The Armory Life is honored to recently have had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Tu Lam, retired Green Beret and founder/CEO of the highly respected Ronin Tactics training group.
Having dedicated his life to living by the Bushido code, Tu Lam’s more than two decades of service in the U.S. Army and his background in advanced martial arts has allowed him to bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the firearms and tactics community — as well as a unique philosophical perspective to the subject.
Additionally, Lam is well-known in circles outside the traditional military and firearms communities, having served as the inspiration for the “Ronin” character in the incredibly popular “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” series of video games. He also co-hosts the History Channel’s “Knife or Death”, bringing to bear his in-depth knowledge of both combat blade tactics as well as their construction and forging.
We would like to thank Mr. Lam for taking the time to do this Q&A session with The Armory Life.
The Armory Life (TAL): Please tell us a bit about yourself, for those who might not know you.
Tu Lam (TL): My name is Tu Lam. I am a warrior. I am a loving husband, and a loving son to my parents. I am a son of God. I am an American. I am a man who fights for humanity. I’m a warrior who has fought for our country for 23 years in 27 countries.
TAL: What do our readers need to know about you and your background to understand who you are, what you have done, where you have been?
TL: I am a retired Special Forces Green Beret, serving in that role for nearly 20 years, with 23 years of total service. When I first came on as a member of the Special Forces A-Team, I was a Weapons Sergeant on the team. But we had to be skilled on things beyond our MOS, which for me was light and heavy weapons. I also had to be skilled in intelligence and unconventional warfare.
TAL: Can you tell us about your life? What brought you to where you are today?
TL: For the first 40 years of my life, I saw the worst of humanity. I was born in war in Vietnam. lost my country to the communist regime. They came and forcefully ripped apart our homes, kicking in our doors. Anybody who resisted was immediately pulled out into the street and executed.
They demanded the names of family members that served alongside Americans. Beat us, broke us as human beings. They drug out my uncles who had served alongside the Americans.
It was when I was three years old that my mother decided we needed to leave. We unfortunately were not able to make it out on the planes from Saigon. We were the boat people.
Under the cover of darkness, my mother, my father, my brother and myself, we boarded a small wooden fishing boat with 100 other people crammed into it. It was a desperate situation. Pirates from surrounding countries would attack the boats and rob, kill, assault and torture those on board.
We were lucky as the captain of the boat was able to navigate past the pirates and made it to Malaysia. But the Malaysians didn’t want any refugees, so they dragged us back out to the South China Sea, shot the boat’s engine and left us to die. We drifted for nearly a month. People were dying. Bodies were being thrown overboard.
A Russian supply boat was coming out of Vietnam, and they saw us. They looked at an enemy, but they chose humanity. They saved us and took us to Indonesia, where we lived in refugee camps for a year and half before we were able to make it to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where my uncle, an American Special Forces Green Beret, lived.
TAL: What was it like growing up in Fayetteville as a refugee from Vietnam?
TL: We were poor, and we faced a lot of racism. The Vietnam War was a very unpopular war. We had a man walk up to us in the parking lot and spit in my face, and told us to “go home.” I was also bullied at school over the fact we were poor and called racist names. But this time was a turning point for me.
TAL: How exactly was this turning point for you?
TL: I realized, would I allow myself to be a victim, or would I take that energy and become something more? There I was, eight years old at that point, and we had a substitute teacher in one day. That teacher wanted to try to pronounce my name correctly, and kept trying. He kept trying, and this got the whole class laughing about it, particularly one bully. The substitute teacher lost his temper and sent both me and the bully to the principal’s office.
They called our parents, but the bully’s mother made it there first. When the principal told her what the bully had done and how he had said I did not belong here, she looked at me and said, “He’s right. You don’t. You need to go back to your country.”
At home that night, my mother could tell something was wrong and she said something that really changed me that day. She said, “You know, son, we’re always going to have our bad days. But the thing is, what do you learn from these bad days?”
She kissed me and hugged me. I was only eight, but I “got it.” I told myself that I’m stronger than hate. I knew there had to be some kind of energy out there that was stronger than hate. I just did not know what that looked like yet.
TAL: Tell us more about where this new path led you.
TL: Well, the stress and struggles of our new lives — the escape, a new country, no money — led to my parents getting divorced. It was a very hard time. But my mother eventually remarried — I was nine years old at the time — to an American Special Forces Green Beret. A very good man.
He was a drill sergeant, and he instituted a military upbringing for us right away. I went from zero discipline to 150 miles per hour immediately. That level of discipline almost broke me.
At this point, I had not heard from my father in over a year. My mother brought me this box and told me it was from him. I had a hard time with that. I put the box on the other side of the room and left it. Finally, I decided to look in it. What I found was VHS tapes with writing in Vietnamese, but I couldn’t read it. So, I just grabbed one of the tapes and put it in the VCR.
It was “The Art of Budo.” It was the combative side of being samurai. It was Iaidō (居合道), the way of sword and the mind, to balance violence with compassion.
I saw that there was a higher purpose. A warrior’s path. Bushido. The way of the warrior.
TAL: Can you tell us about the Bushido code? Is it strictly about fighting, about combat, or is it something more?
TL: Yes, it’s more than just fighting. It’s far more than that. It’s about educating yourself. It’s about your mind. Bushido is a way of life. It’s a blueprint. “Bu” “shi” “do”. “Bu” means to intercept the spear. To stop evil. To go to war. “Shi” is the one who’s strong enough to walk the path of a warrior. And “do” is to take one’s life lessons and give back for the sake of humanity. Bushido is heavily rooted in Taoism, which is to live in harmony with the universe. To show compassion.
Bushido is a warrior’s path. It’s a way of life.
TAL: So, the Bushido code became your source of strength? Your path? How?
TL: I realized at that young age that Special Forces was the modern-day Bushido. This was my path. It would be my way to fight for what is right.
When I received those VHS tapes, I became a student of Bushido. I grew up reading Sun Tzu and “The Book of the Five Rings”, Hagakure, “The Life-Giving Sword.” As a child, I was reading these philosophies about Lao Tzu, Taoism. I was learning about living in harmony with the universe.
So, when I reached the Special Forces, I viewed the world differently. I was a student of the martial arts. I was a student of Bushido.
TAL: So, here you are. An adult. A member of the Special Forces. Tell us about your experience.
TL: When I graduated from Special Forces training, I was 21 years old, learning commando raids, counter-tracking techniques, water amphibious infiltration, and everything. After work, I go and bow into a dojo and practice martial arts.
I had started with the 82nd Airborne Division, and then went to the long-range reconnaissance amphibious teams, and then went on to the 1st Special Forces Group, after that I served with the Army’s Special Missions Unit (CAG), I later went on to the 10th Special Forces Group, where I retired.
This was very hard work, and I was injured (along with a lot of others). I got caught in IED in 2005. I was given painkillers to dull the pain. I had a spine injury, but I kept pushing and doing all the hard work. The painkillers numbed that pain. So, I used them.
What started off as Bushido, the Way — now, I was lost. I had no feelings, no emotion. Just hate.
TAL: What helped you find your way back?
TL: I was in Cameroon, fighting counter-poaching wars. I was 20 years in, with 15 of those in war. I was sitting outside my tent one morning before a mission drinking chai tea, watching the sun rise. I was grateful for this sunrise and this morning. But I knew this feeling would go away. So, I pulled out my journal and wrote the word “peace.” This was my new journey.
I went on to do personal protection detail for the President, and at that time I hit 23 years and retired honorably. At the time of my retirement, I had a lot of injuries, and I was addicted to drugs.
I was out in Colorado. I slept in bed all day. These were my worst days. I remembered back when I was sitting on my bed with my mother, and she told me that we need to take our bad days, and learn from them. As I lay there in bed in the dark, a voice told me to get up. This voice was so loud.
I ended up in my war room. Blindly, I opened up my bookcase and grabbed a book. It was “The Book of Five Rings,” by Miyamoto Musashi. He was a Ronin born in the late 1500’s. He was a master swordsman. A warrior. A poet. A philosopher. He was everything that I wanted to be as a child. A samurai. Bushido.
I opened up the book, and the passage said, “Everything exists within you. Do not look anywhere else. All your love, your hate, your pain … it’s all within you. Look nowhere else.” At this point, I was looking for the answers in these painkillers. But the answer was within me.
I remember that moment. I had an energy. I took all my medications and threw them away. All these pills I had been dependent on for eight years. That chemical wall I had built for myself to protect me from the realities of the world was no longer there.
So, I chose an energy that is stronger than hate. I chose love and compassion.
TAL: How did you change your energy from hate to love and compassion?
TL: When I was in this dark place, I read “The Book of Five Rings”, and I looked for the strength within. I called myself “Ronin”, from the words written by Miyamoto Musashi. The words that gave me the light to be something more. Ronin.
A Ronin in feudal-era Japan was masterless warrior. A samurai served his master, the daimyo. Those who did not have a daimyo were unemployed. A Ronin was to serve yourself, something shameful.
In my dark time, I was a Ronin. A wanderer. Masterless. I called myself that initially because I was ashamed of what I had become. I had identified my enemy. My hate. Myself. My depression.
In war, something as simple as kindness can be viewed as weakness. After my years of war, I realized I wasn’t a kind human being anymore. I wanted to change that.
So how do I combat that hate with compassion and love? I wake up every morning at 4:00 am, and I sit in the dark on my deck and practice what is called mindfulness meditation. You breathe in — zazen — and you are present in the present moment. And when the sun comes up, I show gratitude to God for the day. I realized that if I established a pattern — execute my day with focus and discipline, every single day — then the actions I take to absorb gratitude, God, heals me.
In time, doing this over and over, I become kind. I am more compassionate. But I also realized that I could use my knowledge as a Green Beret to be a force for good around me. I am trained to be a force multiplier. I have stood up commando forces. I have trained armies. I realized I could do the same with law enforcement and civilians here, to help them protect their communities.
So that is what I do. I and my wife travel around America and teach the art of Budo and the way of Bushido. I teach the way of violence, and compassion. I teach them compassion before anything else. The proper way to live as I understand it.
The Bushido Code was what allowed me to heal myself when I was lost. “Bu”, “shi”, “do”. “Bu” is to stop the spear, to fight. “Shi” is the one that is strong enough. It takes a strong person to walk the path with “do”. “Do” is where I am now. To take my life lessons and give back for the sake of humanity. I seek peace in myself and the calmness of the mind.
TAL: What would you like for people who read this to learn from your experience, from your story?
TL: Life is struggle. We all have to walk through the valley of darkness at some point. Life is made up of mistakes. Of failures. But it’s through this darkness that you can find your true strength. And that’s my message. Live life without fear. Face your struggles and extract the higher lessons of life. Face your pain, and understand that it’s temporary. Live life in every breath. Live and die for something meaningful. That’s the way of a warrior.
Editor’s Note: Please be sure to check out The Armory Life Forum, where you can comment about our daily articles, as well as just talk guns and gear. Click the “Go To Forum Thread” link below to jump in!
Join the Discussion
Featured in this article
Ronin Tactics Ronin Wakizashi