By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated November 18, 2013 12:00 PM

Bao Tran still remembers an old man handing him a bundle tucked into a hat. It was May 1972, and Tran was in the South Vietnamese Army fighting alongside the Americans. His company was about to blow up a bridge. “The man said the baby was trying to nurse on its dead mother,” Tran, now 65, recalls. He carried her 60 miles to an orphanage, where he left her with the name he’d planned for his own daughter someday: Ngoc Bich, loosely translated as “Precious Pearl.” That would have been the last time Tran saw the girl but for an astonishing coincidence that led to their reunion this year.

After seven years as a war prisoner, Tran returned to the orphanage, but it had moved. Even as he and his wife had their own kids, he thought of his Pearl. “I hoped she was okay,” he says. She was. Adopted by a Wisconsin couple who renamed her Kimberly Mitchell, she grew up on a farm, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, rose to Lt. Commander and now runs a Washington, D.C., nonprofit for service members and veterans. All along, “I’d always wondered,” says Mitchell. “Was it out of love I was put in the orphanage?” For her 40th birthday, Mitchell returned to Da Nang in 2011. A U.S.-based Vietnamese-language newspaper wrote about her trip, mentioning Precious Pearl.

Tran had since emigrated to the U.S. A worker of odd jobs, he happened to read that paper and knew it had to be the same girl. He wanted her to know “she wasn’t abandoned; she was rescued.” The pair met in New Mexico on March 29 and embraced like lost relatives. Mitchell says, “I was thinking, ‘Why would he want to save me? He must have compassion and love beyond any comprehension.'” When she heard from Tran that her biological mother had died with her in her arms, she realized, she says, that “I was obviously very important to her.” Tran’s war experience now has meaning: “I was meant to find Precious Pearl that day,” he says. “Finding her again has brought peace to my life.”