When Anh Duong was 15 years old, she took a literal leap of faith, faith in the United States of America. And ever since that day, she has committed herself to giving back to the country that gave her so much.
Anh Duong fled Vietnam as a teenager, rushing from a helicopter to a boat until finally jumping onto a U.S. Navy ship, which transported her family to the Philippines where they were assigned to a refugee camp. Her family was eventually given political asylum in the United States, and decades after escaping that war, Anh Duong helped her adopted country win another. She is recognized as the “scientist who developed the bomb that helped win the war in Afghanistan,” and that is just one of her many contributions during her 24 years in federal service.
Once the decision was made that an international coalition was going to invade Afghanistan in response to the attacks of September 11th, military planners determined that new weapons were needed to penetrate the tunnels and caves being used by terrorists and to avoid violent tunnel-to-tunnel combat between coalition and Taliban forces.
Duong’s team of nearly 100 scientists and engineers quickly went from concept to development and deployment of the United States’ first thermobaric weapon — a device that creates shock waves that can cause caves and tunnels to implode. Weapons this sophisticated have been known to take years to create. Duong’s team got the job done in 67 days. These bombs would prove instrumental in the U.S.-led coalition’s swift overthrow of the Taliban.
When asked about her work, Duong is always adamant that she wishes the United States never had to go to war. “But if war is inevitable,” she says, “If we’re going to send troops, we want to make sure that a lot of them will come back. And we better equip them with the best weapons.” She added, “Foremost in my mind is coming up with ways to protect our troops.”
With her impressive track record, it was no surprise that Duong was chosen to lead this effort. She has worked for the federal government ever since graduating from college in 1983. Her first job was working at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Indian Head, where she formulated the materials that launch projectiles out of the barrel of big naval guns. From 1991-1999, she managed all Navy basic exploratory research and advanced development programs in high explosives.
In 1999, she took the job as the head of all NSWC Indian Head’s technical programs in explosives and undersea weapons. It was in this position that she led the development of the thermobaric bomb. She has also done critical work to improve the safety of explosives on Navy ships.
Altogether, Anh Duong successfully led the development and transition of a total of 10 high performing explosives into 18 different weapons, which is an unrivaled record in the field. Her accomplishments have earned her the Dr. Arthur Bisson Award for Naval Technology Achievement by the Chief of Naval Research; being featured in the book Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers; recognition in the documentary film Why We Fight; as well as the Discovery Channel’s special Future Weapons.
In 2006, she was put in charge of technology issues for the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations and for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, made famous by the CBS television series, NCIS. In this capacity, Duong is creating mobile, modular battlefield forensics labs for war fighters. This technology will enable U.S. forces to use DNA and other forensic evidence to better identify the perpetrators of terrorist acts and catch the “bad guys” before they have a chance to strike again.
In short, Anh Duong embodies the American Dream. Duong says, “We as immigrants only succeed because of the opportunities we are given.” She is remarkably grateful for those opportunities and she has used them to build a better life for herself, but more importantly, to build a stronger America.
This medalist was the recipient of the National Security Medal. This medal was combined with the International Affairs category in 2008, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.