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GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- An officer stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base traveled thousands of miles earlier this year to return to his birth country of Vietnam for the first time in eight years.
But Capt. Huy Tran wasn't there to reunite with his own family or friends. His mission was to help search for and recover missing Vietnam War personnel, a rewarding experience Tran says he won't soon forget.
In cooperation with the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC), and the Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP), Tran played a vital role as a Vietnamese linguist on a recovery mission to bring home servicemembers missing from the Vietnam War Era.
LEAP is operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. It is designed for those who have some existing language capability, and targets early-career Airmen most likely to take fullest advantage of language learning, maintenance and assignments.
Tran, who speaks and writes Vietnamese fluently, said he wanted to participate in LEAP because he was looking for a way to contribute his language skills to the military.
"LEAP has taken my language skills to another level and allowed me to utilize them to serve the Air Force," he said. "Programs like LEAP are what make the U.S. military second to none."
JPAC, on the other hand, conducts global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts in order to support the Department of Defense's personnel accounting efforts. According to their website, JPAC continues to search for more than 83,000 Americans still missing from past conflicts.
This mission had a deeper meaning for Tran, who was born and raised in Vietnam until he was 11.
"As a son and grandson of South Vietnamese veterans, this recovery mission is dear to my heart," Tran said. "My father and grandfather were camp prisoners during the war. My grandfather served five years, and my dad served four years and 11 months in the prison camps."
Following his father's release from the prison camps, Tran and his family were offered an opportunity to relocate to the United States. They left Vietnam to pursue a new life in Rock Hill, S.C.
"After I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to be in the military," he said. "I never thought that being in the military would one day bring me back to Vietnam as a servicemember. It's completely changed from the time I left; Americans are more welcome now and the attitudes and hatred are no longer there."
Tran said he was excited when he found out he would be going on a recovery mission to search for missing Americans.
"I was thrilled that I was finally able to use my special language skills to contribute and serve," he said. "Being there gave me insight into what happened that day. It let me imagine what it would've been like to be in their situation. It makes you realize the importance of the mission."
The first leg of Tran's journey with his team took him from Hawaii, to Thailand, and finally to a rural area of Vietnam, where the objective was to locate a crew of American sailors who had gone missing during a flying mission in the conflict.
The opportunities offered through LEAP, coupled with those offered by JPAC, allowed Tran to put his language skills to special use by translating between his team members and Vietnamese government officials and other locals.
"I would translate everything for them, including negotiating the areas where we would be working, what materials and how many workers we would need," Tran explained. "They also needed me for everyday things, like buying equipment to do our work, or ordering food."
One of the most vital aspects of Tran's job as a team linguist, however, was interviewing witnesses to help narrow down the location and the circumstances where the servicemembers first went missing.
Tran and his team negotiated with government officials to set up an area to camp, and an area to clear out some of the dense vegetation at the top of the mountain where the missing sailors were thought to be.
"By going through the rice fields, dense jungles, and up the mountain, it helped me relate to the time during which the crew got shot down," he said. "When we arrived at the crash site, we found aircraft parts lying everywhere. That moment was so surreal. It sent chills down my spine seeing so many aircraft pieces scattered on the ground. We knew then that we were in the right place."
Once those remains were uncovered and collected, they were sent to JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory, the largest and most diverse forensic skeletal laboratory in the world. Scientists from JPAC use circumstantial evidence, and forensic identification tools including dental comparisons and radiograph comparisons to analyze and identify remains.
Upon completion of the recovery mission, Tran and his team retraced their steps back home, first to Thailand, then to Hawaii, and finally to their respective destinations.
Tran said he looks forward to participating in more recovery missions like the one he completed earlier this year.
According to the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office, since 1973, the remains of more than 900 Americans killed in the Vietnam War have been identified and returned to their families for burial with full military honors. Today, more than 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. The U.S. government continues to work closely with the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to recover its missing warriors.
"This JPAC mission was one of the most emotionally rewarding missions that I've had the honor to take part in," Tran said. "Most importantly, I was given a chance to bring heroes home to their families, and their final resting place. There is no greater satisfaction than knowing that those families can finally have answers and closure."