GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Huy Tran, a captain at Grand Forks Air Force Base, left his home country of Vietnam as an 11-year-old.
This past summer, 18 years later, he returned to his native land as an interpreter for a recovery team with a noble purpose — to bring closure for Americans who lost family members in the Vietnam War.
The recovery mission was for three Navy flyers whose plane crashed in the mountains of North Vietnam in 1967. The six-week mission had mixed results, as human remains were not found but personal items were.
Discovered at the crash site, in addition to the plane wreckage, were nametags, a watch, flight suit material, eyeglasses and visors. The items were returned to family members.
"Our goal was to find answers for the families," Tran said. "Families ultimately find closure by what you bring back to them. We were at least able to find some answers.
"And we wanted to be able to tell the family that we did the best we could," he said.
Searches go even farther back than the Vietnam War. According to its website, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC, is searching for more than 83,000 American soldiers across the globe.
Tran wasn't born yet when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. His family was able to relocate to the United States because his father was a South Vietnamese officer who was in a prisoner camp for five years.
The 29-year-old grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., was an ROTC student at Clemson University and was commissioned into the Air Force upon his 2005 graduation.
Ever since, "I travel where the Air Force needs me," he said.
He was needed in Vietnam because he could speak both languages.
"Your first language is hard to forget," he said. "English is the hard one."
Having lived there, he also understood the cultural nuances, customs and political sensitivities.
"Jokes can get lost and misinterpreted in the translation," he said.
Because it was a rewarding experience, Tran said, he hopes to return to Vietnam to retrieve remains or take part in any other mission that would use his linguistic skills.