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They Fled Saigon as Youngsters, Became Navy Dentists

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 14, 1999 – Thu Getka (Phan) was 17 when she and her family fled South Vietnam about 10 days before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Pearl (Ngoc-Nhung) Tran was 12 when she fled about two days before the North Vietnamese overran the South Vietnamese capital.

Tran settled in Augusta, Ga., and Getka in Manassas, Va., where her sister and American brother-in-law lived. Getka, her parents and three of her five sisters fled together. One sister was in Thailand and another in England. Her brother was studying in Belgium.

"I was lucky because my brother-in-law was with State Department at that point stationed in Vietnam," Getka said. In Vietnam, her father was the director of the Pasteur Institute and mother was a housewife.

Tran, her mother and two sisters went to Augusta, where her father, an obstetrician-gynecologist, was studying at the Medical College of Georgia.

Tran and Getka never met in their homeland, but found out years later their lives had run on parallel paths. Ironically, both of them joined the U.S. Navy. Both chose dentistry as a profession, both decided to specialize in periodontics, and now both are assigned to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Tran, who arrived at the center in July 1997, is a lieutenant commander in the second year of a three-year residency in periodontics. Cmdr. Getka, a board-certified periodontist, arrived in June 1998 and became Tran's mentor.

Tran said she felt a special kinship with Getka after talking about their escape from Saigon and their lives thereafter.

"As a kid in Saigon," said Tran, now 35, "I didn't understand a lot of things that were going on before I left Vietnam." She remembers her mother would go to the American embassy every morning and return home in the evening. She also remembers hearing about people swarming the embassy, clamoring for paperwork to leave the country.

"That didn't mean anything to me at the time," Tran said. "We knew things were escalating and the threat of the Viet Cong coming south was pretty high. It was just a matter of time."

She remembers the chaotic clamoring of hundreds of people at the airport trying to get flights out of South Vietnam. "My mom had booked passage by boat as a backup plan," she recalled.

Getka described her family's escape as a chaotic race against time. "Not something you want to relive," she said.

She was an 11th grader in a French school in the town of Dalat when the North Vietnamese started closing in. The family fled to Saigon, where she was only able to attend school for a couple of weeks before the presidential palace was bombed a couple of blocks from the school. After finishing high school, Getka went on to major in biology and minor in chemistry at Catholic University in Washington. She earned a dental degree at the University of Maryland and did one year of advanced general dentistry there.

Getka said she was drawn to naval service because her husband, then-fiance, neuropsychologist Cmdr. Eric Getka, had a Navy scholarship and joined the military before they married.

"My husband decided he liked the Navy and was going to make it a career," she said. "So the logical choice for me was to join the Navy, too."

Tran's trek into the Navy was somewhat different. She was so fascinated and impressed by "sharp-looking" Marine Corps high school Junior ROTC students that she wanted to be a Marine. That youthful dream was thwarted because the Marine Corps doesn't have health care professionals. So Tran joined the inactive Naval Reserve in 1989, a year and a half before graduating from dentistry school in 1990.

Tran initially studied premed "because Dad always wanted somebody to follow in his footsteps." But she didn't find the long hours her father worked appealing, so she switched to dentistry.

Tran and Getka are the only members of their families to go military.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy Lt. Cmdr. Pearl (Ngoc-Nhung) Tran, seated, and Cmdr. Thu Getka escaped shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975 and ended up following parallel paths into the Navy and the field of dentistry. Rudi Williams  
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