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Rivals, Allies: A Tale of Two Airmen : Sons of U.S. and South Vietnamese Military Leaders Are Air Force Academy's Top Grads

June 10, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Jeff Rhodes admits the kid's reputation was downright scary.

"I heard one night that he was studying in the shower ," said the 22-year-old San Diegan. "I didn't know whether it was true or not. But I thought, 'Wow, this guy's got so much drive that maybe I'm falling behind by comparison.' "

Hoang Nhu Tran looked at his classmate and started to laugh.

"That's not true," he said. "I never studied in the shower." Tran also knew Rhodes by reputation. "I had heard that he was very smart and very determined. And I knew he was going to be the competition."

Dreamed Same Dreams

In an earlier era, Rhodes, a descendant of three generations of American military leaders, would never have attended the U.S. Air Force Academy with the son of a South Vietnamese army major.

But in the post-Vietnam decade, Rhodes' chief rival in the Class of 1987, which graduated May 27, was this 21-year-old refugee from Rohnert Park, Calif., who had fled Saigon with his family in a leaky boat and arrived in America at age 9 able to say only "Hello" in English.

Though born on opposite sides of the world and living at opposite ends of the campus, the quintessential All-American boy and the young immigrant dreamed the same dreams of academic glory.

For four years, they went head-to-head in every contest. When one lost, the other would win. Sometimes, it was painful.

Always Competed

Tran beat out Rhodes to be named the No. 1 freshman. Tran beat out Rhodes again to be selected one of Time magazine's top college juniors. And when both young men tried for a Rhodes Scholarship this past winter, they knew only one of them would get it.

"I think probably the reason I didn't was because of Hoang," said Rhodes, who settled for a Marshall Scholarship, a lesser-known honor. "I'm not that bitter about it. But when I went into the interview in Denver, they said I had one of the best records they'd ever seen. And so did Hoang."

Tran said: "We both knew we could win. We couldn't pinpoint exactly how they determined the Rhodes Scholars, but I think my background probably helped."

That night, after the judges announced that Tran was in the finals and Rhodes was not, Tran seemed miserable that he was probably responsible for Rhodes' loss.

"I was really put into the role of comforting him," Rhodes said. "I said, 'If it would have been me, I wouldn't have felt that bad.' "

At graduation, they divvied up nearly all the senior class awards. Tran bested Rhodes with a grade point average just .007 higher to be named Top Academic Performer. He also received the Loyalty, Integrity and Courage Award.

But when it came time to announce the school's overall "Top Grad," based on academic, military and athletic performance, Rhodes' name was called out. A wave of surprise rippled through the audience.

"I was disappointed," Tran said. "It was a goal I had set for myself. But then I realized that I had tried my best and learned a lot while I was here. And that was the important thing."

For Rhodes, though, "it was the best thing that's happened to me in my life. I didn't know that I was going to get it. But when I did, everybody stood up and clapped. It was quite a moment."

The award entitled Rhodes to be the first to receive his diploma at graduation. Under normal circumstances, he might have been inundated with national publicity.

Instead, Tran was the one to be interviewed on "Good Morning America," on the NBC and ABC network news shows, and by People magazine.

"Tran feels bad that he's getting all the attention and Jeff's not," said academy spokesman Tech Sgt. Allen Eakle.

Still, Rhodes doesn't seem to mind that the only TV appearance he may make "is as a contestant on 'Jeopardy.' "

Though Rhodes never knew what it was to lose until he met his Vietnamese classmate, no one could be prouder of Tran's accomplishments than he. It turns out that their fierce competition produced an unexpected result: The two airmen became close friends.

"To not even speak English when you come over and suddenly you're tops around the Air Force Academy, well, you just got to admire him," Rhodes said. "To be honest, I think those are the kinds of people we need to bring into this country."

They are so different, yet so alike, as they sit side by side in their crisp Air Force uniforms, their new officer bars shining on their jacket sleeves. The two even talk alike, speaking in the polite and precise manner that seems universal among military officers.

Insulated From the War

Only an occasional slip in grammar provides the barest of clues that Tran didn't travel the same childhood route as Rhodes to get to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Born in 1965, Tran knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War except that it took his father away for months at a time. He and his younger brother lived the sheltered life of the privileged class in Saigon.

"We were confined to the house throughout my nine years there, so I had no contact with any fighting," Tran said.

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