Du Hai Tran of Chatsworth could not stop smiling the day his daughter was born. He gingerly cradled baby Michelle in his arms, afraid of squeezing her too hard. He joked to his wife about wanting a boy. He hoped that she would not grow up to have his bowlegged walk.
He also hoped she would remember her daddy when he was in Iraq. Seven days after Michelle was born, Tran left for his second tour. His wife, Lien, said that it broke his heart to be away from his daughter but that he felt it was his duty. Tran's family and friends remember a quiet man with a goofy grin who loved to laugh at himself.
Tran was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, two years after the end of the Vietnam War. His father, Viet Quoc Tran, had fought for South Vietnam and feared retribution from the Communists. He fled the country by boat, leaving behind Tran, his oldest son, who was 2 years old.
It would be years before Tran would see his father again. Tran and his younger sister, Thu, were raised by an aunt on the city's outskirts in a small shack. Like thousands of other Vietnamese, Tran's family was desperate for new lives and made the risky decision to escape by boat. They finally did when Tran was 11. He lived for two years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to the San Fernando Valley.
Back in Vietnam, Thu Tran said, she and her brother had dreamed about being reunited with their dad. But upon arriving in the Valley, son and father had a strained relationship.
Tran studied hard at Chatsworth High School. He wanted to go to college and asked his father for a car so he could get a job, get to classes. But his father refused. They fought. It was the last straw for Tran, his sister said. He signed up for the military. "He had no direction," Thu Tran said. "He felt he had no choice other than the military."
Tran was assigned to the Fires Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany. He was drawn to the guys in his Army unit. They played pranks on one another, said Eric Hernandez, who was in the same unit.
After Tran's first tour in Iraq, his father and sister urged him to leave the military and return home. But he always said no. He said he enjoyed the military, that the guys in his unit were like brothers. "It became a family to him," said his younger brother, Chris.
The times he came to California, he would drive around Southern California visiting dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins who rarely saw one another. "When my brother comes home, he brings everyone together," Chris said. "He's like the glue of our family."
Through phone calls and visits, Tran and his father reconciled over the years. When Tran served in Iraq, he would call his dad twice a week and on Father's Day. When Tran's father looks at photos of his son on the Internet, he beams. "I was so proud that I was the first generation in America, and that I had a son who was fighting for freedom and protecting America," he said.
After Tran's first tour in Iraq, he met his future wife through friends in Germany.
Over the next two years, he would relish his short breaks at home in Germany. He would bring his daughter stuffed animals from overseas. He would scarf down his wife's home-cooked Vietnamese dishes.
Lien said he never talked about what happened in Iraq, never told her where the scars on his body came from. He never complained when he wasn't granted extensions to spend more time at home.
On the afternoon of June 19, Tran called home and told his wife he was going out on patrol. He promised to call back that night. Hours later, he was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near him in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. A staff sergeant, he was 30. Tran was buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery.
In addition to his wife, daughter, father, sister and brother, he is survived by another sister, Rebecca. His mother, Trang Vo, lives in Vietnam.
When Lien Tran looks at her daughter running around, she sees traces of her husband. His dark eyes. His bowlegged strut. His wide smile. When people ask Michelle where her father is, she points to the sky. "Ba ngu," she says in Vietnamese. "Daddy is sleeping."