By Griffin Swartzell | Space Observer staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo — Opportunity is a funny thing, knocking when and where it will. For 2nd Lt. Tin Nguyen, 18th Space Control Squadron orbital event officer, an email he said he never saw coming took him across the Pacific Ocean to hunt for evidence in a 50-year-old mystery. Nguyen recently returned to his duties after completing a joint field activity in Vietnam, where he served as a linguist for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, helping track down traces of U.S. service members and civilians missing from conflicts dating back to World War II.
“I didn’t know about the DPAA at all until I got the email,” he said. However, he said he thought their mission was honorable and applied right away.
The DPAA reached out to Nguyen because after joining the Air Force he took a language test to be certified as fluent in Vietnamese, his first language. He was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam, but he and his parents have lived in the U.S. since 2012, after being sponsored by his aunt and uncle, who were veterans of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and had been living in the U.S. since 1998.
“The U.S. was pretty generous and gave my family a lot of support in our early days here,” said Nguyen. “It allowed my parents to have medical care, have jobs and go to school. So my parents encouraged me to give back to my country and join the military.”
On his mission with the DPAA, Nguyen was part of a team assigned to assist in the search for a pilot who was killed after a reconnaissance mission in 1968, near Thuong Trach in central Vietnam. Nguyen served as a linguist for his recovery team, a role that incorporated translation and cultural advising. He used his training to ensure productive, fair and accurate communication with locals and Vietnamese officials. He also helped with the physical recovery of remains, working alongside local recovery workers.
“It’s hard work, of course,” said Nguyen. “We had to operate in really difficult terrain and weather conditions.”
The mission went well, he said, and although his team did not find the person of interest, they did provide the DPAA with more information, which will allow them to expand the investigation going forward. For his work, Nguyen was awarded with a Certificate of Appreciation from U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Mark Strickert, DPAA recovery team leader.
“During the entire joint field activity, 2nd Lt. Nguyen’s extraordinary commitment resulted in significant progress toward the fullest possible accounting of Americans lost during past conflict in Southeast Asia,” said Strickert in a continuity letter on Nguyen’s conduct on the mission. “While serving in the position of team linguist, his dedication to duty and unwavering efforts played a pivotal role toward achieving Retrieval Team 1’s goal while deployed to Vietnam.”
Nguyen said that, given the opportunity, he would absolutely work with the DPAA again.
“Experiencing the culture that I used to be in when I lived there, experiencing the differences between it and American culture, and trying to be a cultural expert and cultural advisor for my team was pretty fun,” said Nguyen.