Anh Duong, Out Of Debt

History, said Emerson, is "the biography of a few stout and earnest persons." But history also is a story of unpredictable contingencies and improbable caroms, and of a 4-foot-7, 15-year-old girl's leap from a dangerously bobbing boat to a pitching South Vietnamese ship in the South China Sea. It was April 1975. The Communists were overrunning South Vietnam. At that time, Osama bin Laden was 18. The arc of his life, and Anh Duong's, would intersect.

Her leap propelled her to freedom. She grew up to be a 5-foot-1 chemist who, 26 years later, led the development of a bomb efficient at killing America's enemies in Afghanistan's caves. As a result, fewer American soldiers have had to enter those caves to engage Osama's fighters. This is Anh Duong's story.

The U.S. Navy took her and her family to Subic Bay in the Philippines. Next stop was a refugee camp in Pennsylvania. After five months this Buddhist family was adopted by the First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Soon Anh was in a suburban Maryland high school, headed for the University of Maryland and, eventually, degrees in chemical engineering, computer science and public administration.

"I wanted to work for the Defense Department," she says, "because I wanted to pay back the guys who protected us all those years." On September 11, 2001, she was working on Navy munitions and explosives—on, she says, "things that go swish and boom." Rockets go "swish." What they carry goes "boom." Soon after 9/11 it was apparent that U.S. forces would be fighting in Afghanistan, where the enemy often would be sheltered in the deep recesses of caves, reached after many twists and turns.

Sending U.S. forces into those caves would involve a terrible butcher's bill that might be avoided if a new munition could be developed—a new thermobaric (traveling blast and heat) bomb. At lunch at the Ritz-Carlton hotel near the Pentagon, as she delicately eats a hamburger with a knife and fork, she explains that normal bombs do their work by delivering fragments (to punch through things) and blast (to collapse things). But delivered by an F-15 to the mouth of a cave, a normal bomb's blast and fragmentation dissipate too quickly to reach deep into the cave and kill those hiding there. The task for her and her team was a challenge of detonation chemistry. They had to "deliver energy more slowly—we want the energy to last longer and travel."

The three-year plan for demonstrating a prototype thermo-baric bomb was scrapped, and Anh and her team set about confirming the axiom that America is like a boiler—there is no telling how much energy it will produce once you light a fire under it. "I did not need to motivate my team," she says. Osama had done that. In 67 days their three-year mission was accomplished. BLU-118/B, a thermobaric bomb whose heat and blast persist and penetrate deep into caves, went to war.

Her current mission derives from the peculiar nature of the war against terrorists, in which the first difficult question is, she says, "Who am I aiming the weapon at?" This has become, in Iraq, a matter of high-stakes forensics using a huge biometric database. Whose fingerprints are those on that fragment of an improvised explosive device? She is devising portable labs to answer such questions in Iraq.

Anh is hardly a thermobaric person, a weaponized woman. The Washington Post reports that while she was working on the new bomb, her children, then 5 to 11, were not allowed to play with toy guns or read Harry Potter books, which the parents deemed too violent. Their parents even excised the fight scenes from their Disney "Pocahontas" video.

The trajectory of Anh's life, which has taken her from one of America's wars to another, might eventually involve another generation of her family. The oldest of her four children, a 17-year-old daughter, is considering a career in—this apple did not fall far from the tree—homeland security or international affairs.

This autumn, Anh was among a select few federal workers honored with Service to America Medals by the Partnership for Public Service, which recognizes especially meritorious achievements. In front of a large audience at a black-tie dinner she strode to the microphone and, speaking without notes, began: "Thirty-two years ago I came to this land as a refugee of war with a pair of empty hands and a bag full of broken dreams." Describing America as "this paradise," she said:

"This land is a paradise not because of its beauty or richness but because of its people, the compassionate, generous Americans who took my family and me in, 32 years ago, and healed our souls, who restore my faith in humanity, and who inspire me to public service. There's a special group of people that I'm especially indebted to and I would like to dedicate this medal to them. They are the 58,000 Americans whose names are on the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial and the 260,000 South Vietnamese soldiers who died in that war in order for people like me to earn a second chance to freedom. May God bless all of those who are willing to die for freedom—especially those who are willing to die for the freedom of others. Thank you."

And thank you, Anh Duong. Consider your debt paid in full, with interest.