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Face of Defense: Humanitarian Mission Leads to Unlikely Connection

By 1st Lt. Priya Rednam, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Dec. 10, 2007 – More than 25 years ago, on the small island of Palawan, U.S. Army reservist and dentist Col. Terry Schmunk participated in a humanitarian mission at a refugee camp in the Philippines. The effect of his work is still felt today in the life of Sgt. Phatdat Phan, the son of former patients. Phan is currently serving under Schmunk’s command.

As a Defense Department contracted dentist, Schmunk volunteered to work with 3rd Army Field Hospital during the Vietnam War. As U.S. involvement ended, he remained in Vietnam for two years until just before the fall of Saigon. After joining the U.S. Army Reserve, Schmunk felt compelled to continue humanitarian work within the same region, and the Army afforded him the opportunity.

“It is the Army that has offered me so many opportunities to serve people all over the world,” he said.

Among the thousands of refugees Schmunk treated in the early 1980s was a young Vietnamese couple who later married and had a child. That child is now Sgt. Phatdat Phan.

Phan joined the Army in 2003 and was assigned to 307th Medical Company (Dental Services) as a dental technician.

During a conversation with his father, Phan learned that Schmunk had been the name of his parents’ dentist at the Palawan refugee camp.

Despite his father’s insistence of a distant connection, Phan remained doubtful that a dentist and his patients from so long ago could have been brought together again. “I did not think that there was such a possibility; it merely always seemed like a story,” Phan said.

During a training exercise at Camp Parks, Calif., in May, Phan spoke with Schmunk about his life and, specifically, his work as a dentist. Schmunk confirmed that he had worked as a dentist at Phan’s parents’ refugee camp.

“It sounded unbelievable that he could have been my father’s dentist,” Phan said.

“When we realized the connection, I almost started crying, the moment was so powerful,” Schmunk said.

Just prior to the 307th Medical Company’s deployment to Iraq, Schmunk and the Phan family were able to reunite. The event served as an emotional reunion, as well as a send-off.

“When I finally met Mr. Phan, we embraced in a very touching moment in which he expressed his gratitude for my work. We both had tears in our eyes,” Schmunk said.

“Mr. Phan had kept that small act of kindness so many years ago with him all this time. … It was a wonderful reunion.”

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