I’m originally from Vietnam and my family migrated to the States when I was 12.
After I graduated high school, I decided to join the Navy. I wanted to see the world and explore many great things abroad. Almost 11 years later, I’m still in the Navy.
In February of 2012, I was excited to be given an opportunity to go back to Vietnam as an Individual Augmentee. They needed a Vietnamese linguist to help translate, and I guess my name came up on a list because they contacted the command and interviewed me. I passed the interview and showed them that I was suitable for this mission.
I had been back before to visit but this time it was quite different. This time I arrived as a U.S. military service member with a mission to bring someone home. Therefore, there are things you can discuss, and things you have to keep to yourself. We had a week-long training course in Pearl Harbor to learn about Vietnamese culture and customs, and the site we would be working at. We had to learn what to expect, what to look for in the ground, and what to do in each type of situation. We learned how to deal with the Vietnamese people and government, and different scenarios we might’ve encountered. We also learned about the rules and regulations that were put out such as not riding a scooter out on the street.
After training, we flew to Vietnam in a C-17 (military plane). I wasn’t expecting a 16-hour flight with everyone lying on the floor because the seats were too small and uncomfortable. It was very loud and cold on the plane but somehow I still managed to pass out. Finally we arrived in Danang, Vietnam where we met our Vietnamese officials. We went to the warehouse and received our equipment, loaded them on to the trucks, and then we went to the site. The site was really far from Danang. We had to take a flight into Ho Chi Minh City and from there we got a vehicle and drove three hours outside the city to the site. The drive was extremely bumpy. Only some of the roads are paved because you’re not in the city anymore. We were heading toward the Cambodian border and it’s not very modern over there. A lot of it is countryside. It’s not built up like Ho Chi Minh City. It was really bad. Some people actually threw up in the vehicle going out there.
My job was to be a liaison between the American team and the Vietnamese team. Every morning we would travel an hour to the site. Once we got there, I would do a worker’s count. (I’d count how many workers showed up and I recorded that number as well as the mileage of the vehicle.) Then I would translate whatever my team leader needed to say to the Vietnamese leaders and vice versa. I’d spend the rest of the day digging and screening the dirt with everybody else. Our goal was to find American remains from the Vietnam War; the people who are still unaccounted for after the war ended. There are still a lot of people missing.
Before we got there, there was already an ongoing investigation about the site where we dug. They have been investigating for years. When I was there, I got to interview a witness again to be sure that we were digging in the right area. Then we would just dig. We’d dig and keep digging until we found something, then we’d screen all of the dirt to see if there was anything there.
I was really hoping we would find someone’s remains and finally be able to bring him back to his family. That would’ve meant a lot to me because I feel like coming to America, I owe this country something. Now being in the military and serving in the Navy, I had chance to do something good and special. Even though I really wanted to find something, at the same time, I was very nervous. When we dug we found some frags (grenades) that could’ve been unexploded bombs, as well as a lot of misfire bullets that were still underneath the ground. You really don’t know what’s down there.
The best experience I had was working with the Vietnamese workers and understanding more about their way of life. Those people work very hard each day earning just enough to feed their families, yet they always seem very happy and they joke a lot. I enjoyed building relationships and bonding with them. There was a lot of propaganda in Vietnam during the war saying that America is bad, but it isn’t like that anymore. Right now, the relationship between the two countries is very close. They would invite us over to their houses for dinner and stuff like that. It was very special.
The Vietnamese people understood our mission. They knew exactly what we were doing and what we were looking for. They were extremely happy to work with us, and at the same time, we were happy to work with them too. The last day before we left, some of the workers even cried. It was very emotional because we treated each other like family for two months. After I came back, I felt very happy that I had this opportunity to do something different than what I do every day. In the Navy you don’t see stuff like this because you’re often out at sea.
It was quite a good experience. The work was very physical over there because we were constantly digging in the hot sun. That’s how I got so tan, and I lost a lot of weight. There’s a big difference between what I do on the ship and what I did in Vietnam. Over here I work in quality assurance, so my job is mostly paperwork, but in Vietnam I was really getting down and dirty. I like my job, but it’s good to get out and do some physical work once in awhile, especially when it means a lot.
I would volunteer for a mission like this again given the opportunity. It’s good to go out there with other people from different services and experience something new. The ship is good, but don’t stay here all the time. You have to get out there and see what other people are doing, especially in the foreign countries. It’s a good experience to go out there and see people from different walks of life and see the way they live.