Tu Lam is the epitome of many things—a loyal military member and a highly trained martial artist, weapons expert, firearm tactician, teacher and, finally, a soft-spoken and caring individual.
However, words are just that: words. To truly understand Tu’s mindset, physical abilities and prowess, as well as why his training company, Ronin Tactics, is so well-regarded, American Survival Guide caught up with this ever-active retired Special Forces operator and explored what made him what he is today, including the arduous, sometimes dangerous, but truly fulfilling, path he took to get here.
American Survival Guide: What was your childhood like as you were growing up, and was your life then instrumental in creating the man you are today?
Tu Lam: Unfortunately, growing up the in 1980s as an Asian American (South Vietnamese) post-Vietnam War years outside of the biggest Army base in the United States (Fort Bragg, North Carolina) was not so easy. I was called more racist names than I care to recall. I was bullied and beaten daily for looking different. Usually, these racist child acts were supported by their racist adult parents.
“‘I am Ronin.’ This means that now, as a Ronin, I am master-less to do the things that are important to me as a human being.”
My family didn’t come from money, and we didn’t have much. My stepfather raised us with a very strict military upbringing. Higher education was a requirement, and we dedicated many hours to our academics. In public school, we had a dress code—enforced by my stepfather.
My stepfather had a welding business that was started by my step-grandfather after he returned home from the Korean War. My stepfather engineered and manufactured Special Operations assault ladders, along with many other requirements from the military’s more specialized units.
Growing up, our days were long, with no days off. We went to school during the school days and worked through the weekends. During the summer breaks, we would work seven days a week. If we were not working at the welding shop, we were working at home. Our days usually started at 6:00 a.m. with The Ballad of the Green Berets (the Special Forces song). My stepfather was a former Army drill sergeant, so physical training was developed early in our childhood.
Growing up in a military household, we were trained on weapons. I started training in hand-to-hand, combat blade tactics and firearms at age 11. Now, as an adult and looking back on my childhood, I realize my strict upbringing gave me the structure I needed in my life to accomplish the things that are important to me. Things that are important to me, like finishing college while fighting wars. My physical discipline as a child has transferred to my discipline to finish some of the military’s most demanding training and Special Operations assignments. The bullying and racism I’ve endured as a child has given me strength to not allow such a hateful mind but rather show compassion to others. At the time, I could not see the lesson, but I do now. The struggles I endured as a child have given me the strength I needed to become the person I seek to be.
ASG: The fact that the military has been a huge influence on your life is obvious. What, however, was the catalyst that led you down the path to the U.S. armed forces? Was it through choice, necessity or something else entirely?
“FROM A VERY YOUNG AGE, I WAS TAUGHT TO UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEXITIES OF THE SPECIAL FORCES MISSION.”
TL: My understanding from birth was one of war. I was born out of war. America’s [combat] involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1965 to 1973. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam [at that time, South Vietnam] on December 17, 1974, during the failing state for the South Vietnamese government. During this phase of the war, American troops have withdrawn from Vietnam. This event left a devastating impact on the people of South Vietnam. As a child, my family was pulled out onto the streets. My uncles that served alongside the American military were gunned down and my other uncles were imprisoned in “re-education” camps [torture camps].
When I was 2 years old, I escaped on an overstuffed wooden boat with hundreds of other refugees. Pirates from surrounding countries anchored us down and pulled us back into the ocean on lines, then shot our motor and cut the lines, leaving us out in the middle of the water to die. By the grace of God, a Russian supply boat picked us up as they were coming out of Vietnam. They dropped us off at a refugee camp in Indonesia, where we had to live off the land for close to a year.
My mother eventually remarried after we made it to the United States. My stepfather and my uncle (who sponsored our [citizenship] paperwork to the United States) were both Special Forces Green Berets. I was raised from a very young age understanding the complexities of the Special Forces mission. I realized at a young age, 11 years old, that the Green Beret was my ticket to help fight and free those oppressed.
ASG: It’s human nature that some people just make the wrong choice and discover the military is not for them. Was there a distinctive event that convinced you the military was, indeed, the right path for you?
TL: I can’t say that I can think of one distinctive event that confirmed that I was on the right path. There were times that made me question my path; but now, looking back, for me it was the right path. In my path as a Green Beret, I’ve helped free thousands from modern-day genocide and slavery. I‘ve fought against evil, and I’ve helped protect our country during times of war. My struggles have given me the strength to endure, for I understand, through the struggles, one will find themselves.
ASG: “Ronin” is defined as a “wandering samurai who no longer serves a lord.” How and why does that mirror your own ways and the philosophies of your present-day training courses?
TL: I‘ve also dedicated my life to the martial arts, and I choose to walk a certain path—a path to understanding. In the path to the teachings of “bushido” [the warrior’s path], one must give back, for I belong to the warrior in whom the old ways have joined the new. In my path as a modern-day Ronin, I choose to help the good in this world. In this evolution of my life, I have become a teacher to many as my team and I travel around the United States to help safeguard the lives of the innocents by teaching them the tools that kept me alive during my time in wars and conflicts.
ASG: Speaking of those courses, what inspired you to venture into that type of project?
TL: In the path of bushido or the martial artist, it is important in one’s development to give back for the betterment of the world. I seek to do this through my teachings of a Ronin.
ASG: Can you give a little background on your martial arts training and how the discipline aspect of the arts has complemented your military training?
TL: In my understanding of forms and styles, one must develop a discipline to adapt to the situation and the environment. I started my traditional martial arts training at 8 years old. As a child, the training provided me the structure and discipline I needed as an adult to serve on the Special Forces A-Teams. I have studied many forms of combat throughout my travels. I have adapted many forms to my “Formless Style.” I pull the techniques and tactics from different forms as needed. During my time in war, I have employed martial arts to enhance my speed, agility, balance, power, etc. These movements, along with my understanding of Special Operations strategy, is my form of martial art.
ASG: As a practitioner of the martial arts myself, I fully understand that training and learning never end. In what area of training do you feel you still have much to learn, if any, or is there a new field of study you would like to begin?
TL: Without the mind, movements are just that … only movements. I seek to train in the ways of “zazen” or “Zen” mind. I find in this practice of “mindfulness” I am able to process my gunfighting or hand-to-hand with a clearer focus. My ability to process speed and timing has greatly enhanced, because I am training to control my emotions. By eliminating emotions, one can think with a clearing mind.
ASG: Do you feel that the seven key principles of the bushido code, followed by the samurai of ancient Japan, would be beneficial for modern-day people throughout their daily lives?
TL: I feel any higher code is beneficial to human life. A personal code is the philosophy you have about life and the way you wish to live it. A code is determined by what you want to be defined as and the values you wish to work toward.
The Bushido Code is a warrior’s code. This code came out of the war-stating periods of ancient Japan. The code means to “readily accept death”—to lay down one’s life for the service of their “daimyo” [powerful Japanese feudal lord]. In order to lay down one’s life, they must believe and live by a code. As a modern-day warrior, I have lived by a code. As a Green Beret, we had a code and, as a martial artist, I live my life by a code. I do feel, in life, one must live by a set of rules.
ASG: Explain a typical three-day course that the “average Joe” would experience at Ronin Tactics.
TL: Our three-day Ronin Tactics course usually begins with our “Streetfighter” seminar. In this course, I give you my experience as a Special Forces soldier in combat and while living in hostile areas. I explain the training, mindset and tactics that kept me alive. With tactics comes execution, and I teach my individual execution of things. In our seminar, we briefly go over the history of martial arts and weapons. We talk over range and distance to threat and how to create the time needed to employ weapons. In this seminar, we employ edged-weapons tactics to fight and how to move off center line of an opponent.
Day two is usually our “Combat Pistol” course. Tactics and employment of tactical pistol involves the combat application of a pistol, meaning that we break down the tactics portion (strategy) and the physical portion or movements (marksmanship) of a combat pistol.
In this course, we have taken the hard lessons learned during times of war and applied them to our combat pistol course. What I find in these courses are the students usually have to retrain on a certain pistol fundamental that maybe worked for them in slow aim-fire applications. In combat, it is about speed and accuracy, and we push our students to understand and develop this relationship through our drills. We find this course to be extremely popular, because it pushes the students past their comfort zone.
Day three is our “Combat Carbine” course. As in our Combat Pistol course, we break down the tactics portion (strategy) and how this relates to different skills needed in combat marksmanship. Our course starts off with confirming zero on the weapon’s optic and ballistic data collected at different ranges. In our class, we go over range-to-threat and how to properly adjust point of aim to desired impact, based off of range and ballistics. Students will revisit the rifle fundamentals to ensure their trained fundamentals will meet our training instructions. This is not a beginner’s course and will require the student to perform combat drills under stressful conditions.
ASG: Describe the benefits—physically, mentally and emotionally—that one can gain after taking one or more of your courses.
TL: We have been running our tactical courses for well over four years now. Our courses are very popular and our courses usually sell out within 24 hours after releasing them.
What I find in training students is I seek to understand the student and develop the individual based off of this understanding. Our courses are not just about understanding martial arts or a firearm; it’s about understanding a deeper meaning in themselves as they push through our style of training.
We find that most students walk away with a deeper understanding of a warrior’s mindset. Many of our students are returning students, and I usually see physical and mental changes in them. Our students are usually proud to share how our training not only developed their combat skills but also how it developed their inner self. Understand that the martial arts are not just about physical movement but, if applied, it is a higher form of living.
ASG: Taking the first step when trying new things might be difficult for many people, so what advice or words of motivation would you say to get them over that hump and start some training?
TL: We find, usually by the time they make it to our courses, they are ready to train. Most, if not all, are excited for the training. Our courses are challenging, and we have seen a few students fail to meet our course standards.
When I teach, I show the students the standards for the training day and throughout the day, I develop the student’s skills through a series of training sessions developed to meet the day’s standards. If the students fail, then I simply remind them that “a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step” and that today is their first step. I show them the standards and develop a training program they can use to continue to develop themselves when I’m not around. As a martial artist, I teach my students the importance of controlling the mind, and the method and training I use to develop stillness of the mind.
ASG: Your website mentions your “unconventional training strategies.” Can you explain how these are beneficial to a person’s learning experience when they take your courses?
TL: America won their independence from the British (the American Revolutionary War) using “unconventional tactics.” As a Green Beret, we are masters at unconventional warfare. The Special Forces Green Berets were officially activated by President John F. Kennedy to combat back against guerrilla warfare during the Vietnam War. Our unconventional training strategies are driven off of my deep understanding of this effective form of fighting. In my training, I teach an unclassified form of these unconventional tactics to help ensure the survivability of our students while engaging in some of the complex situations they are facing in today’s modern world.
As a Green Beret, I do have an unconventional approach to my training. I’ve developed this skill throughout my 23 years of service, having trained foreign military, militants and rebels throughout warzones and areas of conflicts.
ASG: Knife or Death, seen on The History Channel, appears to perfectly complement your extensive experience and expertise in the “knife world.” What was the process that eventually led you to co-host this show?
TL: As a Ronin, I teach a lot. I have traveled around the United States to teach law-abiding civilians and, in this process, I have taught major police departments and military units. One of the courses I offer is the combat application of a blade. As a martial artist and a Green Beret, I have trained extensively on hand-to-hand and blade tactics. Now, as a Ronin, I like to share my training with my students and followers on social media.
After roughly three years of offering training, I received an e-mail from The History Channel, and they asked if I could do a phone interview about an upcoming show. They briefly talked to me about the show and asked if I would be interested in doing a phone interview with Bill Goldberg and the producer of the show. I agreed, and during the phone interview, Goldberg and I hit it off. Bill is a great guy and is now one of my personal friends. The interview went great, and the producer offered me the position to co-host.
ASG: Did you have any initial concerns or apprehension that perhaps being on a “reality” show—no matter how true it is to the craft—could negatively impact your reputation?
TL: No. Life is about experiencing new things. In the military, we are very regulated on how we should think and how we should conduct ourselves. I agree that there should be a military discipline throughout the services, but in this evolution of my life, I seek to live and do the things I wish to do, given the freedoms I helped protect during my time serving in the military. I wish to live the life true to myself and not a life based off the opinions of others.
ASG: Can you recall any situations on the Knife or Death set when things just didn’t go as planned or when any of the challengers didn’t take criticism too well?
TL: No. the History Channel’s Knife or Death staff were very professional and, for the most part, listened to my opinions. I’ve enjoyed working with the network. As far as the competitors, I’ve enjoyed meeting them and watching them give their all during the course. This reality show has introduced me to the blade community and has allowed me a look into this competitive blade world.
ASG: You have been exposed to all types of blades throughout your career, but have any of the blades from Knife or Death absolutely “blown you away”?
TL: I have seen many blades from around the world throughout my military career. Knife or Death has blown my mind with some of the blades that show up to the show. What I like is the thought process behind them choosing their blade. I have learned so much seeing different blades used throughout history all in one place. I have seen so many great blades representing the competitors’ background and blade discipline. I guess what absolutely blew me away was I’ve seen a samurai sword wrap around a block of ice. It’s amazing to see what that course does to the blade.
ASG: What is your current knife-of-choice for everyday carry?
TL: The Ronin Tactics Sakura Blade. This blade was designed to be rapidly employed and used as an extreme-close-quarters weapon. The ring allows the user to quickly spin from a pick/reverse grip to an extended blade position. The Sakura double-edged tip allows the blade to effectively trap, cut and penetrate through muscle and soft tissue areas without binding the blade. The ring dimension was designed to be used with or without tactical gloves, allowing the blade to lock or spin freely as needed. The curved, tapering handle provides a slim and comfortable profile which contours with the natural lines of the user’s palm. The thumb ramp that runs down the spine of the blade provides improved traction while employing in either a blade or saber position. The Sakura is available for sale to the public.
“When I teach … I develop the student’s skills through a series of training sessions developed to meet the day’s standards.”
ASG: Your resume is extensive and, without a doubt, you have led an exciting and adventurous life to this point, but what is still missing—if anything—that you would still like to pursue?
TL: Life is a journey. My military career was full of challenges that allowed me to grow as a human being. My accomplishments of the past are just that—the past. In this evolution of my life, I seek to develop my new life adventures as I seek to pursue becoming the person I wish to be in life and death.
ASG: Using only three words, how would you describe Tu Lam?
TL: “I am Ronin.” Meaning- now, as a Ronin, I am master-less to do the things that are important to me as a human being.
Amber Hargrove Trains With Ronin Tactics
Amber Hargrove Kohler, former U.S. Army sergeant, Naked and Afraid contestant and an all-around outdoorswoman, traveled to Colorado to experience Tu Lam’s Ronin Tactics three-day training event. This rigorous blend of street-fighting tactics, shooting courses and edged-weapon defensive and offensive techniques put Amber to the test physically, mentally and emotionally. She completed her weekend course, dusted herself off and shared her experiences with American Survival Guide.
ASG: What was your first impression of Tu Lam upon meeting him and of the Ronin Tactics facility itself?
Amber Hargrove Kohler: When I met Tu Lam for the first time, you think- This guy is the real deal! You see him in videos and on social media, and he is every bit what you see as a larger-than-life badass.
However, he is much more than that. Tu Lam says what he means and means what he says. He seeks the truth in all aspects of life and lives by the principles he shares with his students. He has become Ronin the warrior, an incredible teacher who is also calm, mild-mannered and humble. He is a very inspirational person who makes you feel special in his presence—even though you just met him.
ASG: What type of courses did you take over the three days at Ronin Tactics?
AK: I took the three-day course training package. Day one was the “Streetfighter” course. This was my favorite training; the hand-to-hand knife defense was exciting and fun. I literally got laid out during this course- my legs wiped out from under me. Especially, I had to work on my footing.
Day two was the “Combat Pistol” course, learning the basic fundamentals for shooting a handgun, but then, he throws in the combat training, using speed and accuracy. Tu was a beast during this training. It was a completely controlled environment, and the training was the best I’ve ever experienced with shooting.
The last day was the “Combat Carbine” course. With this day, I was having flashbacks from my days in the Army. But, with this, he trains you how to put accuracy and speed together as one movement. His demonstrations were intense to watch and motivate you to want to be faster and controlled.
ASG: Describe the professionalism of your instructors. Did they make you feel at ease with all the material throughout each course?
AK: This was one of my favorite training courses I’ve ever attended. As an Army veteran of 12 years, and with two combat tours, I can say I would have loved to have this training prior to my deployments to prepare for the missions. Tu and his assistant were incredibly professional and always made you feel safe in your environment.
ASG: Describe the intensity level of the courses you took. Did they match or exceed your own personal limits?
AK: The training, itself, exceeded all expectations—and more. During each course, I learned so much more than expected. His energy and intensity really speaks for itself; the environment turns into the reality of wanting to be the best you can be with his technique.
ASG: What was “downtime” like over the weekend? Were you able to get to know fellow participants? If so, what were their impressions of the overall experience?
AK: During the training, there wasn’t much downtime. We trained 95 percent of the time. We had water breaks throughout training, and a lunch break every day. There are so many different personalities in the class, but I really enjoyed seeing a bunch of military personnel, civilians and police officers in my training courses.
Throughout the training, I was asking students what they thought of it and not one person said anything negative. They were so excited to be a part of this training as a path in life. Almost every student said they would retake this course until they became perfect. Tu is incredibly patient and cares about your performance throughout the training to ensure what he taught you is implemented safely and correctly.
ASG: Was there any area of your training over the weekend that you enjoyed so much that you would like to explore it in greater detail on your own?
AK: I personally enjoyed the streetfighter course. There’s so much I learned in just one training session about how to defend myself with a knife. Throughout the day, you learn different stages of techniques. They partner you up with another student, and he trains you, step by step, to create a rhythm. Once you learn the basic fundamentals, you start training with a dummy knife. Then, you start putting all the techniques together as one.
ASG: What did you personally take away, both physically and mentally, from the three-day experience?
AK: I personally learned more about myself as an individual throughout this three-day workshop. I realized I get frustrated when I don’t know how to do something, but the fact is, throughout the training course, they walk you, step by step, to ensure it is properly done and until you feel comfortable with the techniques.
ASG: Based on your research of the program prior to actually attending and then after you completed the courses, describe your early expectations versus the reality of what you experienced.
AK: When I was doing my research on Ronin Tactics, the videos were intense, and the training looked military-based, from Tu’s experiences. I loved how exciting the training was—hands down—and recommend this training for everyone.
ASG: What would you say to those debating whether or not to try a weekend program at Ronin Tactics?
AK: If you are debating about whether to attend his course, go for it and take what you can from Tu and his team. It’s worth every minute of training. I looked back and realized how grateful I am to be a part of it.
ASG: Finally, what was your favorite part of the entire weekend—and why?
AK: Meeting Tu was an honor. He has been through so much throughout his life and experiences. He is somebody who will motivate you to be a better person and combat fighter. Throughout the three-day course, what I really enjoyed was that Tu personally analyzes you as an individual and how you reacted to the training. When you receive your counseling at the end of the training, Tu personally gives his observation about you as an individual and then hands you a certificate and a coin. I have such great respect for him as a person, soldier and motivator.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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