YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- As the sun rises over the jungle canopy, the workers are already on the move. They take in the crisp scent of the morning air as they head up the rocky mountain path, slipping between the trees of a wet, dew-covered forest in Vietnam.
At the top of the green mountain ridge, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Quoc Bao Lam is waiting to greet them with a smile and a handshake before getting started on the day's work.
On a normal day, Lam is a master-at-arms with the military police at Naval Station Everett, Washington, but today he's part of a unique assignment. He is acting as the lead linguist for a recovery team deployed by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency on its fourth mission to Vietnam.
Lam works at an excavation site found on a remote mountain peak in one of the Vietnamese jungle's most austere locations. The site is only accessible by helicopter, and the nearest village is about 5 and a half miles away, down a long steep rocky trail on the brink of being overgrown by the jungle. Being at a site so removed, a linguist is a necessity for a successful recovery mission.
"Nothing in this mission could be accomplished without the skill sets and abilities of an experienced linguist on the team," said Marine Corps Capt. Mark Strickert, DPAA senior recovery team leader. "Linguists translate intent, interpret body language, serve as cultural advisors, facilitate negotiations and build camaraderie with the local community and government officials we work with so closely every day. Linguists are the underlining glue in the tireless steps we take to fulfill our nation's promise to bring our fallen home."
The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing service members to their families and the nation from past conflicts.
The total number of service members unaccounted for from the Vietnam War was 2,646, but through the work of DPAA, 1,052 of those missing have been found, identified and repatriated. The work of DPAA continues to find the remaining 1,594 missing U.S. service members from the Vietnam War.
The work to recover missing service members starts with intense analyzing of historical records from all sides of a conflict surrounding the missing individuals. This is followed by interviewing eye witnesses, gathering local accounts and pinpointing and evaluating possible dig sites. Once all the data has been compiled and strongly suggests a specific area, recovery teams are brought in to dig and sift the soil, looking for remains of the missing individuals.
When Lam first learned about DPAA and its missions to Vietnam to recover missing troops, he felt an instant connection and he knew he had to find a way to contribute.
"I wanted to be a part of this important work," Lam said, "to have an opportunity to help my fellow service members and their families find closure, and possibly help to find some of the lost or fallen friends of my father."
Lam moved to America at age 8 with his mother and siblings. His father, Ouang Lam, had left five years prior to escape prosecution and possible execution at the end of the Vietnam War.
From the start of the conflict, Ouang fought with South Vietnam's army. As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War increased, the U.S. Army began seeking out local people who could speak English, Chinese and Vietnamese to help U.S. troops better navigate the region.
Becoming a Translator
After applying to train with the U.S., Ouang was sent to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to get a better grip on the English language and military terminology. Once proficient in English, he was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he was taught how to fly medical helicopters before going back to his country and the war.
For the rest of the war, Ouang delivered supplies and wounded U.S. and South Vietnamese troops by helicopter. He regularly came under fire and, throughout the conflict, lost fellow aircrew, friends and family. Ouang made it to the rank of chief warrant officer 3 at the war's end.
North and South Vietnam were reunited. Those who had worked with the Americans were soon hunted by the authorities. Ouang had to leave his country to save his and his family's lives.
Ouang began building a new life for his family in Chicago, thanks to a religious group that sponsored individuals who had fought alongside U.S. troops during the war. They brought foreign veterans and their families to the U.S. to ensure they were not harmed by the new Vietnamese government.
After all he experienced during the war, Ouang was against war for the rest of his life. Ouang urged his children to go to school and not join any military service, but Lam wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. Luckily before his father passed away, Lam was able to explain why he chose to serve in the military after realizing school was not for him.
"My father was incredibly upset and did not talk to me for some time," Lam said. "After a few years I sat down with him and talked about why I joined the Navy. While he still did not like the idea of me being in the armed forces, over time came to be very proud of my service to the country that has given his family so much."
If it wasn't for Ouang's close work with the U.S. during the war, he may never have gotten out of Vietnam after the country's reunification and would have never had the chance to provide his family with the American dream.
"Lam's father is always watching from above and he would be proud of Lam working to find his lost friends from so long ago," said Lam's mother. "We have been proud of everything that he has done so far in life, to give back to the U.S. for all the U.S. has done for our family. We are extremely proud."
After weeks of facilitating negotiations, advising on cultural differences and interpreting body language, Lam's mission in Vietnam came to a close.
From his position atop the mountain, Lam surveyed the green valley below, as the setting sun cast the sky in hazy blues and purples.