difficult if she wasn't accepting of me and she had said 'you can't bring her back here'. Without that, that one little piece, was probably the most important piece because it made it easy for my father to bring me back."
There were many things Sgt. Hoff loved about Vietnam, seeing the beauty in this midst of terror raining around him including the birth of his daughter.
"He would always say to me, all the time, and I could remember this from being a little girl...'the best thing that ever happened in that war, was you'," Nicolini said. "He taught me a lot of things about being disciplined, about being thankful for what you have and making the most of whatever it may be in the situation you're in. The one thing I've learned is that life doesn't always give you what you want, so you have to make what you want out of those things."
In the years that followed while growing up with an American family, Nicolini felt comfortable and protected from any public scorn, verbal insults, and hate speech, because her Dad, Mom, Sisters, and younger Brother always had her back.
"One of the really fond memories I have of my mom is that when she would take me places, and we would go places as a family, and people would say 'wait, that's your daughter?' and she would go 'yes, that's my daughter!' and she said it very matter of factly," Nicolini said. "My siblings never said, 'well, that's my half-sister', or 'she's from Vietnam' and so that made it so much easier for me."
While not the sole focus of her life, she does self-reflect on the 'what if's' of her life that altered her reality in every way since she was born.
"If he would have gotten stationed somewhere else or if he would gotten my biological mother pregnant and then left and had no idea....I surely wouldn't be here, I wouldn't be living this life that I'm living and living the American Dream, so to speak. I would be over there...so life would be extremely different," Nicolini said.
Certainly, the decisions her father made impacted her life in every way imaginable but as she looks back with gratefulness and love at what he did and why she reflects on a man who is much bigger than those several life-altering decisions.
"I'm most thankful to him, just in general, for being an upstanding man and a human for taking responsibility for things that he has done and for having me and saying 'hey, you know what I'm bringing her back with me and I'm going to raise her and give her a better life', that in itself says a tremendous amount," Nicolini said. "I'm also thankful that he's given me the life that I have. It's taught me a tremendous amount in life, just in general, on how to pass things off to others like my own three daughters and to the players that I have (on the team) and the players I have had."
Whether it was playing Field Hockey, Softball, or Basketball at Southern Regional High School, sports was an outlet for Nicolini to find herself and fit in because like for many, sports is a break from reality.
"That was the platform, that was the place where I felt nothing mattered. It didn't matter what the color of your skin was, it didn't matter who you were...it was just, you're an athlete," Nicolini said.
Tammy later married her high school sweetheart, Jim Nicolini, both of whom graduated in 1986, have been married for 28-years and have raised three daughters, Bianca, 23, who graduated from college in 2020, Mikayla who is a nursing student currently attending Wagner University where she also plays basketball and Priscilla who is a freshman at the University of Delaware.
What she has learned over the course of her life is what she is passing on to her family and the players on the basketball teams she has coached, mainly character, effort and personal development.
"It doesn't matter who's watching, what's happening, you just do your best and that's all that matters," Nicolini said.
There are always obstacles in life, but the question she poses to her athletes is how are you going to navigate your way through them, whether large or small.
"It's always the little things that matter. If my father hadn't decided to take me here, to bring me home, not the other part of it in having to tell his wife and has a family already, so that little thing was unbelievably important," Nicolini said. "Work really hard to get to where you want to be, you don't get there solely on one big decision you make, it's all the small things and little decisions you've made to make that outcome happen."
From being an athlete to being a coach starting out as a softball, basketball and soccer coach at Pinelands Middle School from 1989-1993 before going onto coaching and teaching in Lawrence Township and took time off to start a family before going to Southern Regional Middle School and then taking over at Barnegat High School for the 2013-14 school year, Nicolini has found ways to pay the lessons learned in life forward to the next generation of athletes and young women.
"It's not just teaching them about the sport, especially coaching young women and being a positive influence in their life, you want to teach them to be strong independent women and you want to take those kinds of things, not just what you learned on the basketball court but how to be apart of something and being bigger than yourself," Nicolini said.
While her life is full of 'what if's', she has been able to reflect on over the years, there is new information about her childhood in Vietnam she is beginning to learn for the first time thanks to a woman who worked at the orphanage she was at between 1968-69, who later became a nun.
"We've been going back and forth via email and she had said to me that she remembers on Sundays, they would take the kids from the orphanage and she remembers taking me to the sea to go for a swim," Nicolini said. "She also said that she has a lot of stories that she'd like to share with me."
One thing Tammy still hopes to confirm is something her father told her, that she was the first Vietnamese child to come to America.
"I came over here in 1969. Operation BabyLift happened in 1974-75, so what I really want to try and investigate and find out if that is true and I was the first Vietnamese child to come over to the United States," Nicolini said.
The Vietnam War brought a lot of hurt and death to American Troops and hate, even when they came back home, which is horrible, but some like Staff Sgt. Charles Hoff who passed away four years ago found signs of life that they brought back home, for him, it was his daughter, a gift along with his other children to the world.
He was just one of the many heroes who returned home to raise a family and help create a better world for all of us.