Carmen George

From refugee to Army veteran, Fresno woman now saving smiles

Tigon Abalos of Fresno with children in Afghanistan while she was serving in the U.S. Army.
Tigon Abalos of Fresno with children in Afghanistan while she was serving in the U.S. Army. Special to The Bee

Five years before the World Trade Center fell and Tigon Abalos of Fresno enlisted in the U.S. Army, she was living in extreme poverty in Vietnam.

Her father had been imprisoned with other South Vietnamese soldiers after the end of the Vietnam War, and the family of nine sold everything they owned to pay their government for paperwork to come to America.

“We sold our farm, our house, our bikes,” Abalos says. “We literally gambled it all.”

We sold everything. Just like the Syrian refugees, we came with whatever we could carry.

Tigon Abalos

Her father’s brother lived in Fresno at the time, so the family requested to be sent there. Abalos started at McLane High School as freshman without being able to speak English. She was enrolled in special classes aimed at helping new immigrants, but the school only had translators for Hmong, Chinese and Spanish students at the time, not Vietnamese.

“I don’t know how I survived high school.”

But Abalos more than survived. She was graduated from high school – the first in her family to do so – and then was accepted into UC Berkeley after scoring high in math on her SAT, although she still struggled with speaking English. She also enlisted in the Army Reserve.

When 9/11 happened, Abalos wanted to do more to help her new country. Although she was a new American, Abalos says, she was already very “patriotic.” She left UC Berkeley and enlisted in the U.S. Army.

When people see my face and hear my accent, they don’t think I’m a U.S. Army veteran.

Tigon Abalos

She served in Germany for four years and was deployed to Afghanistan for a year, where she worked as a counter-intelligence agent.

An experience helping at a refugee camp in Afghanistan would alter the course of her future. As a long line of women and children waited to be seen by a doctor, a number of them smiled at her, exposing unhealthy gums and dirty, crooked teeth. She wished they had a dentist to help them, and in that moment, she decided she’d become one someday.

After her five-year contract with the Army was up, she went back to school. She graduated from Fresno State in chemistry, and then completed dental school this summer at UCLA.

At UCLA, she and another student founded Operation Bruin Smiles, which provides free dental care for student veterans and former foster youth. Operation Bruin Smiles continues at UCLA. Abalos was inspired to start it after volunteering at a Veterans Affairs hospital and learning that many veterans don’t received free dental care.

She’s now living in Fresno and working as a dentist serving low-income patients in Visalia through nonprofit Family Healthcare Network. Many of her patients are migrant farmworkers.

“It’s close to my heart,” Abalos says of her work. “I’m an immigrant and refugee myself – it makes sense.”

Her success story recently caught the attention of veterans group Got Your 6 (six is military lingo for “back”) and The Television Academy. She was invited to speak Nov. 1 as one of six veteran presenters at a TED-talk style storytelling event in Los Angeles aimed at shifting the “narrative of veterans as ‘broken heroes’ to one focusing on veterans as leaders and civic assets.”

Abalos was among eight veterans who spoke in Los Angeles this year. Other veterans spoke in New York and Washington, D.C. Videos from the 2015 event were viewed more than 3 million times.

We are strong and have all this diversity.

Tigon Abalos about veterans

“She’s a great example of how we are trying to dispel the myths of what a veteran is by showing that veterans are just as well-rounded and doing just as wonderful things as civilians are,” says Mark Szymanski, director of public relations for Got Your 6.

Abalos wants to start a program in Fresno one day to help low-income people receive free dental care. In December, she’ll also start serving one weekend a month in the Army Reserve again – this time, as a dentist.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge